Unsplash has in a short time become a major player in the photo-sharing industry. 174,000 photographers have uploaded images to the site. The platform this month boasts 5,000 views and 27 downloads per second. (PER SECOND!) People download images for blogs, classes, and other purposes, but also for commercial use. There is a big debate in the industry asking if Unsplash is good or bad, but it is not what I want to talk about today. Today I want to talk about the legal risks you face when you upload work to Unsplash. Not as the end-user, but as the photographer.
Photographers use Unsplash for exposure because of the enormous traffic the site generates. A company may hire a photographer for commercial assignments or simply want to license a high-resolution version of an image it found on Unsplash.
Unsplash is very easy to use. The photographer simply uploads an image to the site and artificial intelligence will analyze the image and add keywords. Since Unsplash isn’t run like an ordinary stock-photo corporation, there are some pitfalls involved in uploading images to the platform. The photographer risks litigation.
If I want to upload an image to 500px for licensing where a model is in the frame, I have to fill out a model release form. Even if it’s me. Even if I have my back to the camera. The company can now sell the image because it is on the safe side. It is on the safe side because the paperwork is fine. Unsplash, however, doesn’t require model releases. The photographer is responsible for the paperwork. If, for example, the photographer has a person in the image without a model release, he (or she) is exposed to litigation. In particular, if someone downloads the image and use it for commercial purposes. One of the persons in the image may come after you. They may come after the company, but they may also come after you, the photographer.
Here is the relevant bit from the Unsplash license: “To upload a photo, the photographer agrees that they have the proper releases (model, trademark, etc.) needed to submit the photo on Unsplash, released under the Unsplash License. … You are allowed to use a photo of a public structure as long as you do not infringe on any trademarks.”
If you were worried about Releases, wait till you get to the Trademarks bit. Trademarks and brands constitute a much bigger risk. Let’s say I am uploading a cityscape for licensing to 500px. They will not accept the image before I have cloned out company neon signs, trademarks and brand names. A company owns the rights to its brand or trademark. The majority of the big brands take this very seriously. In plain words, it can cost you tremendously if a brand finds its logo or something which represents the company in an image you have uploaded to Unsplash.
Professional photographers have plenty of experience with licensing, and know how to avoid the pitfalls. Amateurs, on the other hand, know less about the risks involved in uploading images to a site like Unsplash.
To sum up, I am not telling you not to use Unsplash, I am telling you to get your paperwork in top shape if you do.