Instagram Claims Right To Sell Photos: Backs Down Later

Posted on 12/19/2012 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

On December 17th Instagram proposed dramatic changes in its "terms of service" that would give the company the right to sell users' photos without payment or notification, effective January 16, 2013. This sparked immediate outrage and revolt among Instagram contributors concerned that their photos would be sold for advertising or marketing purposes and undermine their own direct revenue streams. Many started removing images from the site. The next day Instagram reversed itself and pledged to “remove” the language that sparked the revolt.

In a blog post the company said, "We've heard loud and clear that many users are confused and upset about what the changes mean. We're going to modify specific parts of the terms to make it more clear what will happen with your photos. It is not our intention to sell your photos."  However, at this point there are no indications as to the specifics of the changes.

The new terms of use are littered with changes throughout, but the biggest changes come in the “Rights” section. One of the many items says, “you agree that a business or other entity may pay us (Instagram) to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.”

In addition by contributing images to Instagram “you hereby grant to Instagram a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to use the Content that you post on or through the Service, except that you can control who can view certain of your Content and activities on the Service as described in the Service's Privacy Policy, available here:”

At the LeWeb conference in Paris Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom tried to explain what the company had in mind in making the change, “We envision a future where both users and brands alike may promote their photos and accounts to increase engagement and to build a more meaningful following. Let's say a business wanted to promote their account to gain more followers and Instagram was able to feature them in some way. In order to help make a more relevant and useful promotion, it would be helpful to see which of the people you follow also follow this business. In this way, some of the data you produce -- like the actions you take (eg, following the account) and your profile photo -- might show up if you are following this business.”

While changes will be made there is no guarantee they will be satisfactory. At the very least photographers with images on Instagram should carefully examine the final version of the new terms when they come out. There is no way to opt out of the proposed agreement. Under the proposed agreement the only way to prevent images from being used is to remove them and delete the account before January 16th. To remove an Instagram account you must go to Those who want to download their photos from Instagram may want to check out Instaport which has the capability of downloading your entire Instagram library in a few minutes.

Is Everyone Unhappy?

While most photographers who create images for a living are opposed to Instagram’s new policies, a significant percentage of Instagram’s almost 100,000 contributors feel differently. Here are two comments Bob Croxford found on the BBC’s blog.

    I love Instagram and I have over 1700 photos on it, they are small images and I would not post anything I'd not want the world seeing as my account is public. I would feel rather proud if they used any of my photos! If you don't like it then leave Instagram :-)) Simple.??

    I'm not really bothered by this. I mean it's not like I'm currently making any money off my Instagram photos, I never thought I would make any money off my Instagram photos. ??If I wanted to sell photos for a living I'd set up my own portfolio site that I fully manage (and pay for) and can make a profit off. If Instagram want to sell my Instagram photo's, it's no skin off my back.?
The Competitors

Google's policy, by contrast, does not permit the company to sell photographs uploaded through Picasa or Google+. It says: "The rights you grant in this license are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our services." Google owns Instagram competitor Snapseed.

Flickr says,”your photos are always yours" and is encouraging those who remove their images from Instagram to upload them on Flickr.

To cover its costs Blipfoto charges a "small annual subscription" and doesn’t try to monetize its photos by selling them to third parties.

A Society Of Greed

Instagram has a problem. They have created a free service that costs a lot to operate, but generates no revenue. They need to find some way to pay their engineers, marketing people and lawyers as well as provide some type of return for their investors.

Given the huge number and variety of images on the site only a miniscule percentage will ever end up as part of major advertising campaigns, or go viral. On the other hand the work of the next Picasso or Rembrandt may already be on Instagram. When discovered don’t these individuals deserve some small share of the revenue their work will generate?

But there are other ways images can be used. Access to user's photos “along with any associated metadata,” (meaning geo-tracking tags) also has value. Ad people salivate at the marketing advantage of knowing a potential buyer’s location, the more precise the better. Sophisticated multimedia analytics are a very big business. It makes sense for Instagram to try to sell the data photos offer. In many cases the data may be of more value than the artistic merits of the photo.

Assuming there is some money to be made, why do the web site operators think they are entitled to 100% of it, while the people who supply the raw materials – the data – are entitled to nothing? Do they think farmers should donate the food they produce to food processing companies so those companies can make an even larger profit?

Instagram could have offered creators a small percentage of the revenue generated and there would have been very little complaint. In fact, such an action would probably stimulate creation and give them an even more robust set of data to mine. We could argue over what that percentage should be, but microstock and even traditional sellers with multiple distributor cuts have set a low standards. Creators are willing to work for them because they are earning something and their contribution is being recognized..

It is amazing that a company that exists to distribute imagery has no respect for image creators and is unwilling to acknowledge that images have value other than simple entertainment for their creators. Sad to say, greed will probably win out and the next “term of service” offer may not be much better than the last.

Copyright © 2012 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


  • Larry Minden Posted Dec 19, 2012
    If only there was as strong a negative reaction to photo competitions granting the sponsors the right to monetize submitted images without benefit to the photographer!

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