Instagram, probably with the weight of the $1 billion that Facebook gave it earlier this year sitting on its head, has finally figured out that it needs to make a lot of money, fast. With that need, Instagram has dropped a brand-new Terms of Service agreement that basically turns its legions of photo-happy users into slave labor for marketing materials. Here, read for yourself, pulled from the "Rights" heading in the new ToS:
2. Some or all of the Service may be supported by advertising revenue. To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business or other entity may pay us 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.
The points bookending that section also note that first, Instagram doesn't own your content, but by agreeing to the ToS, you're giving Instagram the right to unlimited, free licensing of that content. Second, it says that Instagram is not required to notify you ever if indeed your photos are used. In short, that means that any photo you upload to Instagram could be used, with or without your name, without you receiving any payment or notice of its use.
That last part is the best; not only is Instagram trying to monetize your work through a Mafia-like wink-and-nod licensing agreement, but you might not even get the residual benefit of knowing that your photo was ad-worthy. For amateurs and pros alike, not even being informed that your hijacked photo is being used–a big bonus for anyone's portfolio–is comical.
Now, plenty of people have already thrown their arms up and said "Hey, my photos get stolen and shared all the time. That's just the web for you." And while that's true, this is fundamentally different. When a blog or news site or whatever jacks one of my photos off Flickr without attribution, fixing it is usually just an email away. It's a pain in the ass, but in the end, most people are putting their photos online either to share or for the exposure. The ones you sell are locked away, or shared on sites like 500px that let you fairly easily sell prints.
But Instagram's taken things a step further. Rather than jacking a photo for a blog post and putting down the wrong source or none at all, Instagram is trying to absolve you of all your commercial rights to your work to make money on its own.
And yes, people also argue that Instagram has to make money off its platform somehow. But it doesn't have to be this way, not at all. Look at Flickr, which, despite its ups and downs, continues to be one of the most rock-solid photo storage and networking options on the web. You get a basic, ad-supported service for free, and if you want more features, a pro account is $25–a screaming deal for unlimited uploads. Flickr also has a deal with Getty to license users images, and while I'm not sure whether the rates are comparable to normal Getty rates (I wouldn't expect them to be), at least you're getting paid for licensing while still retaining full copyright, along with the copyright protection Getty's system affords.
What's absurd about Instagram's ToS is just how brazen it is. Rather than finding a smarter way to make money–introducing paid accounts, serving more ads, start photo printing services like 500px, or even starting its own goddamn licensing system, which both users and media buyers would love–Instagram has shown that it either thinks its users are clueless ignoramuses, or that it simply doesn't give two shits about them either way.
The thing is, you don't need Instagram. Not at all. There are only two reasons I've ever used it, and I'd guess that many users are the same way: filters, and integration across numerous social media platforms. But filters are far from a novelty these days, with both Twitter and Flickr trotting out new apps along with a number of standalone apps, and in any case filters aren't that great a lot of the time.
The social aspect of Instagram is much more important, but now that Twitter's axed Instagram support from its API, what's the point? Absolutely no one wants to have to click on your Instagram link to open a new window to look at your cat photo, not when Twitter photos show up directly in your timeline. Better yet, Flickr photos still show up in Twitter feeds, and you can publish directly to Facebook as well.
Be honest with yourself: Even if you're a power Instagrammer, the social aspect of the network really sucks. (You can't re-share photos? What the hell is that?) If you're going to use a third-party photo app just to share onto your other, more powerful networks, you might as well make it one that doesn't have a complete disdain for its users.
Thankfully, it's incredibly easy to download all your old Instagram photos and quit the network forever. Instaport automatically downloads all the original photo files you've taken on Instagram (they may also be on your phone still), which you can reupload somewhere else. Deleting your Instagram account is simple, and totally permanent. (Note: You can't reactivate it, and won't get your old user name back. If you're concerned about that, you can try deleting all your old photos, or just leave 'em up as a reminder of when exactly you quit.)
Alternatives abound. I think it's clear that I'm partial to Flickr, but I've also had a pro account for years and don't feel like switching. Still, the new Flickr app is great, has filters, and has the added bonus of allowing you to easily access your original-size files for printing, something that Instagram makes awkward. Plus, a flood of new Flickr users might help revamp the site's large, but somewhat stagnant, social aspect.
I know that plenty of people are arguing that people are getting worked up over nothing, because Instagram photos are terrible, or whatever. Look, I don't believe for a second that my grainy cat photos are going to be put up on some Instagram billboard somewhere. Others argue that there are surely worse ToS agreements floating around, which is likely true, but ignores the fact that the copyright issues on a photo site are a different beast than Facebook owning everything you write.
And it's not shocking that companies still try to slip ridiculous ToS agreements past users, because the vast majority of us never read them. The reality is that it's really hard to make money on the web, and plenty of firms will do all kinds of shady things to try to drum up some cash flow. But it's a simple matter of principle. When there are photo-sharing and hosting alternatives that don't have copyright issues, why put up with Instagram? I honestly can't see a reason to stay.
In this case, it's particularly egregious, mainly because Instagram could have figured out much more savvy ways of monetizing users' activity, and it because it involves a ridiculous forced opt-in to a ridiculous licensing agreement. The simple fact is this: While the web has given an incredible platform for photographers and artists to share their work, it's also made it incredibly easy for people to borrow and steal that work. That's enough of a fight already, and it's the time to make clear that people will not allow a company to try to sneak such a ridiculous monetization ploy past its users.
Update: I enjoyed this article from Nilay Patel at The Verge, in which he argues that the new Instagram ToS is actually better than the old one. He's correct that the new ToS is less vague than the old one, and that in either case, advertisers can't just take your pictures, put their logo on it, and call it a day. But the ToS change still signals that Instagram is getting more serious about monetizing content. It may be in a similar vein to "sponsored stories" on Facebook, in which a company could pay to share across their network that you (or whoever) liked their page.
We'll see what Instagram does–they're already preparing a response to the backlash–but my central argument still holds true: I think co-opting people's photos for sponsored posts or to run in conjunction with separate ads is a terrible idea, and Instagram has still not explained clearly what its intentions are. There's no point in sticking around and worrying about it when there are other, more transparent options.
Update 2: Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom just wrote an explanatory post on Instagram's Tumblr that makes it sound like Facebook-style sponsored posts are coming to Instagram. More importantly, while your photos were never going to end up on a billboard, Instagram's language discussing whether or not your photos could be used in advertising will be removed from the ToS, but we'll have to wait to see what replaces it. Systrom writes "To be clear: it is not our intention to sell your photos," which is a lot more vague than "We won't." Until we see a new version of the ToS, it's impossible to know what kind of in-network ads or branded content Instagram is planning on rolling out, but it's coming.