Last Saturday I woke up, had a shower, greeted the wife, kissed the child, and sat down at Voltron (the name I have affectionately given my desk) to start a day of photography related tasks. I typically procrastinate for a few minutes and this particular morning was no different. I wanted to ease into the day by having a cup of coffee or two. I also wanted to distract myself before any editing in Lightroom, blogging, or planning another fall portrait session here in Tokyo. I looked for the closet distraction. I picked up the ole iPhone and loaded up my Instagram account.
Once you open the app, Instagram tells you what is the what. You know... Who has liked your photos, sent you a message, tagged, or mentioned you in a comment. I am always curious to see the tags. Most of the time I get tagged by spammers who really want to help me "grow my Instagram following." If it isn't one of those annoying entrepreneurs, it is another photographer who wants to increase their reach by tagging everyone they ever met. Of course my curiosity got the best of me and I pressed one of the tag notifications that had appeared overnight.
To my surprise, I found the following post:
Now, I don't know @schwarzmarc. I certainly don't live in Salzburg, Austria. Nor do I plan to save the date for a photowalk being held in central Europe (plane tickets are just too expensive and I can't really justify taking several days off of work for an afternoon stroll around the cobblestoned streets of Salzburg). But, I did take the photograph being featured in Mr. Schwarz's post.
Naturally, my eyes were drawn to the red and black type printed all over the bottom of my frame. Almost as big as the photograph's intended subject are the the logos of 5oopx (one of the worlds biggest photo sharing websites) and Red Bull (the world's most popular energy drink). Obviously, the two giants are sponsoring world-wide photo walks and needed images to promote the various walks being held.
Still, I was perplexed as to why my photograph was being used without my knowledge or permission. Seeing that I hadn't really procrastinated enough, I decided to chase the rabbit down the hole.
My first stop was 500px, a site that hosts thousands upon thousands of individual photographer's work. In all honesty, 500px is a wonderful platform to puruse the work of other photographers as well as a place to showcase some of my own work. I had "discovered" many photographers and have found a lot of inspiration on the platform. Another great thing about 500px is that photographers can license images for commercial and/or editorial use. While photographs are not often purchased from this service (at least mine aren't), 500px still gives photographers the chance of having their work sold for a modest price.
Navigating to my 500px profile, I quickly found my shot called "Gentle Flow," the image in question. As I suspected, I did not have any notifications that the image had been purchased. In fact, there were no messages at all in my account cache from 500px let alone Red Bull. There, plain as day on the right hand side of the page were the purchase and licensing options: 49.00 dollars for a web-ready version, 149.00 for the retina display, and 249.00 for the print ready version. Hmmm...
My mind wandered to that Rihanna song.
Before getting too flustered, I decided to see if the image appeared anywhere else online. I headed over to our trusty friend Google and, within seconds, found several search results. The sunrise photograph I had taken in Salzburg, Austria on a Christmas morning was the banner for a Facebook event group, being used on 500px's Global Photo Walk homesite, and had been featured on several Instagram accounts (some with many, many more followers than @schwarzmarc's account).
I was surprised at the visual variety my photo had across the different platforms. I also pondered the text and/or blank space that did or did not accompany my work. Some users credited me with a tag (thank you to those folks) and some were simply spreading the "500px version" which includes a generic 500px watermark placed vertically on the upper left of the frame.
A theory popped into my mind about my image of that beautiful Austrian morning and why it was being used without my knowledge. To confirm my theory, I returned to 500px and searched for the service's terms and conditions.
The Fine Print
Every social platform that hosts creative content has terms and conditions that clearly define the rights of the service and the rights of the user. If not, the company would be begging for a lawsuit. 500px is no exception. Just like most respectable platforms for photo sharing, 500px has clearly defined terms for content submitted to their site. With little effort, I navigated to the page I had failed to read prior to creating my 500px account.
Many image hosting websites have similar terms of service. Even if there isn't an "I agree" button to quickly click and dismiss, users are agreeing to the posted terms when they submit content for hosting. Depending on the host, a photographer is acknowledging and/or agreeing to a slew of terms.
Reading 500px's terms for the first time, I was primarily drawn to the third bullet.
"The license granted to 500px includes the right to use Visual Content fully or partially for promotional reasons and to distribute and redistribute Visual content to other parties, websites, authorized agents, applications, and other entities, provided such Visual Content is attributed in accordance with the credits (i.e. username or collection name, profile picture, photo title, descriptions, tags, and other accompanying information) is any and as appropriate, as submitted to 500px."
And there it was in black and white. Case closed. I had unknowingly given my permission for 500px and "other parties" to use my photograph.
Why should photographers read the fine print?
As photographers, we are eager to share our work, our vision with the world. We upload ourselves daily to an army of platforms in the hopes of being discovered, acknowledged, and praised. We just want to be seen. But in our zealous self-promotion, we are often too eager. By reading terms of service statements, we are choking up on the reigns of ambition. By slowing down and acknowledging the fine print, we can begin to be more discerning about the avenues in which we share our art.
500px's use of my photograph is such a minor example of how photographers can be blindsided by their own ambition. In fact, I commend 500px and similar sites for posting their terms of service. They are, at the very least, being transparent in their terms.
At the end of the day, my photo wasn't stolen by Richard Prince and Calvin Klein didn't knick my photographic vision. The reality is much different. I was given some form of credit by 500px. But more, my photograph was being used to promote the act of photography, one of my greatest passions in life.
It doesn't matter if five or five million people saw the mediocre photo I took. What matters is that we, as photographers, become more present in our zest to share our work with the world. One of the first steps to a more refined approach to social sharing is to read the fine print.
Has the fine print ever got you? I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments section.
Award winning photographer based in Tokyo, Japan. Specializing in portrait photography, he shoots a variety of portraiture, editorial, and event, and commercial photography assignments. Andy is a husband, father, and lover of fried food.