Q. This whole terms-of-service business with Instagram has me a little scared, Kim. I'm a semi-pro photographer and my entire portfolio is posted online. How can online services possibly justify using my photos without permission? Also, how can I stop them from doing this?
- Maria, from Fort Covington, NY, listens to my national radio show on WYBG 1050 AM.
A. Those are excellent questions, Maria. In fact, as online sharing companies grow and need to make money, these types of questions are going to become increasingly important.
I should point out that this doesn't apply just to photos. Anyone who creates and shares music, writing and other art is in the same boat.
Let's back up for a minute, though, for some background. If you regularly visit my Breaking Tech News page, you'll know Instagram's story. It launched new terms of service last month that gave it a license to include users' photos in ads without paying users or getting explicit user approval (under the terms, user approval was given when the content was uploaded).
That created a firestorm of bad publicity so intense that Instagram abandoned the plan. It's estimated that Instagram lost 4 million users, maybe more.
What many people don't realize, however, is that Instagram's change wasn't that radical. Most social media and photo-sharing sites already do the same thing - they just aren't as upfront about it.
One of the most ironic things about this fiasco was users complaining about Instagram on Twitter and Facebook! Both of those sites have terms of services that are just as bad, if not worse, than Instagram's proposed changes.
Twitter's terms say that by posting "content" on Twitter, you give Twitter the rights to use it "in any and all media or distribution methods." Based on the vague term "content," Twitter could have a valid claim to use your posts, photos or even video, however it wants.
As I've told you before, Facebook's terms of service grants it the full rights to your profile picture and name to use in ads. By using Facebook with the default settings, you let Facebook use your content for just about anything it wants.
I hope you're not using one of those sites for your portfolio, Maria. Dedicated photo-sharing sites like Flickr aren't as bad - most of them won't use your photos as ads.
However, you still grant these sites a license to do what they want with your photos. The question is how much you trust them to not use the photos.
Most people click "accept" without reading while signing up for a site. Before sharing content on a site, you should always read the terms of service so you know what the site can do with it.
Also, keep in mind that terms of service can change without notice. It's a good idea to review them every once in a while.
One comfort is that most sites, including the ones I've mentioned, don't take ownership of your content when you post it. That means you can take your content down and close your account if you find something in the terms of service you don't agree with. Your content will still belong to you.
For more about how tricky ownership vs. license is when it comes to digital content, read this tip.
If a site's terms of service make you want to find a replacement, I know some good ones. Here are three private alternatives to sites you use every day.