Putting Photography Online, Part I: Terms of Service

If you don’t have an online presence these days, you practically don’t exist. So it’s no surprise that many photographers, professionals and amateurs alike, feel the need to upload and even share their work on the web. Some may want their work easily accessible to clients; others build a name for themselves and gain a following. There is a wide range of photo services offered online to fulfill these needs, from portfolio-oriented sites like Zenfolio, Viewbook and NeonSky to social sites like Instagram, Flickr and 500px.

A danger with the Internet, of course, is that too many users – and even publications – seem to download, copy, and share what they find for free or without providing attribution. Making a name for yourself is important, but so is keeping the rights to your work so you can make a living from it. Here are several important elements for photographers to consider before choosing where to post their images.

Terms of Service (ToS)

Also known as Terms of Use, these are the terms to which one needs to agree in order to use a service. In software and web applications, it’s that window that pops up; a long document full of legalese that users often check “agree” to without even batting an eye.

If you don’t read the terms, you remain ignorant of the rights you are signing away. Many social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn include clauses in their ToS that grant them rights to use and reproduce your content any way they like. Check out this snippet from Twitter’s ToS:

“You retain your rights to any Content you submit, post or display on or through the Services. By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through the Services, you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed).”

This essentially means that Twitter can do nearly anything it likes with your content, outside of claiming actual copyright to it. The danger to photographers is that once an image is posted to Twitter, you can no longer sell exclusive rights to a publication, which is a potential monetary loss.

Twitter isn’t the only culprit. Late in 2012, Instagram, which was acquired by Facebook last September, announced a change to its ToS which led to a mass exodus of many photographers from its site. Among other things, the new terms included clauses stating the service could utilize users’ images and data in their advertisements.

Instagram backpedaled, but not before many users lost confidence in the service. Co-founder Kevin Systrom tried to reassure users in a blog post, saying the new ToS had been misinterpreted and that “users own their content and Instagram does not claim any ownership rights over your photos.” Some photographers are still wary.

“As a photographer, I would put something up on one of these sites only if I feel comfortable with their terms of service,” says Ramin Talaie, a New York City-based photographer whose clients include Time, the New York Times, and Getty Images.

Facebook's ToS have many photographers worried.

Facebook’s ToS have many photographers worried.

Facebook is one platform Talaie and other photographers use with special caution. Its eight-page ToS gives it license to use any content you post, to sub-license it to another company, and to retain a copy of it even after you delete your account. Aside from his personal Facebook page, Talaie has a fan page, but he almost never posts images: rather, he links to his work so that images are hosted on another website with friendlier ToS.

“It’s going to be hard in this day and age to stop using your Facebook page,” says Nina Berman, an award-winning documentary photographer and Associate Professor at the Columbia Journalism School. “What a lot of photographers do is link to another platform.”

“You can’t stop the beast, but there are ways to limit the impact,” she says of posting to social platforms.  Photographers can keep the resolution low, put a copyright stamp on the image, or link to a site they own.

When Talaie is thinking about using a site, he researches online and runs it by other photographers first to see what they think. His advice:  “Read what’s on the web, talk to friends who are using it, see what they say and see how everybody else is reacting.”

Do read the ToS or find a place online that sums it up -accurately- in plain English. The last thing you want is for photos you uploaded to the web to turn into a photographer’s copyright nightmare. Sites such as Terms of Service; Didn’t Read and other user rights initiatives can help you decipher websites’ ToS and quickly decide whether you want to use them or not.

You’ll be much safer with portfolio-type sites than with social ones, since these are usually paid platforms that make money from user accounts as opposed to leveraging user data for advertisements. Sites such as Photoshelter, Zenfolio and SmugMug have non-intrusive ToS and offer photographers  image protection such as watermarks and privacy settings, as well. If you’re posting from your smartphone, there are iPhone and Android applications that allow you to watermark your photos.

When it comes down to it, though, “there’s no surefire way to keep your picture from being shared in a way you don’t want it to be unless you keep it off the web,” says Berman. So tread carefully!

Recommended: Photoshelter, Zenfolio, Viewbook, Livebooks, NeonSky

Specialty: Fotovisura (art & documentary photographers), Blurb (for making photo books)

Use at your own discretion: Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, 500px, Facebook

Next: Choosing the Right Site to Publish Your Work

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