Guest Post by Thierry Secretan, photographer, author, journalist.

Although Instagram declares it does not monetize your pictures, it still allows commercial Instagram clones to proliferate. Those generate revenue using your images without sharing any of the profits.

Which one of us does not share our photographs on Instagram? What good is it to take pictures, if it is not to show our images to others? To which we can add the satisfying feeling of social recognition and see the likes and comments accumulate. The hope also that one of our images catches the attention of an art director of an advertising agency or a great brand and bingo: the 5-digit commission work! … Have we not all read stories that it happened to some previously unknown photographer, sometimes even to a lucky amateur? Moreover, we all know that Instagram does not sell nor exploit our photos to its advantage, don’t we? It is a platform for photography enthusiasts who can share their images and used to make us known by broadcasting our pictures on the web.

Laurent Gudin is not a beginner. He is an independent French professional photographer who was also the artistic director of major magazines and whose elegant and subtly illuminated portraits of world champions athletes, famous musicians or astonishing transexuals have, for many years, embellish the pages of luxurious weeklies, album covers, galleries, and museums. Laurent’s other passion is the country of Senegal. He published two photo books, which took years of work; the first on the traditional wrestling of Senegal, the second on the False Lions,  men who paint their faces and bodies in bright colors and whose costumes and headdresses likens them to wild beasts. They offer a fascinating street show for city dwellers and villagers who sometimes end up taking part in the festivities. Ever since November 2016, Laurent Gudin, motivated by the same expectations as all of us, regularly posts his photographs on Instagram.

Laurent Gudin image on Instagram ©Laurent Gudin
Laurent Gudin’s image on Instagram ©Laurent Gudin

Laurent is one of the hundred and thirty members of the PAJ trade union (Photographers, Authors, Journalists) that I stir since its creation in 2011. In 2016 PAJ, looking for a photograph protection solution, had identified the invisible and indelible watermark patented by  IMATAG as the most powerful on the market. As soon as a file marked by IMATAG appears on the web, its author or rightful recipient receives an email providing the URL of the site and a thumbnail of the usage. PAJ encouraged its members to take advantage of this innovative technology to protect their content.  Laurent did it immediately, shortly before opening his Instagram account. Thus all the images that he posted are marked and traceable.

Here is what the IMATAG notifications revealed:

hundreds of photographs by Laurent Gudin, complete stories, sometimes in batches of hundreds of photos, appeared on sites copying Instagram by way of its API, in full breach of ALL its terms of use (GCU). Furthermore, it was possible to verify that some of these sites garner up to 3000 $ of advertising revenue per day. Not a penny is paid to the authors of the images whose images were stolen from Instagram. It is, therefore — in terms of European copyright laws —a blatant theft of photographs.

Photos initially posted on Instagram are found on Pictame, surrounded by advertising…
Photos initially posted on Instagram are found on Pictame, surrounded by advertising…

These sites are called Deskgram, Pictame, Webstagram, Picoku, or Picdeer to name but a few. Worse, 62 users of Imatag’s invisible watermark have found 3,865 of their images on 32 clones of Instagram. Like Laurent Gudin, none of them were contacted for authorization.

Deskgram, Pictame, Webstagram, Picoku, Picdeer use the same typography and the same presentation as Instagram, presenting themselves as “Online Instagram Posts viewers” operating via Instagram’s API (Application Programming Interface). The API interface is a development tool which allows companies to work as a verified business account open on Instagram via a Facebook account. The legal terms set forth by Instagram describes in detail the permitted uses and must be read and approved by operators before the API account becomes operational. In particular, it states that:

– Each user of Instagram remains the owner of his images.
– You do not have the right to build a slideshow using photos of others.
– You should not select pictures using the API and then store them without the express permission of their authors.
– You do not have the right to use their images for advertising purposes or to monetize them.

All rules that these clone sites trample freely. Moreover, you will often find at the bottom of these websites mention that they use the Instagram API but are not related in any way to the platform. How does one explain that these sites claim to be using Instagram’s API without respecting its terms and conditions and that Instagram takes no action? There is little action to be done: these clone sites usually do not have a contact address or redirect you to Pictame – which seems to indicate that almost all clone sites belong to the same operator. Getting Pictame to have your photos removed takes weeks, even though they are using them illegally. Trying to reach Instagram yields generally no result.

In 2012 Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram, said :

Instagram will work hard to defend the interests of its users and counter the abuse of other sites.

In 2019, this is clearly not the case.

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