A Guide to Unsplash for Photographers - Pixsy
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A Guide to Unsplash for Photographers

Photo by Yahdi Romelo

In 2021, Unsplash celebrated 3 million uploaded images by 250,000 contributors. The popularity of the site among photographers seems to be without doubt but there is always room to talk about the Unsplash license as it often creates confusion. 

We believe that it is important for photographers to know how their work is used online with, and especially, without their permission, and Unsplash is no exception. 

If you know how people may use your images uploaded to Unsplash, it can help you decide if the platform is suitable for your work.

What is Unsplash?

Unsplash is a stock photography site with high-resolution images (and now 3D renders) free to download and use for personal, editorial, and most commercial purposes (more on this below). 

There is also a community of photographers behind the site with the opportunity to curate photo collections.

Furthermore, Unsplash is the home of images of major brands and institutions as well, such as the photo libraries of Microsoft Windows, The New York Public Library and The Library of Congress, and the curated collections of Squarespace.

Can brands use Unsplash?

Brands can use Unsplash as a visual marketing channel by uploading their own images reflecting their brand voice as well as curating photographers’ pictures into collections on the site. The possibility of millions of views and thousands of downloads certainly adds to the hope of raising brand awareness.

If we’re talking about a brand using an image found on Unsplash for its own advertising campaign, it’s a bit more complicated. They must be familiar with what the Unsplash License allows and what scenarios can be legally dangerous leading to a possible infringement of copyright, trademarks, privacy rights, and similar. Read more about the Unsplash License below.

How does Unsplash work?

Unsplash works the same way as other stock photography sites as there’s the ability to search and download images in different sizes. 

Albeit, all for free, under the Unsplash license (more on this below), and without the expressed need to credit the photographer — but as the site says, it is appreciated.

People can like photos and add them to their collections if they are registered users. 

The photographer can share technical information about their image, such as the camera and lens they used to take the picture. This aspect strengthens the community profile of Unsplash, allowing photographers and interested users to learn about photography.

You can also see how many views and downloads a given image has and if it is featured in one of Unsplash’s collections.

You can click through to the photographer’s Unsplash profile where they can share their contact information, a link to their website, and even a direct link that allows users to donate money to them via PayPal.

Photographers can also highlight on their profile if they are available for hire.

Unsplash photographers and release forms 

Photographers must have proper model, trademark and other release forms to be allowed to submit their work on Unsplash. However, they are not requested to share the documents with the site. 

Unsplash itself admits that they do not have the capacity to monitor each photo that is uploaded on the site and if those have the needed releases. Their recommendation is to never imply endorsement by the person in the photo when using the image and to contact the photographer directly to be sure that they hold the necessary release form.

This is why some are not a fan of using Unsplash images — it’s either your good faith in photographers as no files stored by the site to serve as legal proof (as it is with other platforms), or your time spent on contacting the artist and discussing if they have the required legal documents.

What is the Unsplash License?

To quote Unsplash’s own words about their license:

“Unsplash grants you an irrevocable, nonexclusive, worldwide copyright license to download, copy, modify, distribute, perform, and use photos from Unsplash for free, including for commercial purposes, without permission from or attributing the photographer or Unsplash. This license does not include the right to compile photos from Unsplash to replicate a similar or competing service.”

Now, let’s break it down for everyone as image licensing matters are critical issues for both photographers and image users.

The Unsplash License vs the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license 

People often mistake the Unsplash license for providing the same image use options as the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license, but that is not true.

The two licenses are almost identical. Both are:

  • sublicensable,
  • non-revocable,
  • with photos allowed for free personal and commercial use as well,
  • without the need for crediting the photographer.

The only difference where the Unsplash license is different from the CC0 license is this part:

“This license does not include the right to compile photos from Unsplash to replicate a similar or competing service.”

This means essentially that Unsplash doesn’t want to see the photos uploaded to the site appear on other platforms, particularly out of respect for the photographers who choose them to showcase their work. Secondly, they naturally do not want to find themselves in a legal scenario with a competing service about what open creative use means — which idea is where the difference with CC0 is most apparent, as CC0 contributes to the public domain.

If an image has been released under The Unsplash License, it remains free to use even after the picture has been removed from the site. On the other hand, Unsplash recommends that image users respect the photographer’s decision and stop using the given work as well.

Are Unsplash images free?

Yes, they are free or royalty-free, in other words, with no restrictions regarding this.

Is Unsplash free for commercial use?

Yes, it is, but the way someone would use a photograph downloaded from Unsplash for commercial purposes can vary — which influences if it really is right for such projects. More about this below.

laptop, camera, phonePhoto by Desola Lanre-Ologun

When can you not use an Unsplash photo for commercial purposes?

If you use an Unsplash photo as part of the product to sell, that is allowed. For instance, if you put the image on a website that sells something, you are good. The image is only presented in a channel that is also used to sell the product, it is part of the product but not the product itself.

However, you cannot simply put the image from Unsplash as it is on a cup or T-shirt that you’re selling since this way the image essentially becomes the product. In this case, the picture must be significantly updated, modified, or incorporate a new creative element before it can be used under such circumstances, for commercial purposes.

When is an Unsplash image ‘significantly modified’? 

Unsplash says that the modification of an image downloaded from their platform must reflect your creative process, instead of using a script that gives an ‘automated treatment’ to the image. 

Therefore, cropping, resizing, or retouching an image won’t make it as ‘significantly modified’. Forget about simply adding an overlaying text or applying a filter, too. 

In addition, Unsplash says, it’s a good idea to ask yourself if the photographer would easily spot their image in your creative work — if so, the alteration wasn’t enough.

To be completely safe though, we wouldn’t necessarily rely on that last piece of advice. If someone wants to use an altered version of an image for commercial purposes and it leads to a legal case because it’s questionable if the picture was meaningfully modified enough from a creative perspective, that visual probably isn’t worth all the hustle.

You are better off directly paying a photographer for an image or acquiring the license to use a photograph under the agreed circumstances for your commercial purposes.

Why is it tricky to use Unsplash photos of landmarks and famous buildings, logos, and private property?

The term to learn here is trademark infringement

Famous landmarks, buildings, and logos have trademark rights. Well-known examples include the Chrysler Building in New York and the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

“Trademark infringement is the unauthorized use of a trademark or service mark on or in connection with goods and/or services in a manner that is likely to cause confusion, deception, or mistake about the source of the goods and/or services,” according to the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

The key here is consumer confusion. 

You can use an Unsplash photo of the Chrysler Building in your office space and the visitors wouldn’t think that your business is in any way connected to the Building. 

However, if you would engage in any commercial activity focusing on that building, such as organizing trips to visit the place and using the photo for promoting your service, people could believe that you have the endorsement by the Chrysler Building to do so. This way, you’d be infringing on the trademark rights of the Chrysler Building.

Keep in mind that the same goes for identifiable brands (logos). If you use an Unsplash picture for commercial purposes where an Apple product or where a Gucci logo is distinguishable, for instance, you can easily get in trouble — and that free Unsplash photo might instantly turn into hefty fees you must pay for infringement.

Last but not least, images of identifiable private property (a clearly visible street name, house number and license plate, for instance) to be used for commercial purposes, are a no-go, as well.

Why is it tricky to use Unsplash photos of celebrities?

As with trademarks, the photos of celebrities are another wormhole if you are not aware of image use rules. 

Technically, you are allowed to use Unsplash photos with recognizable faces even for commercial purposes, if the image doesn’t cause any negativity or harm to the person in the picture.

However, celebrities are a different category as they tend to have additional privacy rights that don’t allow businesses to profit from using their images and quite literally, their face. Even Unsplash doesn’t recommend using these for commercial purposes, while personal use is still fine in this case.

unsplashPhoto by Annie Spratt

Is Unsplash safe to use?

The scenario depends on which side are you on: using the image or uploading your work as the creative artist.

Should you download images from Unsplash?

As an image user, it is likely safe to use Unsplash for personal and editorial use. 

Things get complicated with commercial use though, considering all the delicacies of copyright, trademark protection, and privacy rights, as mentioned above. 

There are two specific areas that image users should pay attention to on Unsplash:

  1. Anyone can upload any photographs to Unsplash. This means image users may end up using visuals for free that were never legally allowed to be there. This is a ground-level difficulty with the site that keeps many away from using it.
  2. Once an image is deleted from Unsplash, its record that it was there is also deleted. This could cause legal trouble for image users as they’re trying to prove where they sourced the image in the first place, for free. Our tip is to take a screenshot of the image record page (including the URL) or download the page for safekeeping.

These areas are clearly tricky for the average image user but as we always say: if in doubt about the image source or any of its possible uses, contact the photographer to clear the fog or simply stay away from using the picture.

Should you upload your photographs to Unsplash? 

If you are a photographer, the question of safety is firstly related to indemnification which, sadly, is not something Unsplash offers you, unlike other similar services. 

If anything, according to their Terms and Conditions, it is the photographer who agrees to indemnify the company if a legal case arises, such as the violation of anyone’s rights, including intellectual property rights, or other disputes between the photographer and a third party. 

On the other hand, it’s good to know that they can help you with infringement issues. If your photo that you exclusively uploaded to Unsplash, appears on another site as well and you haven’t managed to get them to take it down, you can report the violation to Unsplash and they offer a hand in resolving the matter.

If you don’t want to be surprised about your Unsplash photos popping up on other websites, try Pixsy. 

Our 24/7 active monitoring service (free up to 500 images per month) ​​can search by image to quickly find copyright infringements, and we can even help you in having your work taken down from the violating websites. 

Register here.

As for the aspect that Unsplash may help photographers get more business, it’s an undecided matter. Some report positive outcomes while others only see the growing numbers of likes and downloads but are not hired for more paying jobs as a result. Although, your Unsplash photo being the cover image of a Forbes article may help you get there.

While it’s debatable whether the likes and downloads are truly the marks of greater exposure for a photographer, it is true that an Unsplash portfolio might work as a teaser for clients — clients that the artist wouldn’t necessarily encounter otherwise but with the help of Unshplash’s global reach.

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