Taking someone's property and selling it without permission is wrong - even if you are one of the more popular photo sharing sites.
That's what Instagram learned this week, but what can photographers learn from Instagram's misstep?
It didn't take a full day for Instagram to backtrack.
The concerns we heard about from you the most focused on advertising, and what our changes might mean for you and your photos. There was confusion and real concern about what our possible advertising products could look like and how they would work.
Because of the feedback we have heard from you, we are reverting this advertising section to the original version that has been in effect since we launched the service in October 2010."
- Kevin Systrom co-founder, Instagram
This isn't the first time we have had a social sharing site try to infringe on ownership of their users' images. Facebook's terms of service allows them broad latitude over your photos on their site. Google + had similar complaints when they launched. Pinterest had the unique problem -- their core feature, pinning photos you liked, amounted to potential copyright infringement. Pinterest's terms of service says if someone sues your for pinning, or stealing, a photo, it's not Pinterest's fault.
Before all returns to normal in IG-land, let's pause and see what we might learn about sharing our photos in this socially enabled world.
Read the fine print
For most of today's social sharing sites, the fine print is long, tedious and boring...but it is worth reading. Make an informed decision. Do you care if someone repins or reposts your photos? If you do, you should know what controls you are giving up before you begin posting. Today, Instagram is the popular photo sharing site. A couple years ago, Flickr enjoyed that status. Next year this time, it could be something we haven't heard about yet. Each has its own ideas about ownership.
In the meantime, Facebook or Google + could decide to update their terms of service, further restricting your rights. This area is fluid, as we saw this week. Just because IG backed down, doesn't mean that Mark Zuckerberg will. Know the rules and your rights.
Post your best photos on your own real estate
Post your best photos on your own site -- somewhere you control. Create your own blog or web galleries to host your best work. Many photographer web sites will allow likes and comments -- the same experiences you enjoy on sharing sites. Once you are established on your own site, you can post links back to your photos from Facebook, Google + or the latest site of the hour. You can share low resolution pictures with your friends in their social networks but encourage them to click back to your site to see your photos in a bigger size. This keeps your high resolution photos securely within your control.
If your best stuff is on your own real estate, you don't have to worry about a social site changing its rules tomorrow and destroying what you've taken years to create.
Reconsider your own Terms of Service
Is it a bad thing that someone decides to use your photo in a presentation or as wallpaper? Trey Ratcliff didn't think so, and he claims that he ended up making more money as a result.
Trey uses a licensing construct called Creative Commons. This allows you to pre-authorize anyone to use your photos within specific guidelines. For instance, a common option is that someone can use your photo for a non commercial purpose without asking, as long as they provide you credit. Trey found that his HDR photos were used so frequently, with links pointing back to his blog, that he was far more popular than if he tried to closely regulate usage.
At the end of the day, he wanted exposure and credit for his work. Creative Commons allowed him to achieve both.
Register your images with the Copyright Office
This won't protect you if you voluntarily give away your rights, but if someone happens to "accidentally" use your images withour permission, you now have the ability to seek damages.
The process is fairly simple, and you can register a batch of images for just one fee.
Remember the Photographer's Golden Rule
This seems obvious, but I can't tell you the number of times I have seen other photographers take my photos and post them without credit. I'm sure they mean well and intend no harm, but I think photographers should operate by a different unspoken agreement.
My Photographer's Golden Rule says, if you would want me to acknowledge your photo, you should do the same for mine. Ask first and offer credit. It's only fair. (Unless you see a Creative Commons license, of course.)
The Instagram debacle showed that as more of us spend time creating art on different platforms, we will also insist on a voice in controlling the destiny of our images.
We learned that as sharing sites become successful, the lure of creating more money through advertising will become seductive. Big companies might buy out the cool new site, and the culture could change. We saw a glimmer of that with Instagram, as we did with Flickr.
If you care about your work, take an active role in controlling it.