The popular photo-sharing service Twitpic this month took more control over the photos that millions of Twitter users upload to its site each month.
Although it provoked an outcry from people who said Twitpic was infringing on users’ copyright, the changes highlight conflicts between users, professional journalists and online sharing services in a muddled system of online news and information.
“We’re at a stage where this conversation is inevitable,” said David Ardia, director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard University. “We’re no longer puzzling over whether people will produce this work — we know they do and they have been — we’re now at a stage where we’re asking what is the right way for a business built on that type of work to generate revenue and potentially share that revenue with those that produce the work.”
Twitpic changed its terms of service to crack down on media republication of images, even telling users they couldn’t grant a license for reuse of their own Twitpic photos (though the company retreated from that position under criticism). So if you were Janis Krums watching a plane floating in the Hudson River, or Stefanie Gordon capturing a shuttle launch above cloud cover, news outlets couldn’t grab your photo off Twitpic and republish it.
Twitpic then announced it would allow an agency to exclusively sell media companies the rights to use photos, saying it intended to sell images published by unspecified “celebrities.” (I tried to reach Twitpic founder Noah Everett and others at Twitpic for comment but have not received a response.)
In short, here are the conflicting interests at play:
- Twitpic and similar services want to make money. They want images to be viewed on their own pages (next to their ads) and don’t want to be a distribution service for photos to be used elsewhere, unless they get paid for that.
- Citizen journalists and other users want exposure for their images. They uploaded them to share them, to have them go viral. They want to retain copyright, but may not care so much about their images being reused on other sites if they’re credited.
- Media companies want access to content, ideally at no cost or low cost, quickly. They want clarity about copyrights. They want access, under whatever terms, to stunning newsworthy images such as the plane landing on the Hudson River, destruction in Haiti, a hole in the fuselage of a Southwest Airlines jet, or Monday’s space shuttle launch captured from a passenger jet above the clouds.
In many ways these interests are at odds. When Twitpic makes a play to expand its control of those images and sell them (at least some of them), users and journalists cry out. When journalists reuse photos without credit or payment, Twitpic and its users complain.
What’s needed is a system in which none of these three parties — users, journalists or the service — wields too much power over the other two, and one in which each knows exactly what rights they and others have.
Though Twitpic gets more attention as one of the oldest and most popular social media photo sharing services, the user agreements for other services reveal the same tensions. Policies vary widely in what uses they allow and what attribution they require.
Consider for an example the different approaches of Yfrog and Picplz.
Yfrog (owned by ImageShack) promises not to sell or license user photos without permission. It also has good embedding tools on each photo page to encourage appropriate embedding and linking of photos on other sites. Its terms and conditions say:
“…(We) will not sell or distribute your content to third parties or affiliates without your permission. Third parties may exercise the following options regarding your content:
- Third parties may hyperlink to the page that displays your content on the ImageShack Network without modification and with proper attribution to you.
- Third parties may request permission to use your content by contacting you directly.
All requests for permission regarding your content usage directed at ImageShack will be forwarded to you.”
“If you post Content to the Service, unless we indicate otherwise, you grant MixedMediaLabs and its affiliates a nonexclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable and fully sublicensable right to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform and display such Content…“ and other users “may not: (i) collect, use, copy or distribute any portion of the Site or the Materials; (ii) resell, publicly perform or publicly display any portion of the Site or the Materials; (iii) modify or otherwise make any derivative uses of any portion of the Site, the Mobile applications or the Materials.”
It’s important for these terms of service to be clear, and as short as possible, said Dan Gillmor, a citizen journalism expert and author of “Mediactive,” a book that aims to turn passive media consumers into active users.
They should explicitly say, for example, whether the service claims the right just to display the user’s content, or if it may sell the photo or grant reuse rights to others.
What’s really missing, Ardia said, is a simple, standardized way to communicate the rights that each service claims.
“We could create a symbolic language that would communicate in a very simple way what the overall terms of service entail with regard to the rights that users give up,” he said.
There will eventually be a sharing system that works for users, journalists and service companies, Gillmor said. “We’re in the early days of these things developing.”
The biggest conflicts occur where money is involved.
“Users have come to expect a lot of services for free when it comes to the Internet, and yet there is a business reality that is operating for these kinds of sites where the provision of bandwidth and server space and other kinds of services isn’t free,” Ardia told me. “It shouldn’t be a surprise that companies like Twitpic … are trying to find ways to cover those costs.”
So maybe we need a system that deals with the money problem up front, instead of building a user base by providing a free service and then forcing companies to concoct revenue schemes in ways that users might not end up liking.
That’s the view of Martin Pannier, cofounder and CEO of Picuous.com, a new photo sharing site he describes as “a Vimeo or a Scribd, but for pictures.”
Picuous, now in beta, will place pictures in an HTML5 player that will enable them to be embedded with an automatic linkback and copyright notice. The player also will allow the owner to know where the image has been embedded and how many times it’s been viewed.
“What we like about our solution is that it’s free, instantaneous and legal for a journalist to use any photographer’s picture, but the photographer then gets attention, and traffic, that she can monetize afterwards,” Pannier told me.
“If the journalist wishes to get the picture without the player, she can then very easily license the picture right there in the player.”
Image rights are tricky, Pannier said. Because some Twitter clients automatically use Twitpic, Yfrog or others when posting an image, “journalists should be very wary of using any pictures from there since it’s quite possible that the user never approved any terms — and could reclaim ownership of her picture.”
Picuous will use a freemium model in which users can upgrade to premium plans for about $5 to $10 a month. In exchange, users know the company won’t have to leverage their content to make money, Pannier said.
“The problem of these [other photo-sharing] companies is monetization — which is why we chose to go the ‘pay-to-host’ route, which allows us to stay in business without having to resort to selling our users’ pictures. How else can they monetize Twitpic?”