Like a couple of million other people, I use Instagram, the photo sharing service. Joining it was one of the first things I did, when I got my iPhone. I was looking for an easy way to post snapshots on the web and to tweet about them to family, friends, and, inevitably, perfect strangers. After I saw the great results that Nadine Hutton was getting with Instagram, I was sold (although that's probably not the right word, since the service is free). I don't use it often, but I've been happy enough when I do. It's simple to use, and I like being forced to crop to a square. (Square photographers are cool). I can even live with some of the filters.
Mick Snyder, Maple Grove Raceway, 7 May 2011. [All photos copyright John Edwin Mason, 2011. Click on any image to see a larger version. BTW, this is an iPhone photo.]
The short version is this: When I signed up for Instagram, I gave the company the right to use the photos that I post in its public galleries in any way it chooses, free of charge. Instagram hastens to say that it doesn't claim to own my photos, but it does hold a "fully paid and royalty-free, worldwide" license to use them. That sounds like a pretty comprehensive rights grab, and it is.
Free Speech Wall, Charlottesville, Virginia, 2011.
Here's the relevant legalese: Instagram does NOT claim ANY ownership rights in the text, files, images, photos, video, sounds, musical works, works of authorship, applications, or any other materials (collectively, "Content") that you post on or through the Instagram Services. By displaying or publishing ("posting") any Content on or through the Instagram Services, you hereby grant to Instagram a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, worldwide, limited license to use, modify, delete from, add to, publicly perform, publicly display, reproduce and translate such Content, including without limitation distributing part or all of the Site in any media formats through any media channels, except Content not shared publicly ("private") will not be distributed outside the Instagram Services.
Update, May 18th: Berry from Mobypicture just left a comment, saying that the company would never sell users' photos. The terms of service seem to support that claim. (To read them, you'll need to follow a link from Mobypicture to Google documents.)
Mike Rossi (sax) and Darren English (drums), Swingers' Monday night jam session, Cape Town, South Africa, March 2011.
According to the very useful blog, Plagiarism Today, photo sharing services couldn't function if users didn't cede some rights over their images. But it goes on to say that "some companies abuse this necessity, and the fact that very few read the terms of service, to grab far more rights than they actually need."
The blog's bottom line is this: The issue of overreaching terms of service is practically an epidemic online. Companies that don’t overreach on their terms are few and far between. While this doesn’t necessarily make those companies or services that do evil, it does mean that they are protecting their interests extremely well, often at the expense of yours.
Chances are I'll stay with Instagram. I think (and hope and pray) that the company isn't really out to screw me or anyone else. I don't use the service often, and, besides, no one's likely to make much money from the kind of photos that I post on the site.
But lightening can strike anywhere. Take Stefanie Gordon and her spectacular photos of the launch of the space shuttle Endeavour... At this very moment, she's enjoying the 15 minutes of fame that they've brought her. Yeah, those pictures, the ones that she posted on Twitpic. I'll keep my fingers crossed for her.