With Twitpics embracing the dark side, who can you trust with your pictures?

I try to keep up to date with copyright law- after all as journalist, a photographer and a blogger it has the power to significantly affect my personal and professional life.

That said, it was with a certain degree of surprise that I saw the Metro newspaper leading with a story on changes to Twitpic’s terms of service. Not because the change isn’t interesting, relevant, and concerning, but because rival Twitter image provider Plixi had done the EXACT SAME THING around five months previously and no-one had really batted an eyelid.

So what’s the problem?

Twitpic terms of service

Twitpic terms of service

The offending change is a clause stating “you hereby grant Twitpic a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the Content in connection with the Service and Twitpic’s (and its successors’ and affiliates’) business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the Service (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels.”

In plain English?

Twitpics has the right to sell your images via a third party (in this case the image provider WENN) and isn’t legally obliged to offer you a single penny of the profits.

Obviously this is mostly likely to target celebrities posting candid snaps but with constant improvements to phone cameras and a careful weeding of potential contributors Twitpics could also become a hugely profitable stock photo and news image provider, without needing to pay the producers of that intellectual property a thing.

The Plixi (now renamed Lockerz) terms and conditions state pretty much the same – by using the service you “[…] (c) automatically grant Lockerz a perpetual, worldwide, unlimited, irrevocable, transferable, assignable, sublicenseable, royalty–free license to use the Submissions, and exercise all copyright, publicity and other rights with respect to any such Submissions; and (d) subject to existing laws, waive any moral rights you or your licensors have in any such Submissions. ”

One difference here though is that (from memory) when the WENN partnership was first announced Plixi/Lockerz stated that termination of an account or removal of the pictures would immediately prevent any further sales of those images. Twitpic does nothing of the sort, stating that licenses granted to the service via content submission “terminate within a commercially reasonable time after you remove or delete your media from the Service provided that any sub-license by Twitpic to use, reproduce or distribute the Content prior to such termination may be perpetual and irrevocable.” Basically, if you remove your content, Twitpic may or may not stop selling it on.

Looking through the Plixi/Lockerz terms today for this piece I can’t find any of the reassurances that I remember existing. Instead the license you grant by using the service is perpetual and unlimited.

Twitgoo – another major image service provider – is also an offender although closer in terms of license to Twitpic than Plixi/Lockerz. Straight from their terms of service: “you hereby grant to Twitgoo and other users a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, worldwide, limited license to…” etc etc.

So who can you trust with your pics?

Seems like yfrog (part of ImageShack) is the thinking Tweeter’s image option of choice. Their terms read like a refreshing blast of common decency:

The content that you distribute through the ImageShack Network is owned by you, and you give ImageShack permission to display and distribute said content on sites operated by ImageShack (ImageShack.com and yfrog.com).

You may revoke this permission at any time by requesting your content to be removed. Such requests will be processed within a maximum period of 24 hours (but usually as short as one hour).

Amazing stuff.

But what do I do now?

When you’re choosing a Twitter image provider check through the terms and conditions carefully. Once you’ve fixed on a service keep an eye out for sneaky tweaks to the terms and conditions. The companies are not obliged to tell you when the terms change – the onus is on you to keep up to date.

The phrase I think you need to keep a close eye out for is “you hereby grant [name] a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, worldwide, license”.

That seems to be the common basic wording for the license which includes the WENN agreements on Plixi and Twitpic as well as the terms of usage on Facebook and a thousand other sites. What it means – to the best of my knowledge – is as follows:

‘non-exclusive’ – This means that the WENN agreement doesn’t stop you selling the image on yourself as you see fit.

‘fully paid’ – I believe this means that the image provider is not obliged to meet any future costs – i.e. the license fee of zero pounds has been paid.

‘royalty-free’ – The image provider does not need to pay you any royalties should your images be used commercially.

‘worldwide’ – Self explanatory.

There might also be fun words like ‘irrevocable’, ‘sublicensable’ and ‘unlimited’ thrown in for good measure.

Ultimately it’s up to you how much you value your images and how much control you wish to retain over them. If you couldn’t give two hoots, use a terrible quality camera and have trouble getting even your nearest and dearest interesting in looking at them you’re probably fine but if you place value on particular images or you would be furious to see them being used to profit someone (other than yourself) I advise you only go with services you trust completely, keep reviewing the T&Cs and have a good look at the Creative Commons licences available.

If you’re a lawyer and have any further insight please do get in touch and I’ll add detail or amend accordingly. Similarly if you have opinions on the matter I’d love to hear them!