No, Brendan van Son Is Not Giving His Photos to Starbucks for Free

Last week Fstoppers published my opinion piece on photographer Brendan van Son’s suggestion that he would give his images to Starbucks for free. Van Son has just produced a very classy response to the article in this short video and looks into the complexities of how images are shared on Instagram.

As van Son mentions, I gave him a bit of a hard time in the opinion piece, using his words as a means of digging into how companies take advantage of photographers by making inbound content marketing seem like something that is friendly and non-corporate. In this video, van Son responds in depth, exploring how Instagram’s system for sharing content is not geared to protect creators and gives the impression their work is up for grabs.

Van Son wants a piece of the hill that I will die on: Instagram does not care about intellectual property and vast amounts of the content appearing on its platform and the traffic (and advertising revenue) that it produces exploits this desire to share, in contradiction of Instagram’s own terms and conditions. It's great to see that others share my frustrations and we wait to see if the EU's forthcoming Article 13 will have any impact.

Van Son is absolutely right on one other aspect: I should have reached out to him for comment before publishing my article. My apologies. I'm pleased to have started the discussion but it would have been more constructive — and respectful — to reach out first.

As usual, leave your thoughts in the comments.

Lead image is a composite using a photograph by Seth Doyle.

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Motti Bembaron's picture

Absolutely agree. Before publishing something ask the person in question for comments. I believe that the previous article would not have been created if they did.

I said it there, it comes out here. Maybe I should have played the lottery that day too. Oh well.

So, I’m on board with the first 6 minutes and the last 2. The problem I have is in the middle.

I get what he’s saying with the “share” button and all that, but I think he’s still missing the bigger problem that a lot of people overlook when they discuss this issue.

The issue isn’t that Starbucks (hypothetically) is using the image for free, it’s that they’re not asking permission first. Companies will continue to benefit from his “where do you draw the line” bit
(the difference between feeds, stories, reposts, shares, etc) because everybody’s too busy trying to figure out where that line is to realize that none of it matters because 90% of it is occurring after the real transgression. The “share” button would just ignore (and enable) the issue further.

We’re never going to get to a point where we’re able to start collecting for our work if the conversation where we’d say “sorry, I don’t give away my work for free” never happens in the first place. That’s the problem we have to solve before we even worry about when or what to charge.

Matt Barr's picture

I understand the struggle, but im just gonna throw this out there. There is a strain of us that appreciate the spirit of open-source and like to support the idea of contributing work for the greater good with no strings attached.

Leigh Miller's picture

Don't reinvent the wheel. There is already a mechanism for's called CHARITY.

Last time I checked...Starbucks was not in need of any charitable donations.

Matt Barr's picture

You don't even realize how much stuff you use each day that was made and given away for absolutely nothing in return. We are all better off for it. Don't get me wrong, if you wanna charge, by all means sell whatever you want. Just don't shame the rest of us for wanting to do something nice.

I worked in IT for over 10 years before pursuing photography, so I'm well aware of the spirit of open source and its importance.

The problem with your comparison is that it's faulty on multiple levels. First, software and code that are open source are typically distributed through avenues that are known specifically, and in most cases, solely, for being open source. Everybody who is submitting their work to those platforms is doing it with the explicit knowledge of what open source is and they are consenting to those terms. Social media is NOT "open source" for photography. You can go to Unsplash if you want to give your work away "for the greater good". I have the right to post an image to my social media accounts without invalidating my copyright.

Also, open source code is mostly distributed between, and for, other developers and IT professionals working towards common goals, where the software is a means to an end (i.e. productivity). But the result of photography (i.e. the image), is already the end. If the image is used as a means, it's towards some other goal like advertising a product, selling a service, etc, which I believe is outside the scope of the spirit you're referring to.

Further, lots of software that is distributed for free is done so with the condition that it is not used for commercial purposes (i.e. business use), which is exactly what we're talking about here.

Lastly, and most importantly:

Software that is open source has been deemed so by its author. Meaning they gave consent for the software to be considered as such. Taking an image from someone's social media feed without asking is doing so prior to any such consent being acknowledged, or even determined. While it may be true that the photographer is willing to give their image away for free, that distinction still needs to be made, which is the whole point of what I said. We need to stop making this about whether or not the assumption of an image's use was correct or incorrect and start making it about the fact that the act of assuming was wrong in the first place.

Leigh Miller's picture

Well f*ckin' on.

Matt Barr's picture

IT pro here too, I simply disagree and just dont see the world or open-source the way you do. This site probably sits on a Linux host with an Apache server. Wanna take those away or charge a fortune for them? The internet would collapse.

UpSplash is great, but I think ill give my work away however and wherever I want. That's my issue with this whole deal, I just don't think its ok for our community to free-shame.

I do agree with your distinction between software and pictures from the prospective of consent. Regardless of what it is, if you don't give consent or want to charge, you have absolutely every right to do so and I totally support you. I'm just saying that we're all not like that. Plus I think consent is somewhat implied on social media. Putting anything out there is like putting a TV on the curb. It's irrational to think someone won't swipe it, right or wrong. Better to use a controlled environment like a gallery or at least a website you own for anything valuable. Starbucks is not going to swipe a photo off your personal domain.

I'm not sure how, but you're still missing the point. You keep using this term "free-shaming" like it has anything to do with the actual issue at hand, which isn't "free vs. not free". It's about consent.

I never once said anything about it being wrong for people to give away their work if they want to. In fact, by not making this about whether it should be "free" or "not free", like most of these discussions, I'm actually defending that right, just as I'm defending the right for someone to charge for their work. The difference is that you're talking about a side. I'm talking about rights (for both sides).

But since you want to talk about free, let's talk about that. You seem to equate not letting Starbucks use my image for their own self-promotion as me using my work for nothing but 100% profit. I disagree. People don't pay anything to follow my Instagram feed. The public gets to consume my work 100% free of charge, as much and as often as they want. I don't make a dime from somebody viewing the work that I "shared" for "free". So if I use my work to promote my city, or a restaurant, or a person, or whatever, I'm doing it for free and yet those other entities still benefit from it. But that doesn't give them the right to take that work and redistribute it wherever they see fit. Setting aside the legal aspect (which, to be fair, puts me well on solid ground when discussing what people have a right to do and not do on social media), you're acting like I'm hiding my work in a bunker and that Starbucks is somehow liberating that work so the world is no longer deprived of it. That's a load of crap. The work is already out there for free, the only requirement is that you consume it at its (very public) source. I think that's a more than fair arrangement.

By the way, saying that posting images to social media is like putting a TV on the curb is pretty much as absurd as saying a store putting its goods out on a shelf for the public to touch (instead of behind the counter) is like putting a TV on the curb. In neither scenario do you have a legal right to take something that isn't yours. Period, end of story. Disagree all you want. I don't have to go through the trouble of arguing subjective philosophical viewpoints on the nature of sharing, because copyright law has already cleared that up nicely for me.

If you want your work to be open source, distribute it as such and that's fine. But "on the Internet" is not the same thing as "open source". There is a distinction and you're failing to grasp it.

Matt Barr's picture

TL;DR but hey im with you on consent. People shouldnt be jacking your stuff if you dont want them to. Somebody on here said that the middle part of the video with the button is not a good idea and i disagree. If you are good with me giving my images away if i want to then we are good, and i hope those that charge make a fortune. I totally support that view.

Leigh Miller's picture

So then you are not a PHOTOGRAPHY PROFESSIONAL....

Your day job, which I assume you pay bills and support a family with is your occupation. What do you care if a majority brand takes 100% of your photo efforts and pays you nothing. Your day job takes care of you right?

Well sir, I am a professional. When I get up scramble my eggs, shower shave and sling my camera...that's how I pay the bills. When a major company takes my work without payment or permission, it hurts me. It devalues my efforts and more importantly, they take away my choice.

Matt Barr's picture

Hey I get it. Not disagreeing with any of that and you are absolutely right about me. I wish you and all working pros all the success in the world, i honestly do. Its tough out there and I know you are working extremely hard to make it in what you do. Some images are expensive to make and hold real and intellectual value.

Matt Barr's picture

Probably best not to put one's intellectual or artistic property on a free and open platform if you really want to charge for it.

Leigh Miller's picture

Misses the point.

If they liked his work, they should have made an effort to obtain permission to use it in lieu of payment, or about this??


Matt Barr's picture

Man this community has become so uber-capitalist lately. On one hand im glad working pros are making a stand to get paid, but on the other hand this free-shaming that comes along with it makes me sick.

Leigh Miller's picture

Oh enough huh?

I pay MORTGAGE(S)....and save for retirement when I'm done saving for a rainy day. Free doesn't enter into my thinking unless it's on my terms.

I think the problem is that you're muddying the waters with the assumption that all platforms serve the same purpose. If someone wants to give their images away for free, there are avenues where they can do that. But "the Internet" is not a "platform" where you can just take whatever you want.

Matt Barr's picture

Tell that to Google images.

Jay Jay's picture

If a person ordered a cup of Starbuck's intellectual property (coffee), then walked off and drank it without paying, the first thing they'd do is call the police and charge them with stealing their coffee by not paying for it. This same concept doesn't change over someone who owns the intellectual rights to their own photo.

If you publish a literary work as your own, but in fact copy word for word someone else's work, that's plagiarism, and that is also a crime. (For example, Starbucks using your photo without credit and passing it off as theirs).

Or to be absolutely blunt, on their own website, they state consolidated net revenues of $24.7 BILLION dollars for 2018 and gave back $9.8 billion back to shareholders.

So do you think it's that much trouble for Starbucks to pay photogs a small fee for their photos? (Btw, in 2018, their advertising budget was $267.3 million dollars) And another btw, Instagram is very clear on protecting intellectual property, copyright, and trademark rights of their users (check their page on it)- even if they do a terrible job of enforcing it.

Matt Barr's picture

I dont think Starbucks realized they were stealing. I guess they do now though. Probably wont do it again.

Jay Jay's picture

You better believe they were. You know they pay their lawyers millions and millions a year to fight copyright and IP of their brand. They pushed the waters to see what would happen while knowing full well of what they were doing. And this probably wont be the last time they do it, either.