No, You Can’t Use My Photos On Your Brand’s Instagram For Free

My name is Max Dubler, and I am a professional photographer who has been working full time in downhill skateboarding for the last several years. I am a well-known person within this little niche: I started an influential website with my friends, was on staff for the only downhill magazine since its first issue, have written extensively about downhill skate safety, and have been hired by almost every major downhill skate brand to shoot photos.

Lately, in an effort to get new riders excited about skating, I have departed from my usual policy of only releasing the most technically perfect pictures of sponsored riders and started posting all of my halfway decent photos from skate events on and its Facebook page. This is a lot more editing work, but as a skater myself I understand the excitement of seeing a good photo of myself from an event. It also helps drive traffic and engagement.

I don’t put huge watermarks in the middle of my photos or charge individual skaters to use them on social media because skaters are mostly broke teenagers, watermarks ruin the picture and don’t stop people from stealing your photos, and I make an okay living from freelance work and my steady gigs. The second-hand stoke is enough of a reward for me. I do charge for-profit companies a fee to use my photos because they are making money off my work. This is a pretty straightforward distinction.

A few days ago an established, successful small longboard brand downloaded one of my pictures from an event in Canada and posted it to their Instagram account.

Not having any prior relationship with this company, I sent them a message to let them know I charge $25 for social media use of my photographs and they can pay me via Paypal or Venmo. (I know this price is very low and I should ask for more to make a point, but I do like to actually get paid sometimes.)

In response, I got a perfect distillation of all the insulting nonsense people say to me when I ask them to pay me for using my work as part of their social media advertising. Let’s break it down…

(I should note here that since I posted this article on my website, several people have come forward to tell me similar stories about this brand using their photos without permission or payment. One person’s photo was used in a print ad without permission, with a logo covering her watermark. This company is a repeat offender.)

“Seriously? we don’t pay for instagram shares.” If you can find photographers who will let you use their work for free, go right ahead. You didn’t do that. You posted my photo, and using my photos on social media costs money. You would have known that if you had asked for my permission before you posted it, but you didn’t and now you need to pay me.

“We always give proper credit.” Photo credit and “exposure” is only valuable to the extent that it gets people like you to hire me for paid gigs. I don’t need any more exposure in skateboarding. I need you to pay me.

“I mean, who pays for Instagram shares lol” Every other major company in this industry has paid for the right to use my work.

“I will take it off.” Your followers already saw this photo on your account. Taking it down now doesn’t change the fact that you have already extracted marketing value from my work. The horse is out of the barn. You need to pay me.

“We don’t post rider pics to sell our gear, we post to support the rider and, ironically, the photog[rapher] too.” I am so, so over this “we’re all bros here and I’m just trying to support the scene” bulls**t. You run a for-profit business. Businesses use rider sponsorships and social media advertising to help them sell more product and make more money. You don’t want to “support me as a photographer,” you want me to work for free and be grateful for the privilege of lining your pocket. If you actually want to “support” me, pay me.

“We’re just a small business, we can’t afford it.” Dude. Man. Bro. Guy. Your company has worldwide distribution and I asked you for twenty five f**king dollars. You can afford it. Think of it as an intellectual-property parking ticket. Pay me.

“I thought I was sharing [our team rider]’s pic, sure of it since we don’t follow you that I know of.” The picture your rider reposted is watermarked with “© MAX DUBLER.” Your rider credited me in the caption and used my hashtag. You tagged me on the post and gave me photo credit in the caption. Do you really expect me to believe you didn’t know that I took this picture? Pay me.

I showed the company a popular comic by The Oatmeal about Exposure.

“It was a share from a rider.” Weren’t you just telling me that reposting was acceptable because you “always give proper credit?”

“Go extort someone else.” Demanding payment for the use of my intellectual property is not extortion. You do not get to take my work, use it to advertise your business, then decide you don’t have to pay for it after the fact any more than I get to walk into your shop, take a brand new board, skate it around the block a few times, and put it back on the rack when informed that I have to pay for it. You used my photo. Pay me.

I don’t even care about the $25 anymore. Plenty of companies have responded to requests for payment with a sincere apology, removal of the photo, and some version of “we can’t afford to pay you.” While that certainly is a bummer, a lot of these small skateboard companies are run on a shoestring budget by very young people unfamiliar with the ins and outs of copyright law in the digital world. When someone makes an honest mistake and treats me with respect, I’ll let it go with a warning.

This company, on the other hand, refused to pay me, insulted me for even thinking that my work is worth money, tried to tell me they were doing me a favor, attempted to play dumb, and finally accused me of extortion when I didn’t back down.

I’m tired of people stealing my work, then telling me it’s worthless, so I did what any pissed-off millennial #influencer and #contentcreator would do in this situation: I took the screen shots of our conversation, added them to a pithy status about how social media is advertising and I can’t pay my rent with exposure, and watched it go viral on Facebook, where it got 500+ likes, 88 shares, and hundreds of comments, including some from other media people that company had screwed over.

As a subculture, downhill skateboarding celebrates and respects talented photographers and videographers, so the reaction was swift: people posted videos of themselves throwing that company’s product in the trash and pledged to support their competitors.

I also wrote a blog entry and posted it to Reddit’s /r/photography page, where it got 2,200 upvotes and 400+ mostly supportive comments from other photographers.

They still haven’t paid me. I doubt they ever will, but in the 48 hours since those posts went up, half a dozen companies have contacted me to pay for for skate photos I didn’t even know they’d used. I’m calling it a win.

Update on 7/15/17: I am deeply moved by the outpouring of support I have received from fellow photographers since the publication of this article. So many of you have reached out to share your stories of frustration at the hands of people who do not respect artists. It is truly heartening to know that I am not alone in this struggle.

That said, some folks have been taking things into their own hands and leaving one star reviews on various longboard brands’ Facebook pages. This is neither wanted nor helpful. Most of these brands, have been my clients over the years. My friends at Landyachtz Longboards, in particular, have hired me many times and always pay me quickly and without hassle.

I left the offending company’s name out of the article because dozens of people left bad reviews on their page after my initial Facebook post and I have no desire to create a further pile-on.

About the author: Max Dubler is a photographer, skateboarder, and writer based in Los Angeles. He is not usually this petty. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow him on Instagram at @maxdubler.