Has social media completely subverted the photography realm?

Jan 14, 2011
St. Louis
Watermarks and "not for broadcast" overlays originated from a time when photographers mainly had to worry about TV outlets/productions or major publishers taking your video without permission or payment. Now, those relatively infrequent TV and major media incidents pale in comparison to viewership & revenue the social media corporations make on that content.

Even today, the practice of giving away photos and video to commercial entities in exchange for the "exposure" is (rightly) still near-universally derided among professional, semi-pro and even hobbyist photographers. Despite that, everyone from amateurs to big-name photographers post their best work on social media, where the likes/shares/retweets are the "payment in exposure" of today.

The platforms - which are some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world - generate *all* of their revenue from this very thing. It makes any big-name production company sneaking 5 seconds of unlicensed video into a TV show (the type of thing that would, justifiably, bring out the pitchforks among photographers) look infinitesimally small by comparison.

I'm struggling to understand how this is happening. Are the big-name photographers getting something of tangible value out of that transaction, or have they been completely duped by the dopamine intoxication of likes and shares? If it's the latter, we're witnessing a subversion of an entire industry on a scale rarely seen in history.

The point isn't against sharing of photos and videos, there's nothing wrong with that. It's voluntarily allowing a powerful mega-corporation to do what any professional worth their salt would never consider doing under any other circumstance.

These days, the "big break" for a photographer isn't getting published in a big TV show or magazine - it's going viral online. The money made on a super-viral piece of content today dwarfs what a National Geographic or Discovery license from the 1990s or 2000s was. These days, you're never going to see anything better revenue-wise than a monetized video that gets views in the 8 figures or more. But that's the very thing being given away to the social media platform en masse by *everyone*. Even if you've never had anything go crazy viral, you're part of the collective revenue stream for the platforms that nickel-and-dime every cent of value that your content has.

All of the reasons I've heard to justify this are exactly what photographers were told before by shady companies trying to get us to give our work away in the past: "You're going to get great exposure and name recognition", "So many people will enjoy seeing your work and get a chance to appreciate it", "That's just the way we do things now". We're all falling for it, I have repeatedly myself.

I don't even want to share/retweet fellow photographers' works now because all I can see is the "cha-ching" that the platform reaps with every share.

If I'm way off base here, someone set me straight. Why are we giving these companies *everything*?
No, I think you're right. It's also advertising, trying to drive people to your services, but I can't see how many of those clicks would ever follow through to buy something or subscribe to a service.
In the larger picture you are absolutely right. SM platforms are the ones who are guaranteed to profit after everything is said and done.

For the individual who is sharing their work (for free) there is some component of validation and that ever so strong dopamine hit that you mention. I do believe the "Carrot on the Stick" in general is to reach some sort of influencer status where companies want to tap into followings for targeted advertising, which could be in the form of cash, sponsorships or free gear.

The problem for 99.9% of everyone sharing their work is that going viral with one photo/video incredibly hard, and then building a sizeable following and consistently cranking out content which is even harder. But, it's like playing the lottery and if you don't play you can't win.

Unfortunately most of us don't win or even come close, but that doesn't hold anyone back from spending their hard earned money, or sharing their hard earned work.
It’s not just social media and it’s not just pictures/video. The internet has devalued a lot of types of content. Look how many magazines and news outlets make at least some content available for free; all of that was paid for in the past. I was in professional services for years; it had become expected that a certain amount of consulting expertise would be freely shared as part of the selling process, in order to secure a paying client.

And with social media, it’s not just pictures and videos. Anyone that posts anything is essentially being used and monetized by the tech companies. We are being fed algorithmically-driven content to capture our attention. We provide content, we give away our attention, the tech companies make money, and, in my opinion, the result is we are diminished as a society and as individuals.
Not to mention outlets like the Daily Mail are notorious for posting things they find on social media, without approval, and will make you chase to get it pulled down. They just don't care.
Not to mention outlets like the Daily Mail are notorious for posting things they find on social media, without approval, and will make you chase to get it pulled down. They just don't care.

Not so sure they can be faulted for that though…Once you post something online it’s public. As long as credit is given of course…
1) Don't post full-resolution/full-frame versions of your work. Either degrade the resolution (converting to JPG and using a higher compression factor are good ways to do this) or crop parts of the image to make sure there are no full versions of your work anywhere
2) Watermark the f--k out of your work. And put the watermark near or over the top of the most interesting part of the image (e.g., the tornado)
3) STOP. USING. SOCIAL MEDIA. I know this one is damn near impossible for many, if not all, of us. But you can at least decrease your presence there. You don't have to be on Facebook, X, Instagram, Threads, LinkedIn, AND [the rest here]. Cut it down to 1 or 2 at most.
4) Social media burrowed itself into our society more than a decade ago now by becoming essentially a utility, almost on the level of water and power. People need social media to live now. At least, they live as if they think they do. But the social media companies are doing an incredibly good and efficient job of making people want to be there despite giving them nothing that matters IRL. It's a lot like this line from "Rush Hour 2" (prescient, considering the release date of that film):

Therefore, many people are now like those in the Matrix - they are hopelessly hooked on the system and will fight to protect it.

Additional reading on the subject: Amazon.com
The devaluation is coming from the fact that everyone has a professional grade camera in their pocket and access to freely share the images it produces. In fact, it's encouraged to share. Tornado pictures and footage are just not that uncommon anymore. The supply is high and fulfilling demand.

My images are valuable to me but not as valuable to others. I've put them online in my own medium that I generally control. If someone finds value, great. If not, no big deal.
I'm done posting my original photos on social media....watermarks are pretty useless, now....several programs out there that remove them, so it's a free-for-all for thieves.
I once operated the largest distributor of weather-only images. I think my insight might help explain how this occurred.

("Images" includes still pictures and footage).

The answer is not complex, but requires some understanding of the history of "stock photography" and how the downfall of copyright respect occurred.

Before the point-and-shoot, cell phone camera era, good images (especially weather images) were somewhat difficult to accomplish. There was no auto-focus, auto-exposure and only professional photographers or very serious amateurs had high quality lenses with focal lengths over 200mm. Moving footage was even harder to accomplish. Some of you might recall me lugging around a heavy 35mm Mitchell camera for years!

Equally important, there were no consumer "Photoshop" or cinema-editing tools to fix poorly exposed frames, scratches, etc. There were also fewer chasers, nature photographers, etc. Graphic, sharp, properly exposed images were in high demand and commanded often fantastic rates, often over $20k for exclusive rights. All of these limitations and factors made it easy to track the few excellent images on the market. Abuse was usually easy to spot. Stock agencies would often communicate with each other when a suspected infringement was found.

Images were distributed as transparencies, either originals or duplicates. Footage was sent as duplicated media. There were no digital images. My office sent out hundreds of transparencies every week. The transparencies had a stamp on the mount, noting copyright. Clients were receiving a physical item, clearly noting the property was copyrighted and clients almost always respected the copyright. I believe receiving a marked, physical item emphasized the copyright.

The majority of copyright abuses were honest mistakes, e.g., the client accidentally used the image (or reused it) by forgetting to notify the agency. I would say that 9 out of 10 times, a kindly-worded letter to the client resulted in full payment and an apology. Malicious abuses were rare, but they could result in very hefty fines. Of note, most larger stock agencies had the funds to pursue abusers in Federal Court (which was very expensive). Stock agencies were the Godfathers who protected photographers. Successful court cases resulted in an industry-wide "awareness" that abuse could be costly. I recall one photographer in NY who pursued a case against a major corporation, spending a whopping $250k in legal fees. He eventually settled for $500k plus legal fees.

We fast forward to the age of social media, electronic transfers of data, Photoshop, millions of images flooding the Internet and the collapse of Godfather agencies due to royalty free images and photographers (pro and amateur) willing to whore-out images for pennies or worse, for free. This set the stage for massive copyright abuse, as infringers felt embolden, surmising there would be no enforcement or penalty.

One might also argue there is an element of generational attitudes involved, a time in history where a lot of people feel things should be free of charge (entitled) with no consequences for breaking the law.

Now the good news......

In 2020 The Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act (CASE Act) was passed by congress. It allows the photographer to file a claim through a "small claims process." I will not detail the process here, but complete information is located below. There are also case histories to study.

Although I have not personally used this process, I can only image the time it might take to process a complain, given the potential number of complains being filed. I would assume that filing a claim, and forwarding a letter to the infringer noting so, would freak out the majority of people.

The question becomes: is it worth the effort to pursue small time abusers? The small claims process is not free. (Fees are noted here: About the Copyright Claims Board | U.S. Copyright Office). I would likely limit claims to businesses and those individuals committing flagrant, multiple abuses. Important note: There is a limit on the number of claims that any party can file in a single year.

Don’t forget that you must mark your images as copyrighted. The most common tactic for defending a claim is, "the images were not marked." Register your work with the US copyright office. You can submit images as large groups or collections.

I believe if enough photographers begin filing claims, word will quickly spread that abusing copyrights is a stupid, costly mistake.

Good luck,

Warren Faidley
Weatherstock Inc.
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In hindsight I would say it isn't totally broken, because I know of one sports agency which is extremely strict and has good software to trawl social media for unauthorised use.

I also wonder if the rise of webp images on websites will help with copyright, as they cannot be as easily stolen, nor copied with high resolution.
Some Q1 revenue figures:

Facebook: $36.45 billion ($12.37 billion profit)
NBC Universal: $30.6 billion ($3.86 billion profit)
Warner Brothers: $9.96 billion ($996 million loss)
Netflix: $9.37 billion ($2.33 billion profit)
Disney: $22.08 billion ($3.85 billion profit)
Youtube: $8.1 billion (could not locate net income figure for Youtube alone, but Alphabet's was $23.6 billion)

Q1 is usually the lowest for advertising earnings, Q4 is the highest due to the holiday shopping season.

All of those companies earn their revenues from the consumption of *content* (either via advertising and/or subscriptions), the very thing you and I provide. Social media is the only one who gets it all for free from us, and their profit margins show it.

Why are we so vehement about NBC and Warner Brothers paying us for video but not Facebook, X and Reddit? That's the main thing I'm trying to figure out. Business-wise, they are all the same.

Do we want social media to go away or at least change for the better? All it would take is for us to stop giving our stuff away to them. Or at least collectively start demanding they give us our fair share of what they're earning from it. The power is in our hands to do it.
Organization has always been an issue for photographers. The music, publishing and entertainment industry has always been very aggressive in fighting copyright and tax issues. Photographers owe them a wealth of gratitude.

Congress once proposed a very complex, potentially devastating tax bill effecting the creative industry. For photographers, it would have required tracking every single picture (and other creative items), as separate income sources, which would have been impossible. I spoke to US Representative David Rostenkowski, who advised me the bill would be altered before voting. He also told me I was the only photographer who called his office, with the majority of contacts coming from music and entertainment interests.
I think it sucks that FB, YT, Tik-Tok, etc. will pay content creators for video views, but not a thing for a still photo. I can have a million followers and 5 million likes on a photo and not see a penny, while a short/reel, etc. will at least earn some revenue even if it doesn't come close to going viral. Not sure what X does these days, but they at least seemed interested in paying a content creator for something other than just a video.

But, video is where it's at these days and where it's headed for the foreseeable future. It's what keeps people hooked.

Long ago I was at a crossroads of choosing whether to focus on video or still photography and I chose stills. I can't go back now, but there seems to be endless opportunity down the video road these days.
I've pretty much gone over to drone video for most scenes. I will shoot still images when the subject is static, or something very graphic. If I had access to a 4k drone back in the day..... oh my!

If photographers like Ansel Adams were at their peak today, they would be lost in a sea of mediocrity. The days of the great still life photographers are gone.