Photographers often have a hard enough time getting the proper credit and payment they deserve for the images they create. And now, Instagram is enabling brands to make money off your images without you ever even knowing it.
There are many Instagram apps out there that allow you to repost other's images. You simply point them at the image you want to repost, and they download it and open it in the Instagram app for you. Sometimes, they add a little icon with the original poster's handle in the bottom corner, but unless they do this or the account reposting the content mentions the original poster somehow, there's no way to know where it came from. Though this is obviously highly problematic for photographers, to my knowledge, Instagram has never made any effort to curtail these apps; after all, more content is good for them.
Where this becomes 50 times worse is when you add product tagging into the equation. Any company with an Instagram account that's gone through the Instagram business approval requirements can use product tagging, allowing them to link to products they sell on any Instagram post or story. Because Instagram doesn't do anything to stop reposting, instead of paying a photographer for product photos and the proper commercial licensing fee, that company can simply use a repost app, find a photo of the product, and tag it. If they don't tag the photographer, the photographer will never even know unless they randomly happen across the post.
That's exactly what happened to Andy Barnham. Luckily for him, he realized it because the repost app tagged him in the caption, which was left unchanged by the company when they posted the image.
Said Barnham of finding his image being used to sell a product without his permission:
It's disappointing. Either I accept abuse will be undertaken by the ignorant or unreasonable, or I have to spend even more time monitoring for abuse — time I should be spending creating new work. This means any image can be abused and commercialized, which has wider ramifications for general users: would you be happy for your face to be featured by a brand for free? There are aligned interests using content they haven’t paid for, offered from creators, the majority of whom don’t know their rights. Instagram can also claim it’s not their direct responsibility, creating an even larger moral vacuum. Ultimately, none of this would be happening if Instagram didn’t exist, so I believe the buck should stop with them.
There are, of course, a multitude of reasons this could happen. It could be a social media intern who doesn't know about copyright and just searched the company hashtag until they found the right image. Or it could be something more sinister, a company knowingly trying to cut corners. What's worse is that photographers are particularly susceptible to this, since they're the most likely to be posting the sort of professional images companies would love to use to advertise. And since they're being reposted to Instagram, the companies won't care about the low resolution. They get free, professional product or commercial photos to sell their products. The photographer gets nothing in return. The photographer might not even know it's happening, particularly if it's an indirect usage. What if some lifestyle company uses a picture you took of a watch on a wrist? How would you ever know to suspect that?
What's frightening is how easily and efficiently this can happen: Search the hashtag. Scroll through a few dozens images until one is found that's suitable. Select it in the repost app. Post it and tag the product. All of this might take two or three minutes.
Of course, the photographer could potentially report the image to Instagram. But first, that's assuming they even find it. If the brand posting it doesn't tag the photographer's account (and if they're trying to pull a fast one, they certainly won't), there's a good chance the photographer will never even know what has happened. And if the photographer has a working relationship with that company or is hoping to, it instantly puts them in a very awkward position. Of course, if the post was made out of ignorance and the photographer has some tact and business savvy, they might be able to massage it into a working relationship, but they shouldn't be forced into that position in the first place. It's not right. Nor is it legal. And as Barnham said, it's a colossal waste of the photographer's time to have to be constantly policing brands for this sort of thing.
Really though, almost every brand that's bigger than the tiniest Etsy shop should know better. They know advertising materials aren't free. They understand that making money off of someone else's work without compensating them isn't right or legal. Maybe that social media intern running the company's Instagram account doesn't know better, but then, the onus is on the company to educate them before they hand over the reins to something that is directly tied to them making money.
But at the end of the day, it really doesn't matter all that much if this happens because of ignorance or malice. The photographer still loses money either way — money that is rightfully theirs. And because Instagram seems content to allow reposting, they're not only allowing the behavior, but in the eyes of that intern who doesn't know better, it might even seem they're encouraging it. After all, our minds often use the heuristic of assuming something that's easy is the correct method. And this is tremendously easy to do.
My thanks to Andy Barnham for sharing his story with me. You can see more of his work on his website and his Instagram. You can also read his thoughts on this subject on his blog. One final note: Barnham was kind enough to share that screenshot with me on the condition that I censor the brand name, so please avoid attempting to track them down.
Lead image by Lisa Fotios, used under Creative Commons.