The Photobucket Debacle Shows Us the Danger of Relying on Free Services

The Photobucket Debacle Shows Us the Danger of Relying on Free Services

So you might have heard the rumblings this week that Photobucket is holding users' photos ransom after a recent change in their Terms of Service. The long and short of it is that free accounts can no longer embed their images on third party sites. Photobucket's failure to inform users with anything besides the quick blog post linked above has caused an uproar amongst their millions of users; many of whom have relied on the image hosting service for years to provide storage for anything from photos for blog posts to online sale listings on Amazon and eBay. 

So yeah, this sucks for people who rely on Photobucket for hosting all of their images for free. People are upset to say the least.

There's plenty to be upset about here: the somewhat ridiculous price Photobucket is charging for their hosting service, the complete lack of communication to users who have relied on the service for years, the fact that migrating to a different service is a huge pain that won't fix all of your links. Take your pick. Some people are even going so far as to call Photobucket's new policy "ransomware" (spoiler alert: it's not) and claiming that the image hosting company's policy change is illegal (second spoiler alert: also not). What everyone should really take away from this is the inherent danger that comes with relying on a free service for anything in your life, let alone for things you need to conduct your business.

I get why people are upset; they feel like their images are THEIR images and, by disabling the links to those images, Photobucket has stolen from them. What people are failing to realize is that you get what you pay for (or in this case, don't pay for). I'm not defending Photobucket, they could have and should have gone about this change in a much more up-front and open manner. They sure as hell should have better pricing (Zenfolio charges like $60/year for unlimited image hosting AND you can make an actual website for example). But they haven't done anything criminal or violated any user agreements that I'm aware of. I'm sure the execs for the site looked at the number of users who used their free service to generate personal revenue and realized that it's pretty crazy for a company to generate revenue for others for free. So they made this change and they did it in a messy way and now their users are freaking out.

Here's the deal, the Internet has numbed us to the idea that things cost money. We get that we have to pay for milk at the grocery store, but the average person gets pretty upset when they have to pay for any sort of online service. I am 100% guilty of always trying to get free shipping when I make a purchase online, even though I know that SOMEONE has to pay that shipping cost. Most people don't want to have to pay to have their blogs or images hosted or their files shared or their physical products sold. We forget that real humans built the things we're using; a real person came up with a way to make it work and wrote the code for it to function and pays for the servers our files are stored on and every month they have bills to pay and a family to feed just like we do.

It's important to note however, that this change isn't just affecting users who sell things on eBay or host images for blogs. Millions of Photobuckets users use the service to share images in online forums and other venues, and very few of those users are generating income from their usage. Whole forums have been built around using Photobucket as a host and have now lost access to years and years of images unless they pay the new usage fee. 

stampboards.com photobucket ransom

These dudes just want to share photos of stamps...

Many of the users on at stampboards.com had already paid for an annual Photobucket Pro membership to remove ads from their images and give them increased storage, and now they're being faced with an additional fee if they want to share those images with others.

Here's a challenge: sit down and make a list of all the tech-based services you use, and see which ones cost you money. Do you pay for Dropbox or Google Drive? Your email address? Your website? Are there things for your business that depend on free services? Once you've made that list, consider how many of those you pay for. Of the services that you use free of charge, how many would you be deeply affected by if the service suddenly went away or started charging? How big of a deal would it be for you to change to a different service? How many of ANY of your services have you actually taken the time to read the Terms of Services for?

Paying for a service isn't a complete protection against something like this, companies can still make changes to their services, pricing, billing methods, etc., but being a paying user does tend to provide more security against changes like this and more leverage should a provider ever breach their own Terms in the service they provide. Business owners in particular should be wary about relying on free services in the running of their businesses. Being frugal is important, but not at the expense (pun!) of the continued existence of your business.

I'm very curious to hear our readers' thoughts on the Photobucket situation and the idea of free services in general. As photographers, we tend to lose our collective minds whenever a "client" wants us to provide them with services free of charge, yet we can often be guilty of the same attitude in other areas. So who's to blame here? Photobucket? Their users? Everyone?

I would not be surprised if Photobucket comes out with some sort of revision or apology or attempt to soothe their upset users. Their Twitter mentions are blowing up with users who are out of their minds about their images suddenly being unavailable. So far, the only response they've given is this tweet:

Because smilies make everything better, right?

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17 Comments

Mr. Richardson,
While you are not incorrect regarding 'free' services, you are wide of the point on at least two counts in this matter. First, many of us do pay for Photobucket's service. We have not lost our images yet but we have no expectations that our situation will last for long. Second, as a file hosting service, why else would Photbucket even exist except for third party linking?

As a secondary matter, have you ever used Photobucket's free service? Their Library of Albums web pages are nearly unuseable with all of the advertisements and pop-ups. Plus, to say the programming was wonky and prone to crashing for no apparent reason would be an understatement. On the other side of their pay wall you get FTP service that won't even let you log in more often than not.

Yes, clearly, we're in a 'the-devil-you-know' situation. The final indignity in this matter are all of those broken links out there in everything from long running forums to eBay auctions and Etsy listings, with no way to edit those posts or retrieve those images. And, each of those broken links represents a breach of trust between us and a vendor we'd relied on for too long. As we all know trust is not easily regained once lost.

It'll be interesting to see what PhotoBucket does to resolve this matter but, for all too many of us, it is likely to be much too little and much too late.
Regards,
Kurt

Andrew Richardson's picture

I specifically referenced how this is affecting paying users in the article.

Mr. Richardson,
Yes, thank you, after reading the article more carefully, and watching for those specific references, I now see that you mentioned the paying users from stampboards.com. You also specifically mention how having paid for any service offers little protection from providers changing their Terms Of Service at any time of their choosing leaving their customers with a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ decision regarding those services. The remaining nine or ten paragraphs of your text seem to mostly admonish the reader for their expectations of ‘free stuff’ from the various services and vendors listed in the article.

If service providers are indeed free to adjust their Terms Of Service so drastically with little or no warning or downside for them, the PhotoBucket matter actually casts a very long shadow for customers of any cloud based storage or backup solution. Those broken links being the least of the problem.

Thank you very much for your informative and thought provoking article. Ultimately it is a reminder that, in the end, each of us is solely responsible for assuring that all of our files are backed up on multiple media and that those backups are accessible to us whenever and where ever we might need them.
Regards,
Kurt

Spy Black's picture

Although it wouldn't be a great loss for me, this is certainly annoying for me. I will wait to see what the fallout will be on this. Photobucket pretty much just destroyed themselves as far as I can tell. If things don't level out, I'll simply close the account and move on. Photobucket will probably pay dearly for this, it's not like they're the only game in town.

Reminds me in a way to Virgin Mobile, which recently made the decision to sell only iPhones in their non-contracted service. Seems fairly suicidal to me, and appears indicative to a company wanting to get out of the business, as I can see no logic in a company not offering any choice of products in a service that relies on variety. It's like going to a car dealership, and you can only buy one model car.

Photobucket strikes me in a similar vain, it appears like a company that wants out.

Simon Patterson's picture

That's my impression, too. It appears they've chosen a one time cash grab option for themselves here. I imagine once the initial burst of $399 subscribers subsides, they'll take the money and run, with the site crashing and burning behind them.

I have used Photobucket for at least 9 years. The free downloading is what attracted me to them in the first place. I do not use my images for profit whatsoever. I am a model builder that posts photos of the models I build on a forum website dedicated solely for the enjoyment of building models. Many of my posts have been to show other model builders how I created something or steps to make building a certain model easier. Same with the other over 500 members of this forum. Our web site forum is now basically useless. All you see now is the Photobucket stamp in place of every photo I have shared over the last 9 plus years. Now they are all gone from the site as well as many, many other forum users. It is really sad that no warning was given to us. I would gladly have paid a reasonable fee given the opportunity. Especially if I was told that all my images from over 9 years would now be gone. Surely Photobucket could have made an announcement prior. They could have announced it on the site that by this day, blank is going to happen. Every time you log on this announcement should have appeared on their website. Maybe even a check box that you had to click on before moving forward on the site. Everyone would have known and could then make their own decision what to do. The CEO from Photobucket must not be very business oriented. If I did what they did on my job I would be in the unemployment line.

Stu Benford

Andrew Richardson's picture

Man, that sucks to hear. I imagine that thousands of other users are in the same situation as you. Can't imagine Photobucket sticks to their guns on this.

Drew Pluta's picture

Oh the irony! As we're constantly reminded by every "professional" photography site of how insane we are if we don't constantly obsess over every possible Instagram and Facebook moment. You guys are aware that social media is almost entirely made up of free services aren't you?

There's a wider issue of making yourself largely rely on any third party, it's not restricted to free services. See for example Amazon's current foray out of the "unlimited storage" market that sees prices for storage increase massively, and which had a short-lived little "scandal" about locking out (incompetently managed) third party tools.

500px are currently sending out mails asking for a paltry 5 USD per year "patron" account that comes with features like a list of photos you've "liked", a slideshow feature, and… oh wait, that's it. That, to me, smells like trouble in paradise, so if you are using that to license and sell your shots, you may want to start looking for a second venue. Same goes for Flickr which has been very quiet about its future through its parent company being sold and gutted. Will either service live to see 2018? Nobody knows. Are you making a living or part of it on Youtube? Enjoy the permanent threat of their extralegal handling of copyright that can see all your content gone in a second without any legal recourse? Tumblr anyone?

This is a small lesson in hosting permanence and business continuity. Make sure you have a good grasp on what parts of your business you really control, where you are relying on external suppliers, and how you would cope if any of those ceased to function.

Eric Lefebvre's picture

THIS.
so many people buy a DSLR and say "I'm in business now" without looking into the actual business side of things ...

Backup gear, web hsoting, laws on marketing and email, copyright law, contract law, disaster recovery, insurance ... it's not all naked chicks and orgies *coughterryrichardsoncough* ... but they don't want to hear that.

:(

Eric Lefebvre's picture

"Here's a challenge: sit down and make a list of all the tech-based services you use, and see which ones cost you money."

What you are describing here is called "Due diligence" and anyone running a "business" should be doing this evaluation on a regular basis.

My own business is pretty much shut down now but still I've ept a little of it going.

What services / programs do I use that are free?

Google Photos as a secondary offsite backup.
If Google Photos went offline tomorrow, I would still have my paid amazon Prime Photos account and my 2 on site backups. I'd also pony up for a backblaze account if this happened.

Instagram / Facebook / Google +
Wouldn't care if they disappeared.

YouTube
I would be very annoyed if it went away.

Frame.io
I'd be slightly inconvenienced. Don't use it as much as I should and if I had enough work to warrant constant use I'd pony up for a paid subscription because that service is amazing.

Flickr
Ok ... I'd be pretty annoyed. I've been working on a new website for a while so my current one is down and I use my Flickr profile as my temporary portfolio so if it disapeared tommorow I'd have to get off my arse and finish my website. LOL

Dropbox / Google Drive
Wouldn't care if they disappeared.

Libre Office / Open Office (open source office suite)
I would be mildly inconvenienced if it went away and would have to go buy a copy of Microsoft Office (blargh!!!).

WinSCP (open source FTP program)
I would be seriously inconvenienced if it went away.

Notepad++ (Open source programming notepad ... used for web development mostly)
I would be mildly inconvenienced if it went away.

That's the majority of it.

I pay for my webhosting, domain name, email, video editing software (Hitfilm Pro 2017 ... so awesome), photo editing software ...

We need to minimize external risks. If my web host went out of business tomorrow I could be back up and operational in 2 to 3 days.

Andrew Richardson's picture

Exactly. You're on top of it, but sadly many people are not. Even some of my paid services are redundant (2 offsite cloud backups of my physical backup drives for instance).

I'd say this isn't Photobucket's first attempt at 'forcing' a monetary issue. Up until the end of last year I'd had a Pro (paid) account with them for many years, for which I paid monthly. Unaccountably they started to 'lose' my payments, claiming they'd failed, when I could see they hadn't. At the fourth occurrence they dumped me down to a 'free' account; I ended up having to get a refund via PayPal. They would reinstate me, they claimed, but I would have to pay an annual fee rather than monthly, a condition that had - coincidentally - just now come into being. I wasn't prepared to pay a year in advance for a 'service' which was barely usable most of the time with laughable support, so left it as 'free' pro tem.

And now here we are. I volunteer with a small dog rescue, a UK registered charity.The rescue has a Facebook page but most of our day to day 'business' is done via our forum; a forum which is now irreparably broken by Photobucket's actions. We have ten years of work, play and precious memories documented in photos there, and instead all we (and the potential adopters of dogs) are seeing is Photobucket's ugly name and graphic. Most of our supporters and volunteers are not 'techie' or pro-level photographers and many of them probably only hold a Photobucket account for the purpose of posting to our forum; they won't (and we couldn't ask them to) pay a $400 dollar subscription per year. Per year! Being a small charity we don't have the funds or personnel to run our own servers and even if we did the workload to transfer photos - even assuming we had access to them - would be formidable.

If a change had to be made by Photobucket, why did it have to work retroactively? Why with so little warning? It all seems remarkably unfair and not a little unethical. In the case of an online business it would be bad enough but at least the business would likely have most of their images to hand, whereas a forum like ours by its very nature has very little chance of being able to replace the images posted by supporters and volunteers scattered everywhere and rebuild the history now held to ransom by Photobucket.

Simon Patterson's picture

You make a good point about considering our reliance on "free" services. I've been using free email servers for far too long. This makes me vulnerable and needs to change pronto.

Aside from that, the rest of the "free" web can die instantly as far as I'm concerned...

Just as we vote or go to rallies to be heard, we must let Companies like PHOTOBUCKET.COM hear from us if we really feel the way we do and are affected by their recent actions. SO, HERE IS HOW:

As a Public Service, Here are Photobucket Direct Telephone Numbers in the US: (303)226-6801, Press 1 to Enter any of these Extensions as follows: Extension #5154 for Accounting Manager, #5163 , or any of the following Internal Extensions: 5104, 5107, 5121, 5122, 5127, 5130, 5132, 5135, 5137, 5139, 5149, 5175, 5177, as well as many other telephone extension number sequences in between the ones listed above. Alternatively, you can surpass their telephone menu system by dialing any of the extension directly, by dialing (303)+228+The 4-digit Extension Number(s).

At the very least, you will have the opportunity to leave a detailed message for any of the extensions and Let them know that they did not have to resort to this method of getting rid of their users. Since everyone who used Photobucket entered the site thru the front door, they could have easily used a pop-up banner each time you logged-on to inform you about the upcoming changes in their terms and business model, with a reasonable grace period and well in advance of their deadline.

You would think that with as many advertisements that the users had to tolerate, photobucket would have been able to successfully fund their former business model. Resorting to ransom and blackmail tactics are the tools of a failing company who has little to loose and even less in business longevity.

PLEASE Tweet or FORWARD TO AS MANY PEOPLE YOU KNOW TO BE AFFECTED BY PHOTOBUCKET.COM

Best of Luck to Everyone!

Michael Yearout's picture

Yep. You usually get what you pay for.