The Irony of Unsplash Banning AI-Generated Images

September 27, 2022

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We’ve written articles before about the big legal problems with using AI-generated content for commercial purposes. Platforms like Dalle-2 and Midjourney promise customers that they can use the AI-generated images for all purposes, but as we’ve explained before, they can’t really do this for several reasons:

1. You can’t copyright AI-generated content, so it doesn’t actually belong to the customers. This means that you don’t own anything that you create.

2. You risk getting into legal trouble because the images used to train these AI platforms are not allowed to be used for such commercial purposes.

3. If you get into legal trouble, these companies don’t protect you in any way, so you will be paying for the copyright infringements yourself.


‘The open questions’-argument

Following the recent massive criticism in the media of the legality of AI-generated photos, many of the major stock photo websites have now banned all AI-generated content.

Companies like Shutterstock and Getty Images have told their creative community not to upload any AI-generated images to the platform, and they’ve started developing ways to make sure that they don’t do so. Something that makes a lot of sense, since these companies make a living on images that have since been used without approval to train the AI of Dalle-2, StableDiffusion, Midjourney, and similar text-to-image AI platforms.

However, where the criticism from Shutterstock and Getty Images makes sense, it’s actually rather absurd to watch the free stock photo platform Unsplash now also banning AI-generated content on their site.

At JumpStory we’ve always been against AI-generated images. We’ve even created our very own promise to always focus on real, authentic, and diverse content.

But with Unsplash it’s not a question of authenticity or not. According to their explanation for the ban of AI content, it’s got to do with legal questions – described in the following way in their updated submission guidelines: “There are open questions with respect to the outputs from these models.”

We have two things to say about this:

  1. Unsplash is owned by Getty Images which acquired the company in 2021, so it’s fair to assume that Getty has had quite a big say in this decision process.
  2. Unsplash is using the argument of “the open questions”, but this is ironic since the entire library on Unsplash also raises lots of “open questions”.


The open questions concerning Unsplash

As we’ve described before, Unsplash claims – just like the AI-image generators – that you can use their images for all commercial purposes, BUT when you actually read their full terms, they also make it very clear that when you get into legal trouble, they won’t help you in any way.

Does this ring a bell? YES, it’s the exact same paradox as with AI-generated images.

How can a company claim that you can use their product for commercial purposes, and then when you do so and get into legal trouble, they tell you that it’s not their responsibility? 

But it doesn’t end there. In the last couple of years the number of copyright infringement cases with using free stock photos has exploded. The recent advances in AI (yes again it’s about AI) have made it much easier to track the usage of images without the proper copyright, licensing, and/or model releases. This has resulted in the users of free platforms like Unsplash, Pexels, and Pixabay receiving way more copyright infringement letters than before. Who is going to help them? No one!


Our suggestion for the new user terms on free & AI-generated image platforms

Where stock photo companies like Getty Images, Shutterstock, and JumpStory protect their customers and offer them global insurance on most visuals and in most plans, this is never the case for the ‘free’ image websites and AI-generating platforms.
We think it would be much more honest and transparent if these platforms simply started being straightforward and re-wrote their customer promise. We’ve even come up with a suggestion, and it’s 100% human-made and can even be copied by these companies free of charge:


“To be honest, we don’t know who uploads images to our platform. We have no way of checking whether they actually own the copyright to the image or not, and we also don’t do any model or property release checks on them.
Therefore we’re fully aware that you’re running a significant risk when using our image library, but at least it’s free, and this is also why it can’t be our problem if you end up having to pay for the free images through the copyright infringement cases.”


“We acknowledge that we have been using millions of images to train our AI that have never been released for such purposes. We also know that you can’t copyright AI-generated content, so we hope that you will consider our new technology a super cool thing to get inspired by, but perhaps it’s not a very good idea that you use it in our business. Well, if you do so, just be aware that we don’t have your back in any way.”

About the author

Jonathan Løw is the co-founder of JumpStoryHe is one of Denmark’s most well-known entrepreneurs and business authors. He has been nominated as Entrepreneur of the Year and is amongst Denmark’s 100 most promising leaders according to a major Danish business newspaper. In addition to being a serial entrepreneur, Jonathan Løw is the former Head of Marketing at the KaosPilots – named Top 10 most innovative business schools in the world by FastCompany. He is also former Startup-Advisor and Investor at Accelerace – the leading investment fund for startups in Denmark.

Jonathan Løw

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