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Who Owns the Photos You Share Online? Part One

Instagram and your photos. Source: designspiration.net
Instagram and your photos. Source: designspiration.net

Since Facebook announced its intentions to acquire Instagram a little over a year ago, everyone’s been on pins and needles to see what — if anything — would change.

We got our first big hint last December when Instagram released its new Terms of Service, scheduled to go into effect the following month on January 19.

What happened then? Well, in short: absolute bedlam.

The big backlash

Within hours Instagram’s new Terms of Service went viral, with people taking to social media to complain about the changes. Most folks were seeing red over one key section in particular, which in its original wording read:

“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.

What did this mean? Well, one thing it didn’t mean was that your photos now belonged to Instagram. It was simply a small change to Instagram’s permissions regarding user photos in ads — permission that Instagram has had always had, even before Facebook took ownership, from the very first day the service was launched.

Ever seen a Sponsored Story in your Facebook newsfeed? You know, a post that announces one of your friends has “liked” a company’s page or advanced to a new level of a game app? That’s essentially what Instagram was talking about. Unfortunately, that’s not what many people believed, and the fallout was fierce.

The very next day Instagram’s co-founder, Kevin Systrom, posted a measured explanation on the company blog thanking users for their feedback and promising that the terms would be revised for clarity. Sure enough, by the time the new Terms of Service took effect early this year, the wording had changed drastically. The bummer was that it had actually changed for the worse:

“Some of the Service is supported by advertising revenue and may display advertisements and promotions, and you hereby agree that Instagram may place such advertising and promotions on the Service or on, about, or in conjunction with your Content. The manner, mode and extent of such advertising and promotions are subject to change without specific notice to you.”

The difference here is small, but potentially powerful: the words “on, about, or in conjunction with your Content” actually opens up future advertising possibilities for Instagram instead of limiting them.

It didn’t get better

The previous language stipulated that advertisers could only pay Instagram to display your photos in conjunction with sponsored content. For example, if you uploaded a picture of the beach from your vacation in the Bahamas, a travel booking agency could pay to place an ad on Instagram featuring a collection of their “favorite” Instagram pictures of the Bahamas with yours included.

Now, however, with the inclusion of “on, about, or in conjunction with” in the Terms of Service, an advertiser could potentially crop, place their logo, or otherwise modify your photo.

Nevertheless, it seems like even a change for the worse was enough to placate users. Over the last few months, even the people who had threatened to leave Instagram for other photo-sharing apps like Flickr seem have drifted back into the Instagram fold. After reportedly taking a dip, user numbers have stabilized — Instagram claims they’ve even risen — and everything seems to have returned to the status quo.

But the debate about use and ownership of user photos on social networks is far from over. In the next post, I’ll talk about how new copyright legislation in the UK could have future global repercussions.

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