If Emily Posted: On Third Party Apps And Playing By The Rules

5 years ago

We’re responsible for reading the fine print on the social sharing sites and apps that we use. We’re responsible for being mindful as to how we share content, respect copyrights and gain necessary permissions. Isn't it up to third party apps to do the same?

Recently, I’ve discovered how many developers are gaining access to APIs to build their programs without following the Terms of Use (TOS) that come with them. Internet, we have a problem.

IEP third party apps ©alexashersears

This really wasn’t on my radar until several months ago. My friend tweeted an Instagram of her daughter, and the link took me to an third party app, one of many that make Instagrams viewable from a desktop computer. What caught my eye immediately was a Pin It button next to her photo. The photo of her toddler is hers by copyright, as all Instagrams are by default to their owners.

You can’t pin anything unless you own the copyright or have permission to pin, so why was the embedded Pin It button on an Instagram?

I wasn’t OK with it and began doing what I believe this cyber village should be doing - kindly asking sites to do the right thing. Take down any button that encouraged pinning of Instagrams, embedded or not (some access the Pin bookmarklet in your browser instead of embedding it). A pin icon implies you have permission to pin something.

Upon realizing they were breaking the TOS, a few quickly removed the button. Very quickly. Like, fifteen-minutes-and-it-vanished-quickly. Others have made no changes whatsoever. Most have made no changes.

I’ve emailed, chatted and tweeted with a number of developers, and the conversations have been enlightening. From desktop interfaces to mobile apps to other services, a pattern emerged that leaves me uneasy:

In every case, regardless of whether an app was willing to make adjustments, they wanted the TOS explained to them. They wanted to understand what they were doing that violated user’s rights.

The TOS for developers using the Instagram API is quite straightforward:

"Although the Instagram APIs can be used to provide you with access to Instagram user photos, neither Instagram's provision of the Instagram APIs to you nor your use of the Instagram APIs override the photo owners' requirements and restrictions, which may include "all rights reserved" notices (attached to each photo by default when uploaded to Instagram)..."

And this:

"You shall not: Use Instagram APIs in any manner or for any purpose that violates any law or regulation, any right of any person, including but not limited to intellectual property rights, rights of privacy, or rights of personality."

And this, too:

"Instagram users own their images. It's your responsibility to make sure that you respect that right."

FACT: Many developers agree to TOS specifically for use of an API, but build their apps without following them. They’re making what they want, not what is allowed.

Every single developer I’ve spoken with has suggested I am in the minority and that Instagram users want their content shared to bring them more exposure. Even if in the minority, I ask what gives them the right to disregard the TOS they agreed to?

I can only speak for the many who I've asked via twitter, Facebook, email and in-person conversation these last months, but not one has said they want their Instagrams distributed this way. If someone retweeted the Instagram they posted to twitter or Facebook, fine. They know that they’ve made it available that way. They control how that content leaves Instagram. But nothing outside of the TOS.


If Emily Posted Instagram IP Respect ©alexashersears
Every developer has also suggested that I make my Instagram feed private, as though this solves the problem. I respond the same way each time.

I have every right to share my Instagram feed while having the right to decide how my images are distributed beyond Instagram's TOS. As does any Instagram user.

I don’t believe we can control how all of our content is used online, it’s the nature of the beast, but we can tell sites misusing it that it’s not OK. We shouldn’t have to ask to be respected, and yet we have to.

There is wonderful opportunity for exposure via Instagram. It’s a great social media tool when people use it the way it was intended.

And now for a troubling twist: third parties profiting from unethical apps.

There are apps that allow you to order prints and stickers and mini books and canvases of your Instagrams beyond your feed. They use the API so that they can access your images and give you the ability to order products. Except some go beyond and allow you to print not just your images but those of anyone you follow.

These sites are making money selling copyrighted images that might not belong to the person ordering them, which could potentially be turned around and be sold by the customer as art on Etsy, and that product image could be pinned to Pinterest. This is where it really begins to spiral out of control.

That’s not the only concern I have. I read so many posts and how-to’s that encourage people to add original content to their Facebook Pages to increase traffic. These tutorials rarely remind people that the content they upload they must have the rights to use.

FACT: Just because some apps make it possible for you to post someone else’s Instagrams to your site does not make it legal.

If you wonder how they justify this, numerous developers have told me that if what they’re doing isn’t permissible, then the sites that provide the APIs should do something about it. If they read the TOS, they'd see the limit of liability provided by Instagram to developers. The developer s responsible for using the API responsibly. Are they reading what they agree to?

When a developer has use of an API for their app, it’s like having keys to a car. The API comes with TOS specifically for the developer to follow. They have the privilege of using the API, just like using someone else’s car. If they drive recklessly and disregard the rules of the road, they can’t blame the car or it’s owners. They took the wheel. They chose to disobey the rules.

third party apps must respect IP ©alexashersears
That said, in some instances sites could take more responsibility once made aware of problems. When Pinterest became aware of a site prepped to launch that prints user’s Pinterest boards as posters, they made a note of it on their Facebook page. They’re aware it exits, and yet, they choose to simply say they don’t endorse it. Nothing more.

They aren’t supporting the site, but they’re not shutting it down either. It brings me back to this Desmond Tutu quote I’ve used in the past:

"If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."

Taking no action is an action, as the mouse would surely tell you. And it is our responsibility to take action, too.

I’m seeing more apps misusing APIs to generate content for people to use on social sharing sites. The only way I think this will stop is if we, the users and content creators, let the sites we use know that we will not continue using them if they don’t respect us.

The Field of Dreams notion that “If you build it, they will come,” must be an exciting one for developers. But just because you can build an app doesn't mean you should. And just because you have doesn’t mean you can’t change it and make it a better one.

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