Squarespace Sets Dangerous Precedent With New Unsplash Partnership

Squarespace Sets Dangerous Precedent With New Unsplash Partnership

Recently, Squarespace announced a new partnership with Unsplash via their company blog.  Before we dive into why this story is worth discussing, it’d help to explain who Squarespace and Unsplash are and what they do. 

Squarespace provides its customers with clean and elegant websites, photo galleries, and online stores that can be further customized to represent an individual’s aesthetic. Or, you can just go by how they describe themselves on their About page.

Source: Squarespace.com

While Squarespace has been around for over a decade, Unsplash is a comparatively new player in the photography industry but has already made quite a name for itself. Unsplash is an online stock photo repository with a unique value proposition if you want to call it that. Every photo uploaded to Unsplash is made available completely and utterly free to anyone for any use. Don’t believe me? Here is their License agreement:

All photos published on Unsplash can be used for free. You can use them for commercial and noncommercial purposes. You do not need to ask permission from or provide credit to the photographer or Unsplash, although it is appreciated when possible.

More precisely, Unsplash grants you an irrevocable, nonexclusive, worldwide copyright license to download, copy, modify, distribute, perform, and use photos from Unsplash for free, including for commercial purposes, without permission from or attributing the photographer or Unsplash.

So, with the exception of not being able “to compile photos from Unsplash to replicate a similar or competing service,” you are free to do whatever you want with them. And say what you will about this business model, but there is no shortage of absolutely beautiful photos available for anyone to download and use however they see fit.

The Partnership

To recap, Squarespace recently announced a partnership with Unsplash where any of its paying users can search and add any of Unsplash’s 750,000+ license-free photos right from within its website builder, as illustrated on Unsplash’s Medium post sharing their side of the partnership.

Source: Unsplash via Medium

With this integration, any paying Squarespace customer (they do not offer free accounts) can seamlessly insert an Unsplash photo onto their website, whether it’s a personal blog, photo portfolio, or commercial online store. Aside from an automatically embedded link back to the photographer’s Unsplash profile, there are no further costs or licenses to deal with and the photographer doesn’t get a cent for it.

The Case for Partnership

Before making the seemingly obvious cases as to why such a partnership can be harmful to professional and amateur photographers alike, I believe it’s necessary to look at this objectively. The world would likely be a much different place if we always made a point to look at both sides of every story before grabbing the pitchforks. Mind you, I’m in no way trying to convince you. I have my own serious concerns about this news, but let’s start here.

Image by Brian Matiash | www.matiash.com

At the end of the day, Squarespace is a private, commercial company with the primary objective of making a profit. They aim to do this by providing its customers with excellent products and services. The happier their customers are, the more they’ll keep paying their recurring service subscription costs and possibly tell others about Squarespace. It’s a very straightforward business model.

A Mission to Please Everyone

Another integral part of any straightforward business model is knowing who your audience is. I discuss this in greater length here. Because such a heavy component of Squarespace’s offerings involve photography, it’d be understandable to assume that photographers make up the bulk of their audience. But, neither you nor I know that for sure.

What I do know for sure is that Squarespace wants to attract anyone interested in establishing an online presence. All you have to do is look at their customer highlight reel to see the diversity of its users. You’ve got a fashion designer, a Yoga studio owner, and, oh, Keanu Reeves.

”Whoa.” ~Keanu Reeves

While I don’t know any of these people personally, it is highly likely that all of them need impactful photography for their websites and may not be equipped to capture them on their own. So, naturally, Squarespace would like to alleviate that obstacle for their customers.

Looking at this objectively, I can certainly understand why Squarespace chose to partner with Unsplash. Look at what Unsplash offers: high quality, relevant, and completely license-free photos for anyone to use in any way they see fit. Hell, we’ve used Unsplash images on this site in some cases. 

Squarespace gets this and they know that entering into this particular partnership will improve the experience of many of their customers, which is the name of their game.

The Case Against Partnership

For a long time, Squarespace has been held in high regard among the photo community. They have also supported many podcasts as show sponsors and have established business partnerships with many photography sites.

I have several close friends, who are very successful professional photographers, that use Squarespace to host their websites and portfolio galleries. So, when I first heard about this announcement, I instinctively recoiled and probably muttered some obscene phrases to myself.

As you can imagine, a number of photographers expressed disdain for this partnership. You can read the replies on Squarespace’s announcement tweet to see for yourself. Many photographers, including existing Squarespace customers, took to social media to share their anger. But here’s the thing. At face value, these photographers aren’t necessarily angry because Squarespace entered into a new partnership with a company that can offer its customers access to a library of stock photos. After all, many companies do that. It’s why APIs exist.

Image by Brian Matiash | www.matiash.com

Rather, it is because Squarespace entered this agreement with Unsplash, in particular, that photographers got so upset. When you take a closer look at Unsplash, it’s quite easy to understand how their approach to stock photography isn’t disruptive so much as it’s destructive. When digital cameras became viable for consumers to purchase, it disrupted the photo industry. When micro-stock sites grew in popularity over traditional stock agencies, it disrupted the photo industry. This partnership between Squarespace and Unsplash, on the other hand, sets a dangerous precedent that can destroy many photographers’ ability to earn a living.

The Wedding Photographer

Let’s use the hackneyed wedding photographer example to illustrate my point. Back in the day, when the barrier to entry for photographers was much higher, successful wedding photographers could command quite a premium for their services. There weren’t nearly as many wedding photographers out there and the really good ones were able to earn quite a respectable income. Also, before the explosion of blogs and effective SEO practices, generating new clientele often required word-of-mouth referrals and more traditional marketing techniques.

As the proliferation of digital cameras, photo editing software, and online websites reached something of a critical mass, virtually anyone with enough motivation could hang up their shingle and enter the wedding photography space. Increases in market saturation quickly began to drive prices down for wedding photography services. Whereas when a certain wedding photographer may have been able to command a $15,000 fee a decade ago, today, someone could offer similar services for a fraction of that cost. Entrepreneurial wedding photographers who saw these disruptions happening evolved their business offerings to compete, while others who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, change with the times, died out.

Image by Brian Matiash | www.matiash.com

However, at no time — never — has any wedding photographer made it a point to compete by offering their services completely for free. That notion is absurd, right? Sure, the industry may have changed in a way that drove service fees down and required ingenuity in the variety of products offered, but never have we discussed using “gratis” as a competitive advantage because it is simply unsustainable.

What Unsplash has done, effectively, is exactly that but for stock photographers instead of wedding photographers. They’ve accelerated the race to the bottom for stock photographers. The reason why this is such a dangerous precedent is that, unlike wedding photographers who are commissioned in advance for their work by a wedding couple, stock photographers routinely invest their own time and money on spec with the hope that their images will generate income from licensing.

By giving its customers access to download almost a million license-free Unsplash photos, many of which are quite strong, Squarespace is effectively taking away a very real opportunity for stock photographers to have their own photos licensed.

What’s worse is that this partnership sends a very clear signal to other businesses that this is ok to do and that there are no other factors to consider so long as you can make your customers happy. Because happy customers make Squarespace more money, which is one of the most bitterly ironic points about this whole situation.

Collateral Damage

A Matter of Release

In January 2018, photographer Zack Arias shared an insightful conversation with Unsplash co-founder, Mikael Cho. In it, Arias made many cogent points about the myriad implications of Unsplash offering photos for any use without a license. I highly recommend you take the time to watch it. You should also check out Fstoppers staff writer Andy Day’s analysis of the video. The way I see it, there are two key areas of concern for Squarespace that I can’t reconcile.

Image by Brian Matiash | www.matiash.com

The first is thoroughly covered in the aforementioned Arias video and Day analysis. Namely, it boggles my mind that Squarespace would open themselves up to the risk of having one of their customers use an Unsplash photo without knowing with 100% certainty that the submitting photographer obtained the requisite release, whether it’s for a model, property or trademark. All you have to do is look at the wishy-washy way that Unsplash phrases licensing in their Terms of Service:

...Photos on the Service come with a very, very broad copyright license under the Unsplash License. This is why we say that they are “Free to Use.” Note that the Unsplash License does not include the right to use:
    
A    Trademarks, logos, or brands that appear in Photos
B    People’s images if they are recognizable in the Photos
C    Works of art or authorship that appear in Photos

If you download photos with any of these depicted in them, you *may need* the permission of the brand owner of the brand or work of authorship or individual depending on how you use the Photo.

Even if we approach this from an optics perspective, this should have caused concern for Squarespace. Imagine if Keanu Reeves added an Unsplash photo of a person to his site but the contributing photographer never obtained the requisite model release. Sadly, odds are that the model would not get to a point to be awarded damages because of Squarespace’s and Unsplash’s indemnification clauses in their respective Terms of Service. However, the whirlwind of negative publicity that could be kicked up would be terrible for Squarespace.

A Matter of Ownership

This is the second area of concern that I have. Of all the issues raised, the one that worries and angers me the most is that there is virtually nothing to stop someone from creating an Unsplash account, download a bunch of my photos, and upload them to their account. While I “respect the intellectual property of others,” as is stated on Unsplash’s upload dialog box, it’s safe to assume that there are others who don’t.

Source: Unsplash.com

And, yes, Unsplash has a boilerplate process to submit a takedown request for your photos uploaded by someone else (ironically, it’s the only article under the Abuse section of their Medium FAQ). The problem is that unless I vigilantly police this for myself, then submit a takedown request and wait for Unsplash to process it, my photos may be downloaded and used as free as the wind blows. All you have to do is read Unsplash’s answer to their FAQ question: A photo has been removed — can I still use it?

Legally, once a photo has been released under The Unsplash License it remain [sic] free-to-use, even if removed. However we recommend in cases like this, that people respect the photographers [sic] decision to remove the photo.

While this may be an unlike scenario, it is not altogether unfathomable and thus it is a real concern of mine.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Ultimately, a photographer is free to do whatever they want with their rightfully owned photos. If they want to release the copyright of their photos in exchange for artificial compensation in the form of views and downloads, and with the wide-eyed hope that it’ll lead to something more lucrative down the line, that’s their right. 

I don’t know whether Squarespace factored in the effects that this partnership may have on professional photographers, nor do I know whether they expect a certain amount of churn with existing photographer customers leaving as a result. The real issue, as it pertains to this article, is what it means for a company like Squarespace to put its weight behind Unsplash and whether doing so sets the models of earning income from certain types of photography into an accelerated obsolescence.

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68 Comments

Try to search Fstoppers for Unsplash. You’ll be surprised, how often photos from there are used.

Brian Matiash's picture

...as clearly indicated when I typed the following sentence in this very article: "Hell, we’ve used Unsplash images on this site in some cases."

Sorry, I wasn’t reading it in British English where “in some cases” means “every time we can” :)

I'm surprised and they (Fstoppers) should not.

Alex Dylikowski's picture

I read the whole article and still fo not get the point. Unsplash uses photos from where? Photographers give them up freely? So what is the fault of unsplash? Photographers are the problem

Brian Matiash's picture

This article isn't about Unsplash as much as it is about Squarespace's partnership with them. If you want to get a better idea of why Unsplash has upset so many professional photographers, I highly recommend you watch the interview between Zack Arias and their co-founder, Mikael Cho. I linked to it in the article.

Michael Jin's picture

The issue doesn't really seem to be the partnership between Squarespace and Unsplash. The issue seems to be the existence of Unsplash. The partnership doesn't allow people to do something they would not have already been able to do if it was not in place. It only makes the process easier. Any discussion about this topic is just going to be a rehashed discussion about Unsplash itself, which has been argued to death.

Alex Dylikowski's picture

But still, what is the problem with the partnership? To me the real problem are the people who give up their photos to unsplash. Why not write about them?

Motti Bembaron's picture

Agree. The service is there so people can use photos without pay and without being sued. If people (and some of them are probably photographers) are willing to give their photos for free, good for them.

Michael Holst's picture

Then isn't this entire article kind of ironic? "We're supporting this business model but want everyone else to stop what they're doing." Just because there's an admittance of participation by FS doesn't suddenly mean it's cool as long as you admit it.... it makes it worse.

Here's another thing you might want to check before writing too deep into the topic.

"Because such a heavy component of Squarespace’s offerings involve photography, it’d be understandable to assume that photographers make up the bulk of their audience. But, neither you nor I know that for sure."

This is an integral support for the entire argument and you've made it clear that you built a straw man to knock down.

SquareSpace could most likely piss on every photographer who uses them and their business would still stand because they're a website building platform. Yes lots of photographers use them but most e-commerce will come from other forms of business and not portfolio websites.

Update: Just googled "SquareSpace example websites" and a lot of "best of lists" showed up on the first page. In the first bunch of results there were ZERO photographer portfolios showcased....

Brian Matiash's picture

"SquareSpace could most likely piss on every photographer who uses them and their business would still stand because they're a website building platform."

That is the exact point I made for why a partnership makes sense for Squarespace. There isn't a straw man to intentionally knock down. None at all. There is a clear argument as to why it makes business sense for them to partner with Unsplash and I made it up above. No one is disputing that.

However, this is, first and foremost, a photography-centric website and because of that, it was important that I lay out how such a partnership could be a danger to photographers who have made a living around licensing photos and stock photography.

You also wrote, "but most e-commerce will come from other forms of business and not portfolio websites." Possible, but do you know how much "other forms of business" constitutes for their bottom line? What we can safely assume is that a significant chunk of their revenue is generated from recurring subscription costs? Assuming that, we'd then need to know how many subscribers use the platform for photography related purposes and could possibly be jilted enough to leave. I'm not saying that "other forms of business" don't generate income for Squarespace, but it's not exactly accurate to write that "most e-commerce will come from other forms of business" without understanding what that means. You also googled example websites and that's fine, but, again, it's not a very reliable indicator.

The one fair point you made, that I fully acknowledge, is that some writers have used Unsplash articles here. I totally get that and anticipated such a response. However, I can only write for myself—based on my own actions—and I don't believe it justified not writing this article altogether.

Michael Holst's picture

"Because such a heavy component of Squarespace’s offerings involve photography, it’d be understandable to assume that photographers make up the bulk of their audience. But, neither you nor I know that for sure." -This is where you started to build the man of straw.

You basically said you were going to base your following arguments against the partnership off of how much it's going to hurt photographers and yes, you did admit that you can't know for sure but to make this a major point (that photographers make up a bulk of their audience) is the same as saying I'm going to go ahead and use baseless assumptions.

You cant refute my point in favor of yours when you have even less support for it outside of assumptions... A baseless assumption is less supportive of your argument than me finding examples of how many other forms of business are compatible with Squarespace. How big was the photography "bulk" in those examples? It just paints a more realistic picture. One that shows a possible reality that photographers really aren't the bread a butter for Squarespace that you'd like to assume.

All of this aside, The REAL problem seems to be about how photography is valued. Going after Squarespace because they see an opportunity isn't going to change the fact that the world seems to care less and less about photographers because we're a saturated industry. How a bout doing more research into why someone would give up photos for free use? That should probably be answered first. Unsplash isn't forcing any of their contributors to do it.... so why are they? The photography industry needs to start pointing the finger at itself more often.

I guess the real irony will come when a photographer creates a Squarespace portfolio site and then uses an Unsplash image somewhere on their website to infer that it's theirs.

Johnny Rico's picture

Call me dense but what idiot photographers give these photos to Unsplash? Whats the incentive.

Nick Viton's picture

Some photographers might want their pictures seen by the world, rather than just having them reside on their hard drives.

Brian Matiash's picture

Basically what Nick wrote. There are photographers who are cool with giving away complete copyright to their photos. Full stop.

Now, some do it solely out of the goodness of their hearts. Others are looking to trade copyright for reach/views. A subset of those photographers hopes that will lead to some form of a business opportunity.

Still, they do not make a single cent from Unsplash.

Jeff McCollough's picture

Yup super lame. At least put them on SS or Adobe Stock and make something while retaining the rights.

Michael Jin's picture

SS and Adobe Stock actually have standards regarding submissions.

Jeff McCollough's picture

Yes but a lot of what is on Unsplash is pretty decent yet they give it all away for free.

Michael Holst's picture

Probably because photography is getting easier and easier to do as a hobby and some people don't need or want to make money off of it and would gladly provide their images for free so they can maybe see them in use and say "Hey look I made that!" and that's all they want.

Motti Bembaron's picture

I have tons of travel and vacation photos I would have no problem sharing with others. Could not care less. It would be actually nice to see them around :-)

William Faucher's picture

I was curious about Unsplash, and gave it a go. Willingly uploaded some of my shots. What I didn't expect was the sheer amount of exposure I got. I had way, way, way more people seeing my work, well over the the tens of thousands, and in return, getting more followers on Instagram and substantially increased website traffic.

I'm not totally onboard with Unsplash, and what it means for us photographers and the value of our work, but I was quite surprised nonetheless.

Michael B. Stuart's picture

I have exactly 8 photos uploaded to Unsplash. It is more of an experiment than anything for me. I enjoy reverse-searching the images to see where they have been used. I purposefully uploaded some generic shots, and no surprise a glass of beer tops the downloads! https://unsplash.com/@stustustudio

Even worse. Picture this. As a photographer, you see someone using your photos without your consent. They answer they got it from unsplash. You say it's not possible because you don't upload there. They say they got it there. You look after and don't find it. They say it probably has been taken down.
I bet it will be hard to prove wether it was ever on unsplash or not, and that's basically a free license for any photo on the internet for anyone. Yeah. Thank you unsplash.

Brian Matiash's picture

Yup. The fact that there are virtually no barriers preventing someone from uploading your photos to their site and then have them go out to the world is stupefying.

Peter Stewart's picture

This part I think is especially concerning. Reminds me of times when I've chased up people for unauthorized use, only to find out they've download my image from some wallpaper website who in turn stole the image from somewhere, and re-uploaded it marked at "copyright free".

Michael B. Stuart's picture

In Unsplash's defense, they actually use tools to make sure you are the photographer that took the photo. I had to verify some of my uploads after they were flagged as being similar to photos found on the web. All the referenced spots were simply my social media shares of the photo, but the process made me feel better about the validity of their platform.
All that being said, I'm not sure this Squarespace thing is good for photographers.

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