Knowing of my growing distaste for the Facebookization of Instagram, Evgeny Tchebotarev, the co-founder of 500px, sent me an email about a new project from Crew, a freelancer-focused design company. This was years ago. Unsplash, which began as a simple Tumblr site, had graduated to its own home on the internet. The proliferation of digital cameras and iPhones had created a big boom in photography. Instagram has given people a tool to distribute and share their work. The images were getting better in quality and often competing with professional work. Our world was getting more visual.
Unsplash’s idea made sense: photographs made by regular people could be used by others on blogs, in apps, or wherever else they might require. Not everyone had thousands of dollars to spend on Getty Images and Shutterstock. I became a fan, and it wasn’t long before I started to contribute photos. Before I took the plunge, I spent time with Unsplash co-founders Luke Chesser and Mikael Cho. Their initial conversation with me was all about the democratization of photography and how much they wanted to upend the vise-like control of the behemoths. I have been a fan ever since. I even curated a collection for them
I should rephrase part of that — I was a fan up until last evening when I got an email announcing that the company was being acquired by none other than Getty Images. Hearing this was like a red hot spike through the eyes. A startup whose raison d’être was to upend draconian and amoral companies like Getty Images was going to now be part of Getty. Even after I have had time to process it, the news isn’t sitting well with me.
On the one hand, I am thrilled for Cho and his co-founders. I absolutely love them as founders and human beings. And I am glad they got a good outcome for themselves and the team.
But as a longtime part of the community, selling out to one of the worst digital corporate citizens does feel like a betrayal. I said as much on Twitter last night. We all know how this movie ends: Getty is going to come up with some variation of a paywall, and start charging for photos on Unsplash. It is only a matter of time. In a couple of years, when the Unsplash founders are gone, I won’t even be surprised if Getty’s strongmen started sending legal notices to those who used the photos. New rights-related legalese is probably already being drafted.
Getty’s history is what makes me uncomfortable both about them and about using Unsplash going forward. To recap, Getty has previously:
- Charged people for photos that are available in the public domain. [L.A. Times]
- Sent its legal goons after religious organizations and tiny businesses. [The Guardian.]
- Run this scam. They are still running it.
I could go on.
Naturally, the company and co-founder Cho denied that anything will change with Unsplash. Though he did write of his buyers that, over the course of many talks, “It also became clear we shared a similar view of the world.” If you are a platform that shares values and views with Getty, you ain’t for me. I couldn’t bear to be part of a platform that is owned by such a company. I have since deleted my Unsplash account — and I know others have, as well.
“Unsplash will continue operating as we have been with the same team, the same site, the same community. Unsplash images will continue to be free,” the company tweeted.
Dan Gillmor, a veteran tech writer, was quick to point out that “continue to” doesn’t mean “always.” Neither Unsplash nor Getty made an official statement about never charging Unsplash users or never threatening them with legal notices in the future. Cho and his team are undoubtedly aware of the example set by Instagram. The founders can only do so much after being bought by a bigger, more powerful rival.
I have written about startups for a long time. I have also invested in them, though for a much shorter period of time. I know that outcomes for startups are often hard to predict. Everyone and everything, including a startup, follows unanticipated trajectories to their final destination. However, I also know that founders, have a choice when prioritizing their values and who they eventually sell out to.
March 31, 2021, San Francisco.