An industry colleague told me recently that they were building a new website. "Great," I said. "Are you using stock images, or are you hiring a photographer?"
"Neither," they said. "We're using Unsplash."
Curious, I took a look at the site, searched around to get a feel for the "service", and was appalled at the Terms and Conditions (Yep; I read them). Not only are people using these images for free, but photographers are willingly uploading their images without any expectation of compensation.
It reminded me of a long-ago argument I had in a Flickr forum with someone who stated emphatically, "If I find an image online, it's OK to use it for whatever I want. It's free." After calmly explaining copyright law and ownership of art, they refuted everything and replied with what amounted to "whatever lol".
Where do I begin: anger or education? I'll start with education.
When someone creates a piece of art -- illustration, copywriting, music, photography, painting -- they own the copyright to that. They can license it to someone else for a set period of time, or they can sell it as a work for hire. In the case of photography, the image belongs to the creator of that photograph. They can sell the copyright if they choose, but short of that, they own it.
If the photographer puts it in their website's portfolio or posts it on social media, they still own the copyright to that image. Sure, it might become popular and make the rounds, but they still own it. No one can use it for commercial purposes without a license and especially their permission. That's the law.
In addition, if the image contains a person or a building, the law requires a model or property release if that image is to be used commercially. That's also the law.
But Unsplash dispenses with all of those pesky legal requirements and instead encourages photographers to upload their images for free, without even requiring a model release for adults, children, or property. Are they aware of the immense liability to which they've exposed their company? I can't wait to see the first big lawsuit from someone whose child or portrait was used without permission by a startup that didn't know better.
If you or your creative team is using Unsplash images without model releases and without compensating photographers, you are hurting the creative industry, and you should stop. If you are a creative and using Unsplash for anything other than mood boards, you need to stop as well.
A Message for Photographers
Now, I'll move to the anger part. In this case, I'm more incredulous and shaking my head.
If you're a photographer -- freelance or full-time, amateur or pro -- giving away your images for free is doing a disservice to other photographers and creatives. You are not only taking food out of our mouths -- almost literally -- but you are preventing yourself from making a living at this craft. It's already difficult to convince clients that your years of training and experience are worth paying for.
Sure, as an aspiring pro, you might start off creating assignments for free to build your portfolio. That's part of the process. But if not, you're at the same level of wrong as photographers who charge $75 to shoot a wedding. You are killing the industry and leaving nothing left for anyone. Most of all, you're hurting yourself.
For those of us who make all or part of our living in this field, it's already tough to convince an overly thrifty client (I'm being polite) that you can do a better job with 20 years of experience than their nephew who just bought "a very expensive camera". (Also: I can't count the number of times a prospective client has asked, "What gear do you use?" Answer: It doesn't matter as long as the images are great.) Now you have to compete against free? That's not a market; it's a slaughter.
Photographer Zack Arias has expressed his surprise at the "race to the bottom of Free" in the market overall, especially as it relates to Unsplash. He's right.
I see it more as a long plummet to the bottom of the perceived "sharing economy". Although, it this case, it's not sharing; it's just stealing from hard-working creatives.
Don Lupo is a freelance photographer with over 30 years of experience in photojournalism, corporate photography, and photography education on the college level. He shoots both high-resolution digital cameras and vintage film cameras, whichever will create the desired results.