Photos? We’re giving ’em away!

Mikael Cho, founder of Unsplash – an online ‘photo community’ where contributors waive their copyright for free commercial use – has been slammed by photographers for creating a platform which devalues their skills.

Mikael Cho, founder of Unsplash and Crew.

PDN Pulse was first to recently tear into Unsplash, which was founded in 2013, calling it a ‘new low’ and its Terms ‘truly jaw-dropping’ as photographers willingly provide free commercial use of all their high-res photos.

Despite this, the website reportedly has nearly 40,000 active contributors and around 200,000 photos. Last year 144 million ‘beautiful photos gifted by the world’s most generous community of photographers’ were downloaded from the site.

Cho claims his platform was built to help ‘freelance designers’ or ‘an entrepreneur strapped for cash’. Yet Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Lonely Planet and Pringles – not exactly strapped-for-cash start-ups – are just a few corporations exploiting the free Unsplash images.

‘Yes, there will be people who use Unsplash photos freely who may have hired a photographer if Unsplash didn’t exist,’ Cho said. ‘But by giving photos, Unsplash contributors create a new opportunity for millions of other people to find their work.’ (And use it for free!)

Unsplash was formed as an ‘antithesis’ to stock agencies, which have steadily devalued stock photography.

A screen grab showing a handful of the 89 free Sydney photos.

PDN observes that although Unsplash gives away contributors’ copyright licenses, compiling photos to ‘replicate a similar or competing service’ to Unsplash violates the company’s terms. However, is there anything to stop Getty from hoovering up and selling Unsplash photos, just like it did with public domain photos by American photographer Carol Highsmith?

‘While we can’t prevent anyone from selling Unsplash photos, we don’t support it,’ the Unsplash FAQs explain. ‘It goes against the spirit of the Unsplash community and our values. We aim to empower people who contribute photos freely. By taking the photos and charging for them directly, this harms this empowerment and is therefore, something we cannot stand behind.’

Unsplash doesn’t appear to generate profit directly from photos. Rather, the business acts as the main referral source to Crew, Cho’s business that connects people with professional (paid) designers and developers.

In 2014 Cho boasted that Unsplash saved Crew, which was close to failure. He hired a photographer for a shoot and made the 10 unused high-res photos available for free use on a Tumblr blog he called ‘Unsplash’. He shared the photos to an online community of developers and designers, and Unsplash went viral – in the process sending thousands of prospects to Crew.

In a bid to convince photographers Unsplash is a positive development (no really, what’s so funny?), Cho recently wrote an opinion piece published in Dpreview and Petapixel. He argues that a ‘licensed (stock) photo is losing its value’ and the internet has all but destroyed the value of holding onto copyright. Shutterstock contributors’ annual earnings  have fallen by half, from US$1194 to US$511, in just two years. At this rate, might as well let those photos go free, he argues.

Unplash provides photographers with, yep, ‘valuable exposure’. (Although actually crediting photographers is only encouraged, it isn’t mandatory.)

Each time a photo is downloaded the contributor receives a notification, and the downloader has the option to ‘say thanks’. This, it is argued, might lead to opportunities – real, paid work.

‘New platforms don’t kill industries. They change the distribution,’ Cho wrote. ‘Online platforms have opened up an opportunity for so many people to share their craft with huge audiences instantly. New platforms create a distribution channel and community we otherwise wouldn’t have. In this sense, there’s never been a better time to be a creator.’  (If only creators could buy stuff with exposure!)

Cho said almost 70 percent of those using Unsplash would have never paid for a photo, and are using the images in ‘presentations, blogs, or personal projects’. – Leaving photographers potentially unpaid by the remaining 30 percent.

‘Every industry evolves. Things will change. We can’t be resistant to change no matter how much today’s world benefits us. We face the same fact that every artist and business must face: what we offer today will eventually be obsolete. We can choose to be upset with this fact or understand it is inevitable and continue to adapt,’ he concludes in his article.

‘If you do it right, you’ll be the one to disrupt yourself. You’ll be out in front of the pack. You’ll help determine the new value. That’s what we’re looking to do for photography. That’s what we’re looking to do for the creative community. We’re all in the same boat. When the creative industry benefits, we all benefit.’

Cho’s words were not taken kindly by photographers.

The most liked comment on Dpreview said: ‘Yeah, let us all give away photos for free so the Unsplash team can keep profiting from us, suckers. We are promised “exposure” and Mr Cho pockets big bucks from our creative content. Fair deal, right?’

The second most popular comment: ‘Doing something for “free”, be it uploading photographs or computer programming so that somebody else can make a commercial profit, is wrong. I don’t care how the author tries to spin it,’ commented reader, Scott Eaton. ‘Conventional economics dictates that this results in deflating a market, and deflation is wrong. I have no issue with distributing images for free for free purposes. Somebody is making money somewhere from this – just not the creator – and that’s ethically wrong.’

The majority of readers are furious with Unsplash devaluing photography, and Cho’s gall in defending a business which – unless photographers actually start paying for their work to be used – has truly won the ‘race to the bottom’.


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