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Why Are Photographers Giving Away Their Work On Free Stock Photo Websites?

Free Stock Photography by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

In this high-tech, fast-paced world, we all "snap pics." I'm going to go ahead and venture a guess that the majority of us tend to do so from our phones, since we now have these amazing portable devices that can provide a decent exposure for us. What has come out of these great technological advances is a larger-than-ever movement of aspiring photographers... which is great! The internet is now more saturated than ever with some pretty decent amateur work. So my big question for you today is, does this in-fact hurt the Professional Photographer? 

I'm talking about the Professional Photographer who has worked so hard to learn their camera, who has saved up for their arsenal of lenses and who has shot so many neighborhood kids for nothing until, finally, their portfolio was worthy of a legit paid booking. I stumbled upon a collection of stock photography websites where you can sign up as a photographer and literally give away your images with no strings attached. Most of these sites do provide a link back to the photographer where you can view, follow or contact them for future work. However, is this business model harmful to those of us who make a living off of our knowledge and skill-set that makes our photography business go round? Or perhaps I am looking at it all wrong. Does this create new opportunities? Additional backlinks to our websites, driving additional traffic to our portfolios and helping folks find us, whether they meant to or not?

Totally Free ZERO Creative Commons Zero Image by - Tim Marshall

Out of the gate, as a professional photographer, this totally bums me out. I don't need any more photographers offering up their services for FREE! I think it's universally understood that too many are already underbidding and offering up their services beneath a fair value. It seems as though this method is affecting our perceived value to the consumer, driving down the expected cost of the pro photographer who has accrued the expertise, knowledge and top-notch gear it takes to do what we do.

Another astounding fact is that most of the sites do not require that you even credit the image; they simply suggest that you do. So I'm going to do just that (obviously).  A lot of the work I'm seeing throughout these sites is pretty good, too good to just be throwing them out there for whomever to use in whatever media they choose. I'm not kidding! See the excerpt from FREE stock photo site Unsplash below.

The Unsplash license allows for photographs to be used for any purpose — both commercial and personal. Blogs, art, book covers, t-shirts, and more — paid or unpaid — they’re all allowed under the license.

Huh? So I can grab a high-res download of any of the images on this website and throw my logo on it and the artist doesn't care? The image means that little to them? Just for fun, I adjusted the below free image so we can all have a little giggle.

Photography by Paul Green - Zero Creative Commons License

Maybe there is a flip side. As a newer or intermediate photographer, this represents a great way to build some credibility. It sure doesn't feel right to me. However, I'm old school in my values and feel artists should absolutely be compensated for their talents and passion. There is a handful of other sites featuring some pretty decent images (again for free) but I'm not sharing those here because these folks deserve more than free downloads! I would be thrilled to hear the insights of other readers and photographers from all levels. Please enlighten me if you have attempted to or would partake in this approach. I'd love to hear from the other side of the table.

Images provide with Creative Commons Zero License from Unsplash

Lead Image by Joshua Earle

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CC0 ?!?!?

I'm not sure these photographers understand what that ACTUALLY implies. I could then take all those images and ... sell them on calendars, in photo books, as stock! Without a dime going to them or even any credit!

"The person who associated a work with this deed has dedicated the work to the public domain by waiving all of his or her rights to the work worldwide under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights, to the extent allowed by law."

INCLUDING ALL RELATED AND NEIGHBORING RIGHTS ... that means also moral rights (where applicable).

It's like when Flickr tried to sell prints of CC licensed images on its network and the people who had released the images under those CC licenses bent crazy "THEY CAN'T DO THAT!!!" Uhm, yes they can ... you released the images under a license that allows for that type of use you idiots!!!

There are also some serious issues with businesses who want to use these free images ... you have no guarantee that the person who uploaded the file there is actually the original copyright holder and as such you open yourself to some serious liability if you end up using an image that has been stolen and uploaded without the copyright owners knowledge or consent.

Think it doesn't happen? It happens on Getty, it happens on IStock ...

EDIT ... just reading their FAQ ... LOL

Can I sell Unsplash photos?

Legally, the CC0 license allows you to sell the photos posted on Unsplash. However, the Creative Commons and Unsplash communities are pretty vocal in their dislike for this (not to mention it makes no economic sense, since the photo is already free).

That didn't stop Getty from selling "public domain" pictures provided to the library of congress by a generous photographer and then sending that same photographer a BILL FOR USE OF THE IMAGES!

And the community being VOCAL ... really, THAT's going to stop someone? People won;t make legal use of the images as per the license terms because the people who were stup[id enough to license their work under that license might get upset?

*shakes head and walk away from computer*

Reminds me.....I forget the guys website, but he had a growing photo collection released as public domain for quite some time, got popular, then flip-flopped the license and starting selling them. Once an item is public domain, I'm not sure you can just pull it back into copyright, but I read a court case about a state government doing it once.

This practice must stop! It further devalues photography. DON'T GIVE YOUR WORK AWAY FOR FREE! Yes, it does hurt the whole industry and professional photographers who do it for a living.

Your Android and IPhones are only possible because of the countless of hours of software development by legions of open-source developers who all... give their work away for free. And you know what, Google and Apple take that software and put it into their phones and sell it and make billions of dollars! We should all be so upset about this that CAPITAL LETTERS ARE REQUIRED. :-)

Some software businesses were initially very hostile to open source software, considering it a direct challenge to their business model of writing code for profit. Microsoft in particular was very much against it. Yet, over the years, this attitude has changed and now Microsoft is a huge donor of open source software, and fully embraces it while still making a very healthy profit.

There are all sorts of reasons why you and I do things for others for free. We are social animals and like to feel useful to our society. Not everyone needs a direct pat on the back never mind hard cash for all the things they do.

And, Wikipedia, of course. What a terrible thing that is :-)

Photography has changed. More pictures are taken every few months than were ever taken in the whole of the 20th century. You guys should stop growing ulcers about what other people choose to do with their time or do for free. Does the takeaway restaurant owner complain about the bring-and-share lunch at the church or that when you invite friends over for dinner, you don't charge them? You just have to adapt because like King Canute there isn't anything you can do to stop the tide.

I'll grant that you have some fair points ... the restaurant analogy isn't really analogous but I get what you are trying to say but if you go and check out their website and FAQ ... they want to release their pictures but still control them.

Can I sell Unsplash photos?

Legally, the CC0 license allows you to sell the photos posted on Unsplash. However, the Creative Commons and Unsplash communities are pretty vocal in their dislike for this (not to mention it makes no economic sense, since the photo is already free).

This would be like someone saying "Anyone is free to use my car for whatever reason!" and then getting upset when someone uses it for Uber or something.

My main point is that I don't think these guys understand what they are agreeing to, much like what people on flickr, who were posting their images as CC whatever (that allowed commercial use) understood what they were agreeing to either.

I think you're right. It's so much more than giving away an image for people to enjoy at this level.

My big answer is; that if it does hurt you, then you have no place being a pro photographer.

Some people want to create something without a financial gain in mind.
Some folks want to simply create and share. Some of those people will be better photographers than any of us will ever be. Their desire to share freely, if they desire, doesn't devalue your own work unless you decide to allow it.

What's fun is spending some time to learn just how much of the modern world you rely on is due to the freely given efforts of others.

The majority of servers routing your internet traffic and hosting your websites/databases/files? Linux. Free. For anyone to use any way they'd like (even commercially). What is fstoppers using as a CMS backend? Wordpress possibly? Also free. For anyone. To use however they'd like. What about your internet browser? Did you pay for it? I'm willing to bet that quite a bit of it is only possible through free/open source contributions. The list goes on, and on, and on, and on, and on....

Wrong! By offering their work for free that creates no market for images in general or lowers the value significantly. Why would someone pay for photography when someone is offering photography for free? Go ahead share all you like and I encourage that. Just don't give good photography away for free. I'm not talking about doing work for free like in a trade out or for a free ad, etc., but rather the folks who upload to Flickr with a Creative Commons license or upload to stock agencies that don't pay artists. And if you're that good as a photographer, charge accordingly even if you're an amateur. It's worth it! Let's all do our best to keep value in photography.

Scott I couldn't agree more. My main focus on this article wasn't that photographers aren't adding a value to their photos. Pat decided to comment and tweet with that as his focal point, further insisting I'm all about the paycheck. My biggest concern with this trend is that not only are they not placing a value on their great work their allowing their images to be manipulated or altered to the furthest extent in some scenarios. I don't see a situation where I'd give away my work that I'm proud of because yes I'm proud of all my work, and then take it further by letting everyone and anyone do whatever they want to it. I'm not sure about other photographers but when I do shoot models for free (yes my model work is purely no charge because I LOVE doing it so much) I would never be ok with other people manipulating my work or dropping their logo on it etc. Thanks for commenting Scott :)

Not every manipulation is bad, it can be the start of a new work of art, i.e. a collage.

See comment below :D

Here's a random dog photo from my snapshots that I just now decided to make CC0. It took thousands of dollars worth of equipment, experience and about 30 seconds worth of editing. Plus it also has a partial park bench in the background, bonus!

I've just single-handedly devalued the dog photography and partial park bench markets and ruined the future for photographers everywhere.... or maybe I made my money already and don't mind passing along the scraps ;)

Well damn thats a rad photo of a random dog!

Think of giving away photos for free, this way.....when you offer free photos versus charging someone, this is what you do to the rest of the industry...think of it like this..it is like asking your doctor to perform heart surgery on you for free, bc your friend said they could do it just as good them bc they saw it on youtube...that is what every person who gives away their work it telling society. its easy, so there is less value.

Regardless if the shoot was easier than most, bottom line... if they are making money off your photos, so should you! Amateur or professional. I could name multiple examples where society wouldn't blink if an athlete charged per game or appearance etc. one would question the validity of the deal it self if it was free or inexpensive. why should we be an exception.

Most likely hobbyists with other jobs. Still they should try to make a little money to spend on that new lens.

I was taught in business there are three things you can compete on, customer service, quality of the product and the price. You can compete against free when the product quality and customer service is better. So I wouldn't worry, people will see value in the work if it's great. When I release my work to the pubilc domain, I'm usually thinking this would make a great backdrop for a website, and it's not going in my portfolio so might as well let it go, it's a very freeing feeling. http://jamesmoxley.com

I totally agree with you accept for the fact that these photographers are giving away their rights to what happens to this image. I would never give away some of the work I do that I love and am proud of with the Zero Commons license. It isn't the idea that someone is using my image as a wallpaper or background, that is extremely flattering, it's more so that they can do whatever they want to it that really bums me out.

And still you support a platform that gives away information for free, devaluing all the photography magazines

Absolutely I do! This is a community of photographers from all ranges of skills and genres, it's an amazing way to connect with like minded people and share knowledge. As well as sign up for some great tutorials and find out about amazing deals! There is so much more to the Fstoppers community then free information. Plus I like trees James, so there. :)~

This is pretty hipocritical, isn't it?
You enjoy given away content for free, still you think others shouldn't do it on something that matters to you.

"I would never give away some of the work I do that I love and am proud of with the Zero Commons license."

That is your decision, others think different, there is no need to imply they are stupid.

OH James, it's starting to become obvious your Mr. Bummer pants. You can see it as hypocrytical, I see it as black and white. I think sharing your work with the world is great, for free thats totally up to you. I do however feel like artists shouldn't allow their work to be manipulated. It's so personal when you choose to take that shot, or write that song and I enjoy seeing others work from their eyes. Thats all.

What does the term Mr bummer pants mean? I'm no native speaker.

I'm very interested how a work can be altered, especially in music. But that's me

It's my smart ass way of saying geeze dude lighten up! Music work can absolutely be altered, remixed, cut up, beats slowed or sped up. All I was trying to point out is that as artists you shouldn't give full rights away to risk others making it no longer your vision. OK nevermind, I'm working on another article, must move on with my life. See ya James..

E.g. I like amy whinehouse or hiphop music in general. And I think it's cool that you can use license free music in videos, because not everyone is a musician or wants to make big cash

And this is a VIRAL adv. of Unsplash

Think of taxi services...
When people started looking for alternatives (like Uber), taxi companies in my country went crazy! A few protests and some physical confrontation with Uber drivers...
But people have been hitchhiking since the beginning of cars...
I believe we have to adapt.
As you said, it used to be a long time for a new photographer to get their first booking... Meaning, we relied mostly in word of mouth to be known in the market... But the internet is a market itself...
There's still a place for the professional photographer, aka, the paid photographer. The one that creates exclusive content in a event or new product release...
The same way will keep having paid taxi services of different formats! Like aerial taxis (drone cabs from Uber in the next 3 years or so)...
The spread of knowledge and technology is amazing, and free courses and free work allows for many experiences in a persons life, no matter the field of work!
Just trying out one of these free websites gives you a direction for what people (costumers) are looking for when they have different choice... It's a interesting tool to develop your own style and possible targets for paid stock photography!!
Thanks for your post! It made me more interested in stock photography!! :)