Instagram uproar is a tempest in a TOS teapot

It took Facebook just 51 words to destroy user confidence in the Instagram photo-sharing service.

Instagram’s new terms of service, which came to light this week and go into effect on January 16, 2013, include a paragraph that shocked some users:

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.

You only have to spend a little time on social networks such as Twitter on Tuesday to see how livid this had made both professional photographs and hobbyists. Much of the talk Tuesday has focused on how Instagram—and its new owner, Facebook—could make such a drastic change to its terms of use.

Instagram has since promised to remove the language, claiming that it never intended to sell user’s photos; rather, Instagram says it included the measure to accommodate its new ad incorporation.

Still, the new terms were not really a change at all—at least, not in terms of any user rights, the company insisted when it originally posted the new rules. That’s because the previous terms of service for the photo-sharing service included a broad statement that allowed Instagram to publish user’s photos royalty-free through any media channel. And that apparently gave Instagram the ability to charge advertisers who used the likenesses and photos of Instagram users. That means that those sepia-toned photos of your cat were never safe from being repurposed. What has changed in the new terms of service is the language and specificity of the statement.

Instagram did what social networking users have been begging for—they wrote a terms of service in plain, readable language. Instead of using the long-winded, jargon-filled legalese of most user agreements, Instagram used plain English. And its message is: We can take your photo, sell it, and not pay you.

Now that users have had a chance to actually read those terms, they aren’t particularly happy about them. Professional photographers, especially, were making noise Tuesday about leaving the social networking service.

New York-based photojournalist Ben Lowy used his Instagram feed to showcase the outtakes from his assignments around the world. He posted well-composed, dramatic slices of life taken on his iPhone that would stand out on any Instagram feed.

On Tuesday, Lowy posted a photo of his son holding a white piece of paper with a frowning face that simply read “goodbye.” He perfectly summed up the professional photographer’s Instagram beef in his caption:

This is my son Mateo. Photography is how I provide for him, clothe him, put him in school. Photography is my passion, my calling, and my means of livelihood. Now Instagram and Facebook want to take my hard earned imagery, and use it to generate income for themselves. What they have done is signal the end and failure of what could have been a revolutionary social media platform for visual communication. So for now, I must take a step back and reassess my place on Instagram.

Lowy is just one of many photographers who are taking a philosophical (and financial) stand against Instagram. A popular choice among the assorted Instagram alternatives appears to be Flickr, the Yahoo-owned photo-sharing service that updated both its iOS and Android offerings earlier this month.

Is all this drama necessary? And are Instagram stars really willing to trade their thousands of followers and correlating public exposure because Instagram clarified what it was doing all along? Photographers choosing not to post iPhone photos on Instagram because of the new terms of use would be like a writer choosing not to use Twitter because the microblogging service also permits royalty-free usage in its user agreement.

There’s certainly an argument to be made in favor of taking a stand against Facebook and its perceived influence on Instagram. But there are better reasons to drop the service other than the fact that you don’t retain the rights to your images. Instagram is annoying. The majority of its users seem to be celebrity-crazy teens and foodies who post off-color photos of last night’s sushi. Professional photographers who rely on the service could always watermark their images rather than leave Instagram, if they’re worried about their photos showing up elsewhere.

Still, I’m sticking with Instagram, even with its revamped terms of service. Why? Because it’s a place to share my iPhone photos that are not relatable enough for Facebook and not professional enough for my portfolio. And if I happen to take a photo on my iPhone that is good enough to appear next to my DSLR shots in my portfolio, I’m sure as hell not going to post it on Instagram with a hashtag.

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