Stay away from Unsplash, Pexels and Co. – or not?

Personally, I like the idea of people sharing their pictures with the world through picture sharing platforms. Why not? Got a cool picture of a deer? Don’t want money for that? That’s great. Took a wonderful photo of a crowd watching fireworks? Go share, if you want. I think that’s awesome.

However, when you are on the other side – not being the creator, but the user of such content – you will face a problem… How do you know that the person who’s uploaded that picture really has the rights to give you permission to use the picture as you would like to? Simply put: often, you don’t.

This post has been inspired by the question where I could find pictures for my blog to use (take them myself vs. get them elsewhere, etc.). In the process I found a post by max2-consulting, who warn about the problems with free photo services. While they certainly have their own interests as a photo agency in mind, it is worth a read. They also link to a great article by Robert Kneschke, a photo producer, giving a great overview of how Unsplash has evolved and works (with references).
Update (December 17, 2020): Henrik Heigl has written something quite interesting about that too.

That’s where platforms like Unsplash and Pexels, but sadly also Creative Commons (which is one of the greatest projects imo), often stand. They have the uploader state that they are permitted to upload that picture. So far so good. But they never really check whether that uploader is a fake person, giving a fake email address or one that they will delete right after, and what not.

I am not talking about the corporate accounts, and how such platforms are funded (you will usually not see any money, but most of those platforms will still make millions a year through other means), how the platforms become really protective of “their” pictures (which have not even been taken or paid by them), or how it may be unfair that creators are buying expensive equipment, spend lots of time and then are expected to give every pictures away for free. I am solely talking about the risks of using pictures from such platforms.

There have been too many cases where people would receive a takedown notice with costs that go in the hundreds or thousands of Euros, because they thought they had used a free picture and after all just some random person unrightfully had uploaded and claimed that picture. Because it is so easy.

That’s where established, paid platforms come in. They will usually guarantee that the picture you buy (for a few Euros) have been properly licensed and will deal with potential copyright claims. They protect you from unpleasant surprises that way. Even for your personal blog.

So where does this (admittedly short and probably even shallow collection of thoughts) leave us?

  • Only use content from platforms, people, and what not, which you trust. This might include triple-checking whether the creator’s info on the platform you use seems legit.
  • Do not pretend that you are a small fish and nobody will care. They will find your blog and they will have you pay.
  • Help nurture the spirit of giving and share some of your creations with the world. You could publish on your blog, for example, and then upload to one of those platforms to give people the possibility to verify who the creator is; and that you have indeed granted the rights to use to them.
  • Don’t despair. Don’t panic. You’ll find the pictures you need. But maybe not in the place you expected to find them in.

Update (December 17, 2020): I will keep a list of Unsplash publishers here that seem trustworthy as I come across them.

Seemingly trustworthy Unsplash publishers (as I come across them, updated as of December 17, 2020):

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