SquareSpace is Officially Screwing Photographers

SquareSpace is Officially Screwing Photographers

Disclosure: PhotoShelter builds websites for photographers

Imagine a website that convinces its users to upload free content and builds social signals (e.g. likes and view counts) to make the site addictive. Then imagine the company using the usage data as a referral mechanism to make money without compensating the content producers. It’s not Facebook, it’s Unsplash, and it’s terrible for photographers.

Now imagine a huge website provider partnering with Unsplash to distribute the photography for free, and basically send the message that photography has no value. Stop imagining because Squarespace just did it.

“Now, instead of putting extra time or money into creating your own visuals, now you can simply replace the demo content on your chosen template with ease. Unsplash has an active group of contributing photographers from all around the world who have generously decided to share their work with others in the broader creative community, for free.”

Where “generous” is a euphemism for individual photographers subsidizing businesses because why would a revenue-generating business ever pay for visuals?

To add insult to injury, Squarespace also announced that it is participating in the dubious Unsplash Awards. What are the awards? It’s a cattle call for content in twelve categories – presumably driven by uncompensated demands of companies too cheap to pay for photography – and get this:

“All categories winners will be automatically entered into a draw for a chance to win 1 of 3 free flights from Hopper, valued at $600 each.”

That’s right. The “winners” are entered into a drawing for the possibility of winning a $600 voucher on a travel booking service. Your prize is a lottery ticket – thanks for giving us free content.

The judges include people from companies that rely on free content like Pinterest and Medium, and disappointingly includes partners like Peak Design.

Unsurprisingly, the photo community wasn’t very happy:

The retort to such protests is often that the photo profession no longer exists and that the glut of photography has effectively driven the price of photos to zero. This is a lazy strawman argument. The profession has certainly changed  and digital photography and online publishing has caused downward pricing pressure. But wedding photographers charge thousands of dollars per gig, commercial photographers regularly charge 5-figures for creative and licensing fees, and stock photography is still used and paid for by major corporations.

Not all photos have economic value, but good photography does. And in partnering with Unsplash instead of paid services like Adobe Stock, Getty Images or Shutterstock (and yes, they all have their limitations), Squarespace is conspiring against professional photographers and using the mantle of “generosity” to justify the convenience.

Squarespace can’t stop photographers from contributing to Unsplash, but the partnership helps amplify a destructive message: We will build our business off the backs of free content.

And if you’re a photographer with a Squarespace account, their decision has you shooting yourself in the foot while paying for the privilege.

Update: After receiving a number of comments regarding the language of my final sentence, I’ve changed it from “you’re a sucker” to “their decision has you shooting yourself in the foot.” My language was both a rhetorical device as well as a poor choice of words. A prudent course of action for Squarespace customers who are upset with this decision would be to contact them and let them know how it affects the industry.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 45 comments for this article
  1. Denny at 10:44 pm

    I’m both a Squarespace and Photoshelter user, and happy with both. This post certainly shed’s light on a practice by Squarespace I don’t support, and I agree with most of the article. I do disagree with the last sentence in this post. It doesn’t add anything of relevance to the article and just makes it look like Photoshelter is badmouthing a company they view as competition.

  2. Myron Edwards at 12:16 am

    I agree with you. Ive never encountered a problem with this sort of thing. So how is it that now all of a sudden our content supposedly is on unsplash. I’ll be looking into this a little more closely now.

  3. Sean at 12:42 am

    Yeah I agree with the first comment. Im a squarespace user, and while I don’t like what I’m reading about the company, the last sentence is really immature and the author really misses the mark with it. Bad choice of words Allen.

      • Allen Murabayashi Author at 2:25 pm

        It was a poor choice of words. But the point of the piece isn’t to defend my product. It’s to raise awareness of a business deal that negatively affects the industry.

        • mastix at 2:45 pm

          I am a photoshelter user and photo stock supplier since a long time ago. I briefly was with Squarespace and went back to Photoshelter as it was a better option to host images. I don’t like Unsplash at all nor this deal with Squarespace but they should do what they think is best for their customers. I always find it “a lack of ” elegance and taste to single out other business practices in a demeaning way. I am glad you rectified some of the used words. Credit to you.

        • Jordan at 7:55 am

          Start offering decent blogging functionality to photoshelter users then you won’t need to defend your product. Definitely leaving photoshelter now… will not be recommending it to ANYONE in the future. Squarespace is great and if you’re a photographer and you can’t set yourself apart from Unsplash and create value for your clients, then you shouldn’t be a photographer.

          • Allen Murabayashi Author at 12:07 pm

            Thanks for your comment. I’m not trying to defend PhotoShelter. If you need an integrated blog, then PhotoShelter isn’t the right product for you. But that has nothing to do with the subject of the piece.

          • Tal at 9:20 pm

            I’m about to start a new website… and i would go with PS if it had a blogging function. Crazy how much business they could pick up if they had blogs.

          • Stina at 4:35 pm

            How hard can it be to set up a WordPress blog on a sub or main domain and connect it to your Photoshelter site? It’s not rocket science heh!

            If Photoshelter and others can do it so can you..

  4. Deirdre at 6:20 am

    If only a a company that caters to professional photographers offers the ability to build a site, with a blog from the images we upload to galleries? Without having to create a work around in order to include that blog on our sites?
    The reason we’re using Squarespace is because many of us don’t have what I just mentioned.
    PhotoShelter should’ve been offering that to us instead, blogging within our already built in website.
    Hearing this news is upsetting yet we don’t often have any choice.
    I suggest instead that PhotoShelter use this unsettling news as a sign to offer us what we’ve been asking for a long time now.

  5. Tony at 12:14 pm

    I read this entire post. It sounds like you’re just a tad bit frustrated with the fact that market dynamics are changing. I’m just imagining a truck driver getting on a blog like this and being like “if you drive a Tesla, your funding a company that hates truckers.”

    Your photos are only worth 1000 bucks if someone is willing to pay for them. Sounds like these two companies found a way to utilize free content. It’s called competition. Maybe put this energy toward improving your own business model to account for the new situation in which you find yourself. There is nothing “unfair” about what is happening.

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 12:35 pm

      Thanks for your comment. The Tesla analogy is a case where technology (either battery power or self-driving cars) disrupts an industry. That is not what is happening here. This is a case where Unsplash found a demand for free photos, and instead of figuring out how to monetize the most popular photos based on demand and pay the photographer, they continue to treat it as referral mechanism for their consulting business.

      As for your suggestion to “improving your own business to account for the new situation in which you find yourself,” PhotoShelter is doing just fine. But it won’t stop me from advocating for photographers.

  6. Guy at 2:38 pm

    Squarespace does partner with Getty, and photographers submitting their items to unsplash know full well and agreed not to be compensated for their submissions. Squarespace isn’t doing anything unethical our trying to devalue the work of photographers, they simply made what majority of squarespace users have already been doing a little easier by integrating two platforms.

  7. mastix at 2:46 pm

    I am a photoshelter user and photo stock supplier since a long time ago. I briefly was with Squarespace and went back to Photoshelter as it was a better option to host images. I don’t like Unsplash at all nor this deal with Squarespace but they should do what they think is best for their customers. I always find it “a lack of ” elegance and taste to single out other business practices in a demeaning way. I am glad you rectified some of the used words. Credit to you.

  8. Mike at 6:01 pm

    I have to agree on the blog integration. The SEO boost alone would be a big help to drive traffic to the website, and not just the social media feeds.

    Please, please make this happen.

  9. Vio at 8:09 am

    If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past 15 years of selling and buying photos on the internet on a daily basis, is that no one cares about who the photographer is. Really. People search and buy the photos they need when they can find them. The guy featured in Square Space’s post has millions of views on Unsplash, but less than 2000 Twitter followers and less than 5000 Instagram followers. He gained nothing, really, after providing his photos for free to thousands of users who are making money with his photos in one way or another. Ask any user, who recently downloaded and used his work, about his name, they will reply: “Who???”

    So NO, I don’t think the final sentence was a bad choice of words, Square Space IS making money from professional photographers, while saying their work doesn’t worth anything. Why are we hiding behind a finger? When did we all become so elegant that we can’t say the truth when it’s right in front of us?

    Now, I don’t blame Unsplash for finding and exploiting their niche to the max (they’re not photographers, they’re web entrepreneurs), I don’t blame their contributors (most of them are not professional photographers, and each of us has the right of life and death on our pictures anyway), but I do blame a company who’s making money from professional photographers while encouraging the demise of their industry.

    • Ian Arthur at 10:27 am

      Completely agree with what you say, Vio. To the wider audience the photographer is immaterial, almost irrelevant. As long as someone can source their images for free then that’s all that matters to them, while entities like Uplash will thrive and continue to thrive on the backs of photographers who are unaware, or unwilling to understand the consequences of platforms like Uplash.

  10. Dias at 10:33 am

    SquareSpace was like cancer since the beginning, it’s nothing new.
    Paying monthly for squarespace, a software made in two weeks. But well, hipsters like to be scamed if it’s to be scamed with style.
    People only get what they deserve.
    Squarespace = Apple
    WordPress = Android
    Nothing more to say beside stop worshiping companies, it should be the inverse… Companies should work for the costumers.

  11. Fred Teifeld at 10:56 am

    First off, “sucker” is spot on. For years I’ve watched GWCs’ (Guy/Girl With Camera) delude themselves that giving away mediocre imagery for free is a way to get out there. Sucker is the perfect word, along with a fee more that I wont say because they’re quite vulgar.

    The market for mediocrity has exploded because a bad image for free is better to many than one that’s paid for. Squarespace is merely taking advantage of these suckers because they know it’s an endless supply.

  12. Eric Kayne at 6:00 pm

    Would I want a potential client who thinks it’s a good idea to use free images their competitors also have access to? Probably not. Good clients realize the value in original photography and know better. There are so many places on the internet to find free images, it’s hard to get in a fluff that there is yet one more source, as if it really makes a difference.

    • Vio at 3:21 pm

      What if it becomes the standard? Search stock photos on google, you’ll see how 7 out of 10 results are free photos. But just because you’re shooting something else than stock, it doesn’t mean you’re safe. Search for “California photos” or “Oakland photos” and see what’s on the first page.

      Then, the clients… Would Timberland seem like a good potential client to you? See what their latest global campaign is about, I couldn’t believe it when I saw “Unsplash” written on the window of their shop in Luxembourg.

      The more professional photographers are saying “it’s OK, whatever”, the cooler it gets among potential clients.

      • Eric Kayne at 3:33 pm

        Vio, free images being used are already the standard for cheap business owners. It’s not new.

        As far as Timberland, all you need to do is visit Timberland’s home page. None of those are stock photos, unless the universe smiled on them and just happened to deliver loads of free, amazing images of attractive people wearing Timberland apparel, as well as dozens of lay-flat images. That’s not a reasonable presumption. To answer your question, hell yeah, I’d love to have Timberland as a client.

          • Eric Kayne at 4:11 pm

            What is too late now?

            Timberland (and hundreds of thousands of other companies, big and small) is using a mix of free images, where it’s appropriate and effective for them, and commissioned photography, where it counts, like their homepage and catalog. The difference is, which one is the photographer chasing? Are they out shooting spec and stock of their friends wearing Timberlands and then approaching the creative director in charge of the Timberland account, or are they entering the images into silly contests with copyright grabs? I can see if a photographer is in the second category, they’d feel threatened by yet another source for free images. But if you’re not in the free images business, I don’t think one would have much to worry about other than making great images and getting them in front of the right people through the right channels (meetings and marketing, not lame contests and uploading to Unsplash).

  13. Raymond Parker at 8:37 pm

    In my opinion, the simple answer is to host your own site. I use WordPress and a theme designed for photography. This way, there is no question about who owns and controls your photos … you do.

    It’s not a lot of work and if you buy a good premium theme, in my experience you’ll get expert support.

  14. Pamela Kelso at 10:35 pm

    I had a squarespace account at the very beginning and then several years later. Since that time my business blog has been at WordPress and the changes lately have been amazing. I’m very happy with it. Zenfolio has integrated blogs and to me they look like an integrated blog. I never used the one that came with my account.

    As a new massage therapist in 1993 I learned that a tiny bit of “free” goes long way and the people who get free massages or photography will rarely pay. They will just go somewhere else to someone who is trying too hard to be a name in their trade.

    PhotoShelter used to have integrated blogs through ??can’t remember their name??. I’m thinking that security for the platform and images is the reason that is not offered now, but I could be wrong.

    Good post Allen, thanks.

  15. Vigasan at 2:01 am

    It’s sad that you as a competitor are trying to turn people against Squarespace. Maybe if you offered a service people liked, you would be on par with Squarespace. Gonna make sure I keep clients off of Photoshelter going forward.

  16. Lorraine Young at 10:38 am

    While I understand the sentiment of devaluing photographers to some extent, I would like to point out that Squarespace are still giving the option of paying for Stock through Getty Images, as well as unsplash. There is much more choice on the Getty option and often ( but by no means always) better images. I will be using both and welcome the option. There are so many images out there that will never see the light of day and sites like Unsplash make them available to small businesses from generous photographers. Nothing wrong with that in my book.

  17. Joshua Sailor at 6:29 pm

    I’m glad I’m not on their platform.

    I would like a blog integration, though. Is there anything major, tech wise, that’s stopping you, or is it simply a business decision?

  18. Rick Leckrone at 3:42 pm

    I have been in the stock media industry for over 28 years.  Among other positions, I was D.O.P. for Corbis, and was integral in building Digital Stock which introduced Royalty-Free photography along with PhotoDisc in the late 1990s.  The last company I founded, Blend Images developed was one of the top selling commercial image collections in the world over its 14 year run.  I am also a co-owner of Superstock http://www.superstock.com. 

    To borrow from the Farmer’s Insurance guy — ‘I know a thing or two, because I’ve seen a thing or two.’  The Unsplash phenomenon is a natural evolution in what has always been a rapidly changing industry.  I’m extremely impressed with the collection Unsplash represents. This, coupled with their extremely user friendly API technology allows seamless integration with applications all over the Internet.  Unsplash is actually solving a problem many photographers have today — too many images, too many shooters, too few eyeballs getting to one’s work.  Let’s keep a few things in mind.  By my estimates, and having done extensive research on Unsplash’s metrics through their public API (you can play along if you’d like), the average photographer portfolio size is less than 10 images.  This suggests that Unsplash is function precisely as a conduit for photographers to offer an introduction to their personal style and ability.  In fact the largest portfolio I could find in the entire database is just over 3700 shots – an Insta User named “anniespratt”  Her natural landscapes and still life imagery represents a unique vision (https://images.unsplash.com/photo-1488718729626-53eaa41c0848?ixlib=rb-0.3.5&ixid=eyJhcHBfaWQiOjEyMDd9&s=fc9db80bf4927c69b4a7bc3e926e3156).  While I don’t know Annie personally, I think it’s a safe bet that exposure from her work on Unsplash has generated a lot of interest from art-buyers and creative directors. Back in the day, photographers would purchase advertising space in Workbook or Black Book to promote their abilities to produce commercial imagery.   Now of course, we rely on social media and sites like Photoshelter to provide venues that help promote one’s work. I know of no other conduit for exposure to commercial imagery generating the kind of image views Unsplash has achieved.  The image I shared above has 975,000 views and 6,396 downloads (well, it did a few weeks ago.)  One argument is that Annie ‘gave up’ significant revenue by allowing free downloads.  Perhaps.  But if Annie is an aspiring commercial photographer what would her ad spend need to be to generate an equal number of views?  My guess is she would need a pretty substantial Ad Words buy.  Perhaps giving away 6,000 downloads — of which certainly a lion’s share were not used commercially (one of Unsplash’s top keyword search terms is “wallpaper”) — is a solid deal.  During my career, I have worked with photographers who have earned 500k + per year through stock sales alone – a few over 1M.  There was a time when stock agencies represented hundreds of thousands of professionally edited images.  Today the largest agencies boast hundreds of millions of images.  For even the best commercial stock producers, it’s more difficult than ever to gain the exposure necessary to drive significant stock revenue.  The key, of course, are smaller curated libraries geared to drive maximum page views.  I’m not suggesting that all aspects of Unsplash’s business model are not problematic.  But I would not dismiss Unsplash or their photographers business acumen out of hand.  Nor would I accuse them of destroying an industry.  The stock/commercial photography industry is more asymmetrical than ever.  There are many different paths to success.  ‘Horses for courses’ as our British friends say.  Photoshelter might be the right fit for your marketing approach as a photographer, so, too Unsplash.  As an amateur photographer, there’s nothing more rewarding than to see your pictures being used creatively.  As a professional photographer, there’s nothing more rewarding than having someone show up at your door and want to see more.  There’s still a lot of opportunity out there for creative professionals.  Choose the path that is best for you.  Oh, and Allen, get that blog app built! 😉

  19. Leslie at 8:53 pm

    I have to agree and add to what Rick said. VisualSteam does an annual survey of creative pros and has been tracking use of free images for several years. For the first time the majority of creative pros have used free images. When we look at the numbers, corporate users are the highest users. Unsplash is a marketing tool and they do well getting exposure for photographers. There are many other sites with CCO content but none have resonated with users the way Unspalsh has. Use needs have exploded and budgets have not grown for uses like social media. With Unsplash, The control is in photogrpahers hands. They choose what and how many images they upload. Some photographers may upload too much but the marketer will understand how to share images to reflect what they can do and usable in blogs on social etc..

    There is a marketing concept called a ”loss leader.” That is how the artists I know on Unsplash think of this. With PPI declining drastically in stock, and with competition having exploded, getting a million people to see your work and be able to reach out to you is perhaps many times more valuable to pro artists than a 20% royalty on a $250 sale. What would it cost you to advertise and how many people would you reach? I would argue that artists need to seriously consider how they market and how they could use a site like Unsplash. With all that said, Unspalsh has a lot to learn and improve. But I suspect they will get there. Who will be next?

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