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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.