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The Days of Royalty-Free Images From Unsplash May Be Numbered

It’s already not news that Unsplash is being, or has been, acquired by Getty Images, possibly the largest and most powerful controller of images in the known universe.

Some of you will be aware of 500px — the internet’s glorious repository of stunning photography. Aside from the content, the website itself was a thing of beauty, with attention lavished on presentation for the user.

500px was a photographer’s photography site, and all images were released for use under the Creative Commons license. That was until they were acquired (in a roundabout way) by Getty when the focus, no pun intended, turned to revenue generation in favour of Creative Commons licensing.

Is this the way Unsplash will go? Will that be so bad if it does?

The Unsplash press release March 30th 2021

In the Unsplash press release, it’s clear from their conversations back in 2016 that they understood Getty’s model was always geared towards revenue generation, but it’s not entirely clear how this conversation has evolved since.

Unsplash gave the impression that they always believed Getty would respect the Unsplash community; “…our mission of Photos for Everyone remains unchanged.” Perhaps they now realise this may not be the case. Perhaps they knew all along.

As one observer interpreted the press release as:

“We were worried about Getty because they’re all about copyright, but after talking for years, we’ve learned they’re really all about copyright.”

There’s a lot of negativity about the Getty running roughshod over Unsplash users and photographers.

One Twitter user said, “What about the thousands of photographers who basically created Unsplash with their work?” And a certain Medium writer responded with: “License belongs to the original artists, as they provided the content to Unsplash for zero pence. Getty should never sell those images.”

It’s naive to think Getty would begin charging to use a photo that a photographer had uploaded for free. What about revenue sharing? Other platforms already work in this way, including the likes of 500px and Pixabay, where you (the photographer) upload your photos and set a price, from which the platform takes a fee. How is this detrimental to the photographer?

Where’s the value in the acquisition?

Building the value in a business used to be about profitability and growth potential, but the dot-com bubble changed that forever. So much so, as Brian McCullough from stated in 2018:

“By 1999, losing money was the mark of a successful dot-com.”

No wonder so many people lost so much money.

After the bubble burst, community, not profit, became tradeable. The reason so many big names such as Instagram, SnapChat ($860m), Waze ($1bn), WhatsApp ($21.8bn), Pinterest ($12bn) and many, many others were given such ludicrously high valuations was nothing to do with profitability (most of them had no revenue stream) and everything to do with the community — the number of users.

2m photos, 240,000 contributing photographers, 190,000 developers with thousands of partner integrations, tens of millions of users and 3 billion downloads. Unsplash has quite a community, and that’s what Getty will be interested in because they’ll want to monetise some or all of it at some point.

Show me the money

Who can blame Unsplash, really?

They’re not selling their users down the river, they’re simply doing what any savvy organisation would do. Unsplash will not be subsumed by Getty, they will be a partner, much like iStock, and the business will evolve accordingly.

Many businesses start out with altruistic intentions and continue to fulfil their promise based on their belief system — that is until Mr Corporate comes knocking, waving wads of cash in their face. But it’s a business, after all.

Unsplash already had a revenue stream from a very clever system of branded photos. Brands create photos that appear for specific search terms, giving exposure to the brand in return for a fee. So, searching for ‘register’ on Unsplash brings up a range of cash-register photos, many of which were created by the brand ‘Square’. You get to use a current, quality, tech solution photo with no licensing issues, and Square gets brand exposure out there ‘for free’. Clever.

What does this all mean for writers on platforms such as Medium, Vocal Media or private websites/blogs?

Very little is free forever, and people shouting ‘outrage’ at Unsplash’s decision are wrong. Why? because we each have a choice. Unsplash is not the only free image library on the planet. There are plenty of others, many with some of the exact same photos available on Unsplash because the photographer chose to upload them to multiple libraries.

Unsplash wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last.

Being able to use free images in your Medium articles is a LUXURY, not a given. Granted, those of you who don’t come from any sort of publishing or print background won’t appreciate the real value in being able to use high-quality photography for absolutely nothing, but that’s not an excuse to ignore the true value.

These ‘free’ photos do not magically appear in the universe for you to do with as you please. Each and every one is the result of someone physically taking a photo — actually being there geographically and clicking the shutter release (imagine that), then editing and uploading it to Unsplash for you to use for free, with only a relatively pointless citation given to the photographer.

If you have any real appreciation of the work the photographer has put into your free-to-use photo, the next time you use an Unsplash photo, how about taking the time to thank the photographer, rather than simply adding a citation to the photo in your article? You have the option every time you download a photo, but I bet you’ve never used it.

Nothing will change in the short term with Unsplash, and I suspect we’ll be using their vast image library for some time to some.

In the press release, Mikael Cho, Co-Founder and CEO of Unsplash said, “I’m so proud of what the Unsplash community and team has created. And it’s only the beginning. This partnership is an important milestone for Unsplash, but our mission of Photos for Everyone remains unchanged. We are very excited to partner with Getty Images to move the industry forward together.

“…our mission of Photos for Everyone remains unchanged.”

Ok, so what’s likely to happen is that when Getty starts flexing its muscles, they’ll begin curating images into free and paid options within Unsplash. That means you will have a choice, and choice is good, right? If you love a photo and believe it adds significant value to your article, maybe you’ll pay to use the photo. If not, you’ll find a suitable free photo, either on Unsplash or elsewhere, and be done.

With more than 30 years experience in business and marketing, Clive is the visionary behind The Marketing Alliance, launched in 2018. Clive leads a curated tribe of accomplished marketing and business support professionals who consistently delight clients through their creativity, innovation, strategy and an unwavering commitment to excellence.
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