The Instagram rights grab – poor drafting or a U-turn?

Online photo-sharing service Instagram have now been forced to issue a denial that the recent change in their terms of service was intended to give them the rights to sell on their users’ photos to advertisers, without paying or indeed even asking the users concerned.

The new terms of service required users to grant Instagram a “non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide licen[c]e to use the content that you post on or through the service” and also allowed “a business or other entity [to] pay [Instagram] to display your username, likeness, photos and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.”

Instagram now say that the change was intended “to communicate that we’d like to experiment with innovative advertising that feels appropriate on Instagram” and blamed confusing language for the misunderstanding.

Unfortunately for the company, there was a rapid backlash, including on Twitter. Several members have now closed their Instagram accounts, and others called for Instagram users to keep their accounts alive but use them only to upload blurred or boring photos in future.

It’s easy to see how the language led users to think that Instagram were about to sell the use of their photos to third parties without their consent. Even their disavowal statement is so full of management speak that it doesn’t really convey a clear message. What I think they’re trying to say is that they were planning to allow advertisers to use the content on Instagram (or Facebook, which has owned the company since September), not elsewhere. But I’m not sure.

In any case, it’s far easier to see how users would be hacked off with Instagram for flogging their photos and profile data to third parties without paying them. I’ve already said on this blog how annoyed I was with Pinterest washing its hands of copyright issues, allowing users to snatch other people’s copyrighted photos and, essentially, deny them at least some of the revenue they could have earned from their work. For a photo sharing company to apparently be in the business of doing that itself is far worse.

All in all, it’s a mess for Instagram. It seems pretty unbelievable that a company apparently worth $750m (that’s how much Facebook paid for it, apparently) would allow a bit of sloppy drafting in something as important as their T&C to spoil their reputation needlessly. Mind you, it seems only slightly less incredible that they’d think their users wouldn’t be up in arms over an attempt to exploit their photos (and indeed identities) for commercial gain. Either way, the message is one of colossal ineptitude.

A Silicon Republic article has even speculated that Facebook are deliberately running the company into the ground to make way for their own in-house photo-sharing app. While this seems a bit far-fetched, stranger things have happened.

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