Unethical Unsplash?

Tyler Wentzel
Jan 11, 2015 · 6 min read

If you’re unfamiliar, Unsplash is a site that features 10 new high-resolution photos every 10 days. The unique thing is, the photos are all in the public domain via Creative Commons Zero, no rights reserved. That means anyone can do anything they want with the photos and there is no money to be exchanged at all, anywhere on the site.

Of course, this raises some issues in the photography community where photographers generally collect royalties.

That in mind, I started a reply to a recent article on PetaPixel but it turned into something more substantial. I realized I had a lot more to say on the issue than I had initially thought.

In the article, the author, Aleksandra Boguslawska — a former contributor to Unsplash — said the following:

Everyone, including the Unsplash founders themselves, seem to forget that all the value is contributed by photographers themselves. Not the Unsplash team, who just curate the submissions and reap the rewards, but by artists who want to promote their work and eventually sell their photography.

Painting the crew behind Unsplash as a bunch of heartless abusers is totally off-base.

I publicly voiced my appreciation for Unsplash on Twitter recently and received this response from their official Twitter account:

All the credit goes to our guest curators […] and the photographers ☺

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like callous disregard for contributors to me. In fact, I was actually taken back by the response and how important it seemed to the one tweeting that I give credit where credit was due.

The whole premise for Unsplash is both entirely clear — everyone is made aware all photos found there are public domain — and also completely fair and dare I say, generous — Unsplash provides a link to each photographer’s personal website.

If someone found his/herself on Unsplash.com and liked the style of a particular photographer, I could see that person navigating to the photographer’s website and requesting a paid session. The photos are high-caliber and a great testament to the professional abilities these talented individuals have. If these professionals felt they were being undervalued, giving away some of their work for free, surely submissions would cease. Yet, the photos keep coming.

Destroying the creative industry?

There was a lot of buzz in the comments about how sites like Unsplash hurt the photography industry en masse, but I’m not so sure that’s a valid argument. Here’s why:

1) The creators of Unsplash have found a way to earn money via referrals through a service the masses (evidenced by the sheer enormity of past and present visitors) deem highly valuable.

To give some brief background, as a fledgling company, Crew was hanging by a thread and its founders knew they’d have to come up with something fast that could turn everything around.

Michael Cho (founder of Crew) openly admits that Unsplash, the #1 referral source among a few others, helped save the company. He also expresses how totally awe-struck he was about how well the idea worked.

Returning to the disgruntled article, Aleksandra mentions,

What started as an in-house side project, built to share some leftover photos from a session they did, kicked off when others started submitting really good photos, all for a chance to be featured.

After the release of Unsplash, the first photographer hired by Crew (whose extra photos were used to launch the site), contacted them and said,

Dude, happy you enjoyed the photos! I don’t know what you did with them but there’s a ton of people on my portfolio site right now!

I can only guess, but I’m thinking this photographer actually got paying work thanks to this project. I suspect the case is similar for all featured contributors.

2) There will always be a demand for specific photography and photographers.

There are needs that can’t be met by using a free, generic and mostly unorganized photo site like Unsplash. Models will always be showcasing unique brands or products, which will require specific paid shoots. There will also always need to be shoots at exact locations.

A random collection of disorganized photos is simply not going to suit everyone’s needs. Many people need more cohesion and continuity and therefore must hire professionals.

I agree that photography isn’t easy and deserves compensation. I would gladly pay for professional photography, knowing it’s worth every penny, but I can’t always afford it. Therefore, a site like Unsplash helps out in that area.

But again, being generic and random means it can never suit everyone’s needs. There are always trade-offs. In exchange for making the website a great place to find a broad selection of high-resolution photos, Unsplash sacrifices specificity. And that’s perfectly fine, considering it’s not a site catered to big brands with big projects, big budgets and precise needs. We’re talking about two, entirely different demographics: Independents & Startups (usually lower budget) and Established Brands (usually higher budget).

Many commenters were arguing against what they viewed as the devolution of creative work and how we ought to stand up for its value. I agree it has value, but I don’t think Unsplash is devaluing anything; especially not in a capitalist market where innovation is king. In a real sense, Unsplash began as something quite novel and useful. Therefore it appeals to many. However that affects others is just part of how the system works.

In consideration of products like Google’s search engine, Gmail, Google Drive and many other free services, how a business makes money has changed dramatically.

Alternative profit methods

Like it or not, people have grown accustomed to having a near-infinite well of information at their fingertips at no cost — all via the search engine. This doesn’t mean Google did all that work for free, it simply means it has found a way to monetize the information by accompanying it with advertising.

As one commenter posited on the PetaPixel article, and I think it’s a worthy argument:

How much did PetaPixel pay Ms. Boguslawska to repost here [sic] article adding lots of ads? Isn’t this the exact same thing, taking something for free then molding it to commercial uses. Even if she granted free usage, didn’t she just undercut the value of all professional writers by giving away usage of her work?

(For the record, I turned off Adblock Plus on PetaPixel and it is indeed littered with ads — five large banner, sidebar and in-content ads on a single page.)

I’ve often thought in the past that giving away creative work free hurts the industry as a whole. I’m not so sure anymore. Has the demand for creative work gone down? Not at all. If anything it’s increased. Then why all the complaints? Because there’s been a shift in how creatives make their money, and when you’re used to making money directly for the service or product you provide, this “new idea” (indirect profit) seems a travesty.

And that is the issue: content is now being paid for in indirect ways — ways sometimes not even evident at first glance.

Basic economics teaches TINSTAAFL, or, “There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.” The idea is everything that’s labeled “free” costs someone something. And, whether we accept it or not, there are methods of making a good living while giving away much of what you do for free.

Kevin MacLeod, creator of incompetech.com and renowned composer of film score music, gives away all the music on his site for free provided he receives attribution. How does he make money? Scoring films. Filmmakers need custom soundtracks for their films simply because not every one of his free songs will work for every film! Is he devaluing the film scoring industry and destroying the chances of many, talented composers? I don’t think so. He’s smart.


Often, I’ve thought ill of and spoken against the negative impact of the Industrial Revolution on the self-employed. I’m willing to reconsider this. Instead, I think it forced people who wanted to continue to operate independently to think of new ways of doing so. The imposition of economic shifts leads to serious breakthroughs in innovation.

What I’ve learned through all this is that, rather than resent the way things have come to be in the marketplace, we ought to embrace them as a reality and find our own, creative ways to earn money. There is always a way if you’re willing to look for it.

Originally published at afunnythinghappened.net.

    Tyler Wentzel

    Written by

    Currently developing Glimmero.com — a royalty-free model photography site. Full of ideas. And other things.