Instagram Stirs Up the Hornet’s Nest with Major Policy Shift

by Peter Thomas Ricci


Instagram met savage protests from users and the tech press over its new intellectual property policies.

The popular photo app Instagram has backtracked on Tuesday’s announcement of new policies that granted it carte blanche to sell users’ photographs without providing the user notification or payment for the use.

The new policy sparked understandable fury from Instagram’s many users, with some outbursts being quite creative – one user labeled the move “Instagram’s suicide note,” and Instagram competitors released statements proclaiming their support of photographer rights. We’ve written in the past about Instagram, and on very admiring terms, but do these new revelations change the way that real estate agents should use the platform?

Instagram’s Extreme Photo Policies

As Declan McCullagh, the chief political correspondent for CNET, explained in an excellent post, there were several layers to Instagram’s proposed policy:

  • First, the basics of the the policy: Facebook, which acquired Instagram three months ago for a sweet $1 billion, had claimed “perpetual right” to license all public Instagram photos to any company or organization willing to pay for the content – including advertisers.
  • In short, it would have turned Instagram into the world’s largest stock photo database, except unlike other stock photo companies (iStockPhoto, for instance), contributors would not have been compensated for their images.
  • So to put it into perspective, say you snapped photos of that gorgeous Victorian you’re listing in Evanston; Facebook, through Instagram, could have sold that image to a company looking for a nifty photo of a Victorian home. Ditto for photos of model kitchens, in-ground swimming pools, fireplaces, master bedrooms or any other photo you may have taken of your listings.
  • And McCullagh notes, the sky is the limit for what Facebook could do with that power, with brochures, websites, TV ads and any other medium being game for the images. Author Reginald Braithwaite summed up the policy as follows: “You are not our customers, you are the cattle we drive to market and auction off to the highest bidder. Enjoy your feed and keep producing the milk.”

The Users Strike Back

Of course, Instagram users cried foul, and after 24 hours of eerie silence from both Instagram and Facebook, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom posted an open letter to Instagram users on the site’s blog that tacitly revoked the radical policies originally announced.

The intent of the new policies, Systrom wrote, was to share with users information about Instagram’s “innovative advertising,” and its ideas towards becoming a self-sustaining business. Instead, he continued, users misinterpreted the company’s policies, which did not adequately describe its intent.

“Instead it was interpreted by many that we were going to sell your photos to others without any compensation,” he wrote. “This is not true and it is our mistake that this language is confusing. To be clear: it is not our intention to sell your photos. We are working on updated language in the terms to make sure this is clear.”

Systrom goes on to describe a revenue model that involves users paying Instagram to promote their photos and accounts, though the policy sounds like a carbon copy of the promotions feature that Facebook rolled out earlier this year, where users pay Facebook a small fee to feature their content more prominently in their friends’ news streams.

As McCullagh concluded, perhaps Instagram should have seen this coming. In 1999, Yahoo! tried to similarly co-opt the rights to its massively popular Geocities accounts; but after users protested, and competitors boasted of their charitable treatment of their users, Yahoo! rescinded the policy.

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