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Why You Should Never Upload Your Images to Unsplash

If you've ever considered uploading your work to Unsplash, you should probably watch these two videos, or at the very least, familiarize yourself with the points raised by legendary commercial and editorial photographer, Zack Arias. If nothing else, Arias wants photographers to understand the risk of facing a lawsuit as a result of uploading their images to the site.

Among a wide variety of topics covered, perhaps Arias's most important point is the lack of model releases when images are downloaded from Unsplash and used for commercial purposes. Arias consults attorney Carolyn Wright who agrees, advising that photographers should "proceed with caution" when uploading their work to Unsplash as photographers "may find themselves in a lawsuit for a variety of reasons."

As Arias observes:

Let me make this as clear as possible. If a photograph is used in a commercial sense and it is not model released, you as the photographer are liable. you can be taken to court and sued. It's that simple.

Trademarks are also of massive concern, especially, as Arias points out, that giant corporations have a reputation for hiring lawyers in response to even the most innocuous uses of their trademarks and logos.

Many photographers uploading work to Unsplash simply do not realize that model releases are required. The situation in Europe is about to become even more complex (and perhaps entail even greater liability for photographers) as a result of the new General Data Protection Regulation that will be coming into force later this year.

After spending a few weeks seething about the new phenomenon of photographers giving their work away via new online platforms, Arias reached out to Unsplash founder, Mikael Cho. In the first of Arias's two videos, he raises several significant points with Cho, and, in the second, he reflects on the situation after having given it further thought.

Arias is almost apoplectic at 24:35 when he discovers that one Unsplash contributor is celebrating the fact that Condé Nast has used an image of hers on the cover of an insert for a bridal magazine, without, of course, any form of remuneration, but also without even a credit. 

Arias is skeptical about the number of photographers who are actually benefiting from using Unsplash, despite the editorial coverage given on major photography news websites detailing the success stories. Unsplash makes a deliberate effort to keep its users informed about how many views their images are receiving, tapping into vanity and dopamine hits but with statistics that seem to blow the likes of Instagram out of the water. "No other social network can give you those numbers," says alleged success story Samuel Zeller, forgetting that Unsplash is not a social network, but instead the least generous microstock agency to date.

Unsplash's statistics are bundled with inspirational words about being part of a community, and this is another area that inflames Arias's rage - "these warm fuzzy feelings of contributing and giving back and inspiring others." When multi-billion dollar multinationals are using photographers' work for free, it's anything but charity.

It remains to be seen whether Unsplash will survive given that it currently has no means of creating a revenue and has operating costs of $20,000 per month. Arias fears that the next step will be to ask Unsplash users to pay a subscription fee to have their work featured on the site.

Unsplash says that it is a "platform fueled by a community that has generously gifted hundreds of thousands of their own photos." Others would argue that it is a speculative platform driven by aspiring amateur photographers who are trying to find a shortcut to success, seeking a foot in the door in an industry that is continuing to have its heart ripped out by tech start-ups spending someone else's money and with no interest in the photographic industry.

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Dennis Johnson's picture

and that is exactly the problem, you dont know the difference between europe and the EU. not the convention of 1948, the reason why behind that convention and the privacy laws from from that nor do you understand the GDPR directive. yet you made a comment based on,.uhm,. ,.. privacy is a right, a human right, privacy is a law protecting individuals and their rights. portrait law is a law.. all is protected by the human rights convention of 1948 skipping a few steps EU95/48, the GDPR which alligns all privacy laws of EU member states. non EU members still have to follow the human rights act, there are many laws protecting the individual and at its core is the privacy as part of the Human rights act or EVRM in short. yes even non EU member states follow that EVRM document and no they dont need to comply with the GDPR. in very short, its complicated and differs per situation.

Dallas Dahms's picture

If you are out in public you are not in a private space and privacy laws cannot extend to you. I don't think that varies much from country to country. It might be different for famous people being hounded by paparazzi, but that's not the situation when a vlogger is rolling a camera on a scene in public.

Dennis Johnson's picture

actualy,. a picture of a famous person holds a different vallieu. regarding privacy laws you are wrong. best practise would be is simmilar rules to what shutterstock requests,. you need a model release because you were never given approval from that subject to make money of her portrait. consent is a key term in the GDPR. and yes GDPR does apply in both a private and a non private space. google invasion of privacy.

Dallas Dahms's picture

I think your understanding of the difference between editorial and commercial is lacking. I'll leave you to go and do some research on those concepts.

Dennis Johnson's picture

problem with trolls is that they usually only are in it for the attention. reason why you are not answering the question

Mihnea Stoian's picture

Great video, touches on all the important points from a photographers POV. I've used Unsplash since the 1st month it was launched, with a bunch of stock photos left over from a photo shoot for the Crew website. It has always amazed me why photographers would ever post anything better than their B or C pictures on it.

Regarding GDPR, I'm currently working to help companies work towards compliance with it, and it will affect a lot of things in the future. It's biggest difference from any other privacy law in the world is the stipulation that privacy is a human right. Every EU citizen is the owner of their own information and has the right to request to have their data deleted at any time, from anywhere.
This could be applied to photos where individuals are identifiable, and not just to ones taken once the law comes into place (May 2018 in EU, fall in UK), but existing ones as well. I would be EXTREMELY cautious of selling photography of EU/UK citizens where you do not have consent.

Tim Behuniak's picture

One of the first lessons I learned in photography was to "never give your art away for free." Obviously cases like charity donations and gifts are part of the few exceptions, but the point is still clear. I've always abided by this lesson and will continue to do so. I think photographers contributing to Unsplash also contribute to the photography being devalued ... Unsplash seems to be but another goodbye skilled, professional artists/photographers???

michael andrew's picture

Maybe we should just change the term “Hero” shot to “zero” shot. Man what is the world coming to.

michael buehrle's picture

it' because EVERYONE is a photog right now. they think it's just about taking pics. there is so much more to do that they are clueless about.

Jozef Povazan's picture

Zack pushed the button on this THANK YOU for that. Now it is in me, you and all of those who are using sites like these to simply THINK before you do so again !!! Why would you do things which could hurt you more then you could think about. Giving away complimentary shoot to charity I know is something different then letting your work out there to anyone for 00000000000000000 ? Please think and share this does not help us photographers, Thank you again Zack for hitting the freaking nail !!! to this U------H not even want to say that word again ! Happy shooting guys :)

Anonymous's picture

My models are all effectively piles of dirt.
So, no worries about getting sued by them however, the kick in the nut sack for me is the no credit

The transaction has to be at least somewhat equitable

Edit: appears credit comes when users of medium website use unsplash photos.. doesnt say if others.. bah, i dont care anymore

Ben D's picture

Maybe they can rename themselves "Unwise"?

Dallas Dahms's picture

No mention of monetisation in that link.

But it is interesting to see that creativity is not being bound by the need for money. Sad, but interesting.

Walid Azami's picture

Infuriating that people take advantage of photographers, or that photographers allow this to happen.

Justin Howard's picture

For what it's worth it will only take one high profile lawsuit for Unsplash to really coming tumbling down. And the likelihood is that the photographer will not be towards the professional end of the spectrum but more so the hobbyist end; someone who hasn't read up on the legalities of what commercial photography entails. Then again l guess another hobbyist will just be around the corner to take their place and make the same mistakes all over again and so the cycle repeats itself once again.
Going by what Arias says about how they are run financially, however, doesn't look like Unsplash could come back from a heavy lawsuit though.

james aitcheson's picture

ok so this has raised a whole bunch of legal and illegal discussion and I myself being a commercial photographer would not use unsplash for anything. Now, let me ask all you Fstoppers people this question. How would you feel is someone copied your portfolio off your website an created an account on unsplash and uploaded your photos. By the time you find out your images have been used, the image probably has been downloaded and used potentially in a commercial manor without your permission. I have not seen one single thing on the unsplash website that would prevent this or even disclaim that this kind of activity is illegal. Now you have to get lawyers involved find everyone who is using your image, and try to get something done about it. Talk about a NIGHTMARE!!!

Tom Weis's picture

Even professional journalists at the Poynter Institute are all about getting free photos:

poynter [DOT] org/news/these-tools-will-help-you-find-right-images-your-stories

"My latest image love affair is Unsplash. Its photos seem to be of extremely high quality. The site also gives you a one-click copy-and-paste credit after you download any photo. That may seem small, but it’s handy when you’re trying to get a post up as soon as possible."

The 2/8/18 article mentions Upsplash and four other similar sites, and provides a handy list at the end.

NPPA responds:

nppa [DOT] org/news/visuals-have-value-and-so-do-visual-journalists

Maybe it's not too late for me to get a real estate license... Damn.

Emanuel Schwermer's picture

I liked your speech very much and I already shared the link.
Many thanks for that!
(Content-Producer from Munich)

Magnolia PB's picture

Thanks for the video. Very clear and well done.

stephen leonardi's picture

who cares, you sound butt hurt ,,, don't like it don't use it, the end ,,, it cost your nothing pay it no mind , i agree with you but o well , i put photos on there, and never know it could lead to something , either way people can enjoy them or they sit on my computer ,

Bernhard Dinger's picture

Hello everyone,
I live in Germany and especially here the regulations, everything that includes photos, especially pictures of people, are very strict.

That means, if street photography is normal and problem-free in the USA, then in Germany and all of Europe I have to ask people beforehand whether I can photograph them. You will surely understand that this has nothing to do with street photography anymore, people posing.

If you don't have a signature for permission or even publication on a website or publication in magazines or advertising, it can be really expensive. In Europe I don't take photos without a contract or permission. There are even agencies that advertise to represent you if you have been photographed without permission.

Many people don't even think about it when they upload something to Unsplash. Unsplash is always fine, the lawyer has me as a photographer on my ass, not unsplash.

I have already uploaded pictures to Unsplash, I could upload even better ones with people, but where do the photos end up? How should I explain to a young lady that your photo is now on a sex magazine or in an ambiguous advertisement?

Fortunately, I wasn't that stupid to upload photos with people because I know our legislation.
I was also annoyed that not a single feedback was received about the pages on which my photos appear, let alone a thank you. At least that would be possible, I did it several times when I downloaded something from Unsplash.
Zack is absolutely right in his video, strictly speaking we only support cashiers who take advantage of other people's hobby or work but never give anything back.

Every cheap magazine wants to sell copies of text itself and insists on naming the authors and magazine, not to mention photos, but I couldn't even complain if my photos appear in any newspapers, because I have ceded my rights with the upload, only my duties, they stay with me when the model sues me.

Zack, sorry, I was so stupid too, I saw your video too late, now I have a different point of view, thank you very much.