Unsplash: How Free is Free?

Posted on 2/21/2018 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Since its launch in 2013 Unsplash has been providing a platform where photographers can upload their images for the enjoyment of others. The photographers allow anyone to use their images for free, for any purpose and without credit.

While the photo library only contains 400,000 photos (compared to the 180 million on Shutterstock), the company says it’s had more than 48 billion photo views and 310 million photo downloads since launch. Currently, it is seeing 10 photo downloads per second.

Unsplash claims that the photos can be used “for any purpose” without risk to the customer or the photographer, but Zack Arias has some doubts about that. He recently sent request to a number of Unsplash photographers who had posted images of people. He posed as wanting to use the photographer’s image in a commercial project. For this reason, he asked the photographer to send him a signed copy of the model release for the people in the pictures.

Many of the people he contacted didn’t know where they could find a “model release form,” or what information needed to be included. He setd them copies of standard releases that could be filled out and signed.

Some forwarded these release to the subjects. The releases came back partially filled out. One came back from a 16-year-old minor without any parent approval.

One picture was of the photographer’s two minor sons. At first the photographer said, “they are my sons, you can use the picture,” without any question about how the picture would be used. When Arias insisted that he needed a signed copy of a release the photographer sent back the release with “Brother Pic” in the block where the boys names should have appeared, with no age or address information and the photographer’s unreadable signature.
One woman said the picture was of her husband and “It’s OK, you can use the picture.” No signed release was supplied.

Some said the pictures were of their girlfriends, but no signed releases were supplied.

One photographer said the picture was of his nephew. His brother-in-law didn’t want to sign a release, but was OK with having the picture posted on Unsplash. It is unclear whether the brother-in-law believes all commercial users will be as diligent as Mr. Arias about requesting releases, or will they just grab the picture that is supposed to be available for “free use” and use it in any way they please.

The Unsplash general License says, ““You can use them (the pictures) for commercial and noncommercial purposes. You do not need to ask permission from or provide credit to the photographer.

“More precisely, Unsplash grants you an irrevocable, nonexclusive copyright license to download, copy, modify, distribute, perform, and use photos from Unsplash for free, including for commercial purposes, without permission from or attributing the photographer or Unsplash.”

Buried in the 5,136 word Terms and Conditions is the following: “This means that Photos on the Service come with a very, very broad copyright license under the Unsplash License. This is why we say that they are “Free to Use.” Note that the Unsplash License does not include the right to use:
    •    Trademarks, logos, or brands that appear in Photos
    •    People’s images if they are recognizable in the Photos
    •    Works of art or authorship that appear in Photos
If you download photos with any of these depicted in them, you may need the permission of the brand owner of the brand or work of authorship or individual depending on how you use the Photo.”
But, how many users of the images will dig that deep?

One suspects that most of the image creators and many of the image users have no idea how much FREE may cost them when they post images on Unsplash or use Unsplash images and it turns out the subject of the photograph is unhappy.

For more information about Zack Arias’ analysis of Unsplash see his 42 minute video here (the part about model releases starts around minute 9) and his 53 minute interview with Mikael Cho, CEO of Unsplash, here.

Copyright © 2018 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 www.selling-stock.com, 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: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


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