Every now and then, a new service makes the news, and everyone jumps onboard (Have you checked Vero for example? People say it’s the new Instagram killer).

Some are clearly here to stay and have a positive impact on our industry. And others… well, fall into oblivion.

This one, I feel, is sadly here to stay. And this industry is already so tough, with so many people picking up a camera thinking that’s all there is to it.

What is it then?

So for the few readers on here who don’t know what Unsplash is, it’s essentially a website dedicated to sharing copyright-free photography under the Unsplash license. It means that people can upload their pictures for free in exchange for exposure. And who doesn’t like free right?

The difference in this instance is that the people who download images from Unsplash can, literally, do anything they like with the image, commercial or not.

A-NY-THING AT ALL. Even promote a white supremacist group if that’s what they fancied. Scary you say?

Does it work though?

Some people seem to say that it really worked for them during the early days of the platform (when it was still on tumblr). The guys at Crew think they were smart (I guess they were), and they clearly benefitted from this and have no shame saying it.

But what will happen to the rest of us? The ones of us who MAKE this industry? It seems very clear to me that this is hugely damaging to our industry in the long run.

It’s also making upcoming photographers believe that shortcuts do exist. And I promise you they don’t.

So why do I HATE it so much?

Yeah sure, you could say that I hate it because it doesn’t work for me and that if it did, maybe I’d sing a different song. Maybe so.

Look at these guys, they love it don’t they? They even got work from it.

But for every single photographer doing well on unsplash there are thousands upon thousands that will be completely invisible and taken advantage of. We are being taken advantage of, and we seem to love thanking them for it!

Are we sheep?

Yes, is the short answer i guess.

It’s a conversation with my good friend (and co-founder of Soda) Paul Bence — who has been very active online in the last couple of years (you should check out his street photography!) — that prompted me to look deeper into the service to see what it really was.

He swore that: “it worked fairly well for him and that it could be the way forward” until… i knocked some sense into him! Just kidding.

But more seriously, how many of its users have looked under the hood before giving away all rights to their images…? And how many were convinced after reading some success stories online like Samuel Zeller’s story.

The Shift

Then came along Zack Arias. We love Zack! And Zack agrees — He is the one who prompted me to write this piece by posting a great video on his youtube channel which, I strongly advise you to watch if you have 40mins to spare. In his video, he makes the same case I’m trying to make today.

If you don’t have the time (or patience) to watch it, here’s the gist:

  • It sounds too good to be true. Because it is. There’s no real engagement with your images when users download them.
  • Photos of identifiable people may — or may not — have a model release (unsplash won’t do the checks for you) — unlike legitimate stock photo agencies. Therefore Photographers are liable for issues arising due to not having the proper licenses / releases for them
  • Photos have no more values, they are simply a free commodity.
  • Once a photo is submitted to Unsplash, there is no going back (no delete option) — it is irrevocable.
  • Unsplash doesn’t tell you that it is YOUR responsibility to check you are in your right when uploading a picture. There’s no due diligence on their part.
  • GDPR is going to affect photography massively, and even more so street photography like what Paul shoots and shares on social media and online. How do you think it’s going to work with Unsplash’s business model?
  • There’s very very few photographers actually having a better career thanks to Unsplash, except maybe Samuel Zeller.

And the crunch, from Zack’s mouth (watch it yourself here), word for word:

“If that’s a picture of your girlfriend and she doesn’t mind? My friend, you are one pissed off ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend away from a law suit. Let me make this as clear as possible: If a photographs is used in a commercial sense and it is not model released, you — as the photographer — are liable. You can be taken to court and sued. it’s THAT simple.”

And the nail in the coffin from Lawyer Carolyn E. Wright (from the website):

“Proceed with caution with dealing with Unsplash. Photographers who contribute photos there may find themselves in a lawsuit for a variety of reasons. While an end user clearly has the responsibility to secure permission for a commercial use of a photo of a recognizable person (as evidenced by a model release), stock agencies and photographers have been sued for right of privacy/right of publicity claims when posting and/or offering for licensing photos of people.”

So what’s next?

I don’t know guys — but it sounds like today we are in an era of carelessness and instant gratification. And if that’s where the world is headed, then I’m not sure I want to follow the trends.

I mean, I get why people love free and it’s not going away anytime soon. WE love free here at soda. But I think we should be careful to not cross that imaginary line.

I genuinely hope we don’t end up in a position where there will be no more budgets for photographers to keep creating current, original content. It’s already been decreasing massively over the last few years.