Photo: music2work2 via Flickr
This week, Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom hinted at a bold strategy for his photo-sharing service.”We’ve decided that right now, what makes sense, is to direct our users to the Instagram website,” Systrom said at LeWeb, an Internet conference in Paris, as he explained why Instagram images would no longer be displayed directly on Twitter. “Obviously things change as a company evolves.”
A lot has changed for Instagram in the past year. Early on, sharing through Twitter was a key way it got traction—and Twitter chairman Jack Dorsey was an investor. But now that Instagram’s owned by Facebook and has more mobile users than Twitter, it’s charting its own course.
Pulling away from Twitter and directing people to Instagram’s website isn’t enough. Systrom could do far more to make Instagram the indispensable source of real-time photos on the Web. And that requires a crucial—and likely controversial—change to the rules that govern Instagram’s photos.
Right now, Instagram photos are by and large public. (People can set up private accounts, but very few do.) But “public” doesn’t mean that the photos are easily shared—at least not legally. Copyright remains in the hands of the photographer, and there’s no way for an Instagram user to say, “Go ahead—post my photo on the Web and just give me a link and credit.”
So it’s time for Systrom to take the next big step: Bring Creative Commons to Instagram.
Creative Commons is a clever hack on the copyright system that creates a clear, simple licence. It grants blanket permission, subject to some restrictions, to reuse a photo.
Flickr, Yahoo’s photo service, is probably the largest source of Creative Commons-licensed photos, making them immensely popular with bloggers and artists.
But Flickr still requires photographers to pick a licence and opt in. That’s too much for most people, who often leave Flickr photos as “all rights reserved” by default, even if they want people to share them.
Systrom should make a big, bold change: Require users to agree, unless they opt out, that all photos they upload are governed by the broadest possible Creative Commons licence.
Instagram can take one of the things that’s still awesome about Yahoo’s Flickr and turn it into a powerful tool for entrepreneurs, content creators—and, yes, Facebook.
Now that Instagram has a fully-featured website, it’s far easier for it to display all the licensing details—something that was probably too complex to squeeze into a simple mobile app.
Of course, this will enrage a lot of people. Facebook has been reprimanded for pushing privacy boundaries too far, and not all Instagram users may feel comfortable sharing their photos with the world.
But really, they already are. This just puts a legal framework around that sharing.
Here’s why openly licensing Instagram photos under Creative Commons is a smart move for everyone:
- The Web has become a visual place. So much so that articles with hardly any words get more traffic than long thinkpieces. Photos are powerful, sharable, scannable, and easier to produce on the go. They’ll be vital for content creators as we move toward a mobile-first world.
- Photos on the Web have long been controlled by copyright laws. The law protects the work of all photographers, not just professionals. That’s a reality that’s largely ignored by sites like Tumblr and Pinterest, which operate in very grey areas of copyright law. At the same time, they’ve shown how powerful collections of crowdsourced photos can be. But the law hasn’t kept up with these initiatives, and that’s a shame. Creative Commons is a smart, Internet-savvy way to build respect for copyright into websites, and every photo-driven service ought to include it.
- Instagram is changing everything. It is turning everyone into a photographer. The world is becoming a fleet of photojournalists, snapping images with mobile cameras, tagging scenes and experiences as they go. And the quality of pictures amateur photographers produce keeps getting better and better thanks to higher-quality mobile cameras and filters.
- People on Instagram aren’t taking photos for their livelihoods. Most want their photos to be seen, commented on and shared without compensation. They’re already blasting photos to millions of strangers on social networks. But they don’t have time to deal with hundreds of bloggers and journalists pinging them for permission. They need an efficient way to express their wishes—and Creative Commons is just that.
And putting Instagram under Creative Commons is smart for Facebook’s business, too.
- It would be a great branding opportunity and traffic driver for both Instagram and Facebook.
- It would also create a lot of innovative opportunities for media companies and startups. People are producing a ton of content on Instagram, and right now no one is technically allowed to package it up in a clean, enjoyable way. (You can display photos through Instagram’s API, but there are restrictions on usage—for example, a ban on caching—that make it impractical for large-scale Web publishers.)
- Creating public permission levels on Instagram’s photos would also present an opportunity for Facebook to finally put Flickr—alas, poor Flickr—out of business. That would cement Facebook Inc.’s position as the source of photos on the Web.
We’ve shared our thoughts. Now it’s time for Systrom to share our photos.