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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Previous comments
david madden's picture

I don't think that could stand up in court. If you can prove its yours but they can't prove where they got it. Possession is nine-tenth

In most cases, that doesn't matter. It's only relevant to go to court if you're going to get MUCH more than you will spend to do it. Also, the "much" is important here because of the hassle and time you will invest in this. That's why even a detailed contract is most of the time useless too. A basic one will suffice for projects under 10k. Because it's only as relevant as the power you have to enforce it if things go sideways.

Jonathan Brady's picture

If you're throwing wood on the fire you probably shouldn't complain when it rages out of control.
Now, let's get back to harassing FStoppers about NOT supporting the community that supports them: stop using Unsplash, you hypocrites.

Brian Matiash's picture

Considering that I'm fairly new here as a staff writer, I'm not exactly sure what you mean about not supporting the community. But cool.

As for fires raging out of control, I'm not sure what led you to such a melodramatic reply. The article simply points out both sides of the partnership and how it could prove to be damaging to certain areas of the photo industry. Whether or not other writers have used images from Unsplash is mutually exclusive.

Jonathan Brady's picture

Instead of using unsplash, FStoppers could pay any of the (tens of?) thousands of photographers that frequent the site for their photos for articles. That's what I mean.
It's not mutually exclusive. Snag one of these for FStoppers office space and let everyone ponder it... https://despair.com/products/irresponsibility

I am curious what is fstoppers' policy about the images they use on their posts. Do they pay the photographers ? Or not (and if so, why) ?

michaeljin's picture

"Whether or not other writers have used images from Unsplash is mutually exclusive."

While I agree that it is a separate issue, you have to understand how bad the optics are. As far as articles go, this was a rather poor choice simply for the reason that other people have already pointed out—Fstoppers writers regularly use Unsplash photos.

Sure, you can only speak for yourself, but it's not unreasonable for the community to expect that the site itself enforce standards among its writers when it comes to the photography used for articles. Fstoppers tolerating its writers using photos from Unsplash and then publishing an article from one of its writers about the detrimental impact of Unsplash was just asking for a backlash.

As far as the issue of personal responsibility on your part, you might certainly disagree with Unsplash, but you've stated that you know that writers on Fstoppers use the service and yet made your own decision to write for this website. I think that's worth bringing up.

For the record, I have no issue with Unsplash. All they've done is provide a centralized platform to do what people have already been doing on much more ambiguous terms throughout the history of the internet. I can see how it's a disturbing thing for professional stock and advertising photographers, but frankly speaking, the genie is already out of the bottle and it isn't going back in. Industries change and sometimes disappear. The game is to adapt or die. Unsplash is just an effect of the sharing economy (I use the word "economy" loosely here), not one of the causes of it and it wouldn't even be a thing if not for the active participation of hundreds of photographers who are willing to give their images away for whatever reason.

Professional photographers aren't being snuffed out by Unsplash, micro-stock, etc. Ultimately, they're being snuffed out by other photographers that are willing to work for cheaper. That's what happens when the barrier to entry is lowered and technology allows people to more easily produce good results. It's only going to get worse as the tools get cheaper and better.

Michael Holst's picture

"Professional photographers aren't being snuffed out by Unsplash, micro-stock, etc. Ultimately, they're being snuffed out by other photographers that are willing to work for cheaper. That's what happens when the barrier to entry is lowered and technology allows people to more easily produce good results. It's only going to get worse as the tools get cheaper and better."

This is THE issue facing the photography industry.

It's nice to see someone in here with an understanding of basic economics.

Jeff McCollough's picture

There are tons of photographers on YouTube that promote SquareSpace. Kind of ironic.

Alex Harris's picture

The worst thing for me about the partnership is that they're apparently also giving the images on my SS site to Unsplash!!!

Here's a quote from my email comms with them about this: The partnership "...does take the photography or images that are currently on your site and upload them to Unsplash..." !!

Are you kidding me?!? No way I ever gave permission for that.

Jeff McCollough's picture

So Shutterstock sends your images to Unsplash?

Jeff McCollough's picture

Ah sorry. Us in the stock industry refer to Shutterstock as SS. It has been around way longer than Squarespace hahaha.

Dan Hawk's picture

No. Shutterstock has nothing to do with any of this.

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

Okay, THIS comment is the most relevant among all the other opinions and even the reporting in the article itself.
Today is the first I'd heard of Unsplash and it sounds like a great platform for photographers who want to give away all rights to their work for NO compensation....whoever those people are, I don't want to be among them.
But you, Alex Harris, are claiming something else entirely, that your portfolio pictures posted on Squarespace will be made available for free to other people on Unsplash. If that's what's going on, it should be the main point of this story.
Is there anyone else who knows more about this? (I don't have a Squarespace account, but have been considering them)

Alex Harris's picture

Right, exactly what I was surprised - astonished! - by.

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

Frankly, I'm surprised that wasn't in the article. That should have been the lede.
So, you're saying Squarespace TOLD you that's what will happen to your photos whether or not you wanted it? That's huge!

Jonathan Brady's picture

THAT is alarming! Did you ask for clarification, just in case that particular employee misunderstood the direction handed down from above?
If that is the case, I have to assume that Square Space is about to get some SERIOUS backlash.

Alex Harris's picture

Exactly. I asked for clarification yesterday, hopefully I'll get it on the coming days...

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

Thanks, I'll be watching these pages in case you have a chance to add more info.

Christian Santiago's picture

Can you provide a link or something to verify this? The email i got from squarespace does not mention this. If this is true, then this SHOULD be the biggest point of the story and if it is true, I'll delete my squarespace sites today and go somewhere else.

Alex Harris's picture

So after I asked more info about their partnership with Unsplash, here's their first reply:

"...While we can’t provide you with any legal advice, you can learn more about the ownership of your sites content in sections two and five of our Terms of Service, found here:


Regarding that integration with Unsplash, that just allows you to more easily use images that have been uploaded to Unsplash by their creators, and add those free stock images to your site. That integration does take the photography or images that are currently on your site and upload them to Unsplash or add them to their service.

You can read more about our integration with that company in this guide:

https://support.squarespace.com/hc/en-us/articles/360001994067-Unsplash-... ....."

Then, the main context of my response:

"...I didn’t give you permission to give away my work to another company, partner, individual or third party for them to take and use it for free and however they want to, including commercial, or advertising use. According to the terms of service you mentioned, you can only use my content to promote your services. Section 8 even mentions “...We respect the intellectual property of others …” ..."

And their answer today:

"Sorry to hear about your disappointment and for reaching out with your concerns.

We value your feedback and are surfacing your thoughts to the appropriate teams. We'll take them into consideration as we explore future platform improvements and integrations.

While we will be very sorry to see you leave if that would be your decision, we'll understand it. ..."

So I'm just stating the facts here, based on the comms so far. Up to you folks to decide what to do with it.

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

Thank you Alex Harris for delving deeper and posting the replies you received from Squarespace.

The terms of service mentioned in those linked pages do NOT state that photographs posted in hosted websites will be made available to Unsplash customers, in fact there's some wording about how "you" own the rights and can even choose to opt out of Squarespace featuring "your" pictures in their own self promotion.

However, their reply to you seems to suggest that they WILL in fact be making your pictures available to everyone as part of their "integration"...so I'm still puzzled at which one is the truth.

Are we over-reacting regarding this possibility, or is Squarespace not telling you everything? Considering that large social media companies are routinely caught lying to the public about their practices, it's not out of line to be concerned about this...especially with their pulling out that "we'll be sorry to see you leave" stuff.

Thanks again for your efforts.

Thank you, Alex, for sharing.
Is there the slight chance that there is a typo in Squarespace's answer? The word "not" missing in the sentence "That integration does take the photography or images ..."? Stuff like that happens.
I'm not a native speaker (but I've lived in the US for the last 12 years) and to me that sentence sounds a bit awkward as a response to the question whether your images will be uploaded to Unsplash.
The word "just" in the previous sentence might indicate that the integration ONLY makes it easier to use images from Unsplash in Squarespace. If the integration would also transfer images from Squarespace web sites to Unsplash, I would expect a word like "also" in the second sentence, and also a simpler sentence, like "That integration also makes images of your site available at Unsplash." Maybe followed with some marketing language why that is a great thing.
In my humble opinion, the 2nd sentence in that paragraph makes more sense if read as "That integration does "NOT" take the photography or images that are currently on your site and upload them to Unsplash or add them to their service."
I wouldn't be really surprised if Squarespace would upload images from sites hosted by them to Unsplash. But I'd ask them for clarification once more.

Alex Harris's picture

So I can put our fears at rest after all on this issue:

I recently got another mail from a team leader at Squarespace. Turns out there was indeed a mistake in the earlier reply, it should have read: "This integration does not take the photography or images that are currently on your site and upload them to Unsplash or add them to their service."

Duane Dinham's picture

Okay, I requested a direct answer to this question, and Squarespace got back to me quickly, This is direct from the message: "Your images that you have uploaded to Squarespace onto your site will not be available for others to use on Unsplash." I was concerned, but it seems no need.

I don't get this article at all only if it's viewed as a stock photographers rant about making less money. And even then it's kind of odd. It's not like squarespace users can't use unsplash images now. All this does is makes it easier. We should then ban all free design resources as well, every damn lightroom preset out there should be hacked and destroyed and at it's core - you should also destroy squarespace while at it, because it is doing to web designers and graphic designers exactly what you are saying about unsplash and photography (or to refference the collaboration - every hosting service that has wordpress pre-built in). Also, Leica should probably be burnt to ground as they are surely causing (and will cause even more) photographers to loose out on small-time events that would have needed a photographer for a few press release pics, but now can be done with a huawei phone.

As I said, this makes no sense, there are free services out there and there are collaborations of brands and some always loose and some win from them, but the world ir rotating non stop and changes come to any profession out there, including as technologically driven as photography in a world thats getting more connected and tied together each day.

Dan Hawk's picture

I'm a professional photographer that makes most of my living selling photography services to businesses to use on their websites and social media. It's frustrating that the company I pay to host my website offers their clients a free way to get photos.

Their marketing message is pretty clear. Everyone deserves beautiful imagery and it can be free. That means every time I make a bid or negotiate with a client who uses Squarespace, I'm negotiating against Free.

That sucks.

I'm not saying there weren't free options out there already, but you kind of expect the companies you do business with, and who you pay for their services- to understand.

Dana Goldstein's picture

What I’m curious to watch is, bc of the number of high-profile YouTube photographers whose channels are sponsored by SquareDpace, if they will remain silent on this issue in order to preserve that financial relationship with their sponsor.

Jeff McCollough's picture

I bet they will keep kissing Squarespace's butt for the money they can get now instead of thinking about the long run.

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