Think Twice about Uploading to Free Microstock Sites

Free microstock sites include Unsplash, Pixabay, Gratisography, and Pexels.
Free microstock sites include Unsplash, Pixabay, Gratisography, and Pexels.

By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator

For anyone making their living from photography, the appeal of free microstock websites is hard to fathom. Why would you give your photos away, free? Any why would you allow someone else to transform your image into something you never intended? A recent case involving a photographer from Atlanta, Georgia, and the government of the United Kingdom raises many questions.

Unsplash, the UK and a license

The photographer, Krys Alex, uploaded an image of two female ballet dancers sitting on a bench to the royalty-free stock service Unsplash. In so doing, she agreed to the site’s terms of use, which state that users “grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to host, store, transfer, display, adapt, perform, reproduce, modify, translate, and distribute your User Content (in whole or in part) in any media formats and through any media channels (now known or hereafter developed). You understand that we will not pay you for any use of your Photos and that your Photos will be made available to the public for their use without providing you attribution or compensation.”

The license given to users of the photos says “Unsplash grants you an irrevocable, nonexclusive, worldwide copyright license to download, copy, modify, distribute, perform, and use photos from Unsplash for free, including for commercial purposes, without permission from or attributing the photographer or Unsplash.”

Under these terms and license, any person or organization searching Unsplash could download Alex’s image, change it, and do whatever they want to with it. She would not be paid and might not even be credited. And that’s exactly what happened. Creators of an ad campaign by the British government downloaded the photo, cut off part of it, and used the remainder in an ad urging creative people in the arts who were out of work because of the coronavirus pandemic to retrain for careers in cybersecurity. The ad went viral for all the wrong reasons, with British government receiving harsh criticism for devaluing the work of creative artists. See the full story here.

The dancer in the original photo, Desire’e, became Fatima in the ad. Suddenly, a young woman interested in a career in the arts was the poster girl for a poorly conceived campaign encouraging people to leave the arts. It was upsetting to both the dancer and photographer but completely acceptable under Unsplash’s terms of use and license.

Now, imagine your beautiful landscape photo, which you took to encourage the appreciation for and preservation of an unspoiled valley, being used to market a housing development there. Imagine your photo of a rare animal being used to greenwash a company with a terrible environmental record. What about seeing your images used to promote a political candidate you vehemently oppose? It happens and it’s perfectly legal under the broad terms and licenses of many free microstock agencies.

Overly broad licenses have been a problem for a long time. See the story about Australian mobile phone company that used an image from Flickr in an ad campaign back in 2007. The photo was originally posted on Flickr under a Creative Commons sharing license and used by the company in a mocking way. The family of the young woman in the photo tried unsuccessfully to sue for wrongful use of her image.

But wait, there’s more!

If a photographer uploads an photo containing a person but doesn’t have a model release, an image of a well-known building without a property release, an image that includes products, trademarks or logos without the proper permission, he or she could be in trouble. If someone searching Unsplash finds, downloads and uses such an image in a commercial manner, the photographer could be sued. It’s even more of a potential problem if your image is used overseas. If used in Europe, it comes under the fairly strict standards of the General Data Protection Regulation which could expose you to even more liability.

So, why does anyone give their photos away?

Some photographers use free microstock sites hoping for exposure. Maybe a buyer will see their work and contact them for an assignment.

Some photographers just want to share their work and don’t care about being paid or getting recognition. Creative Commons licenses are popular, after all.

Some photographers start here with the intent of, once they have a little experience and a track record, moving up to a stock agency that pays.

Free microstock agencies like Unsplash, pixabay, and others can be appealing to small businesses and nonprofit organizations without marketing dollars to pay for images. But they also devalue the work of professional photographers by competing against stock agencies that represent creative professionals.

It used to be that professional photographers could count on stock photo sales to provide a steady stream of income. George Lepp once told us that stock was viewed as a photographer’s retirement fund. Over the years, stock prices have declined dramatically and even top notch agencies like Getty don’t pay very much.

Still, photographers with a good image library can get a regular monthly check from stock sales. Even microstock services, like iStock and Shutterstock, can work for some. Shutterstock, for instance, paid out over $1 billion over the past 15 years, or about $67 million a year to creative contributors. It’s really hard to make a living solely from stock, but you can supplement your income with it.

By using free microstock services, photographers may actually harming their future earning potential and setting themselves up for some unpleasant surprises, both in how their images might be used and in potential legal liabilities.

Certain photographers may still make a good case for using one of these sites, but they had best think twice before posting.

Frank Gallagher is a landscape and nature photographer based in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in providing a wide range of photograph services to nonprofit organizations. He manages NANPA’s blog and edits NANPA’s annual journal, Expressions.

Website: frankgallagherphotography.com
Facebook: @FGFStop
Instagram: @frankgallagherfoto