National Geographic Sours on Instagram, for Good Reason

Robert Clark's photograph of a bird's wing on National Geographic's Instagram
Robert Clark’s photograph of a bird’s wing on National Geographic’s Instagram (click to enlarge) (courtesy Instagram)

National Geographic, one of the most creative media institutions to embrace Instagram, is suspending its use of the social photo-sharing platform over the terms of service that have the internet in an uproar. The magazine announced the news with, what else, an Instagram post.

With 640,000 followers and a history of publishing some of the world’s best photography, National Geographic seemed like the superstar of Instagram. It used its account to help its photographers debut new shots, from macro close-ups of feathers by Robert Clark to dramatic, journalistic portraiture from John Stanmeyer.

But the new terms of service, which don’t impact photographs published before January 16, bode ill for maintaining creative control and copyright over work published on Instagram. “You agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you,” the terms read in part. Your snapshots can also be interspersed with commercial ads that aren’t identified: “We may not always identify paid services, sponsored content, or commercial communications as such,” Instagram writes.

NatGeo's Instagram signoff
NatGeo’s Instagram signoff

This means that the photos on National Geographic‘s feed, which might be commissioned by the magazine or exclusive property, could be reused without their permission or knowledge, or even incorporated into advertisements. Not so cool for a business. Instagram’s new terms provide little incentive for media companies to continue to give out free content on its platform, despite the fact that Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom insists that he wants us to “feel comfortable” sharing our photos. It makes me wonder if the New Yorker, which turns its Instagram over to photographers for a week at a time, might be considering a similar move.

Maybe the Instagram backlash isn’t happening so much because people don’t trust Facebook (the parent company) anymore, but because the platform has turned itself against the creators who made it what it is. By aggressively asserting its right to use and adapt the material that gets published, Instagram is flouting its respect for anyone who puts faith in the app, whether professional photographer or brunch-snapping hobbyist.

The company has decided that we’re not allowed to control the creative license over our own work. Unlike Flickr or YouTube, there’s no option on Instagram to publish your work under a restricted license or the more open structure of Creative Commons; instead, it’s only about what the company wants to do with your material. Doesn’t sound very creative, does it?

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