Can Instagram Sell Your Photos?

Okay, I’m looking for an honest answer here: How often do you install an application on your phone without reading the terms of service? If you are like most people, including myself, the answer is probably “all the time.”  I’m generally cautious about what I install and use on my phone, but I can’t say that I typically spend much time reading through lengthy terms of service (TOS) on a small screen. This is especially true when I’m loading an app for a particular purpose, one that is on my mind right now.

Instagram lets you filter, frame, and share photos for free, but are you giving away more than you're getting?

Because I love taking photos, one of my current favorite apps is Instagram, which allows me to upload, filter, frame, and share photos with the people who choose to follow me.  My photos range from conference snapshots, to photos taken in and around our D.C. office, to pictures of my children’s latest escapades. Instagram also lets me keep up with photos of friends I’ve followed there.

Last spring, Instagram was purchased by Facebook. This week, the company posted new terms of service, set to take effect Jan. 16. According to some sources, the changes to the TOS grant the company the ability to use your photos in ways that you may not have intended, and this has caused a bit of a firestorm. Many users are complaining publicly. Here’s why:

According to an article on,

Under the new policy, Facebook claims the perpetual right to license all public Instagram photos to companies or any other organization, including for advertising purposes, which would effectively transform the Web site into the world’s largest stock photo agency.

Without getting too deep in the legalese, the interpretation is that Instagram could take a photo you’ve uploaded and sell it to another company to use, without notifying you.  But you don’t necessarily need to delete your account yet. Late yesterday, Instagram issued a reply on their blog, promising to revisit the language of the terms and explaining that their intention was to allow targeted advertising within the site, in much the same way that Facebook operates.

You can choose to make your profile private. Instagram’s current TOS says that their sharing and use is based on your account’s privacy setting; but the new TOS don’t include that language.  For now, that will protect your photos. With the dustup about the language change and what their intent is, Instagram may reinsert this language before the January 16th cutoff. If not, you can consider deleting your account before the deadline.

As real estate agents, your big consideration on Instagram comes with any photos you may have taken and posted of your clients’ homes (current or past)—not MLS listing photos, but photos you have taken and shared. I’m sure your sellers wouldn’t want photos of their homes used commercially, so if you are sharing those types of photos, you need to know how and where they could be used.  Flickr is a great replacement option, with better privacy settings, and the app now has photo filters, too. I’ve heard you can also  get similar results by using the filters in the Hipstamatic app first, and then sharing the photo via Flickr. The Flickr app, like Instagram, is free, but Hipstamatic will cost you a cool 99 cents.

Still, a legitimate question remains: Should you be sharing photos of your listings on a photo-sharing site? Lots of practitioners do it. But it’s your responsibility to protect your photos of clients’ homes on those sites.  In general, it’s also a good idea to protect yourself by having written permission from your sellers to take and publicly display and distribute photos of their home.  Many listing agreements now include this type of language.

At the end of the day, you need to remember that at times you are using technology as a business person, and not just as a consumer. So protect your clients and yourself by making sure you understand the terms of service of the apps you use.


Heather Elias

Heather Elias, Director of Social Business Practice, National Association of REALTORS® Heather is responsible for overseeing the association’s social media policies and guidelines and serving as an internal consultant to each department’s social media efforts with the goal of working toward a more collaborative and coordinated social business. Prior to her role at NAR, Heather was a successful REALTOR® and the training director at Century 21 Redwood Realty in Ashburn, Virginia. Her blog about Loudoun County,, garnered her national acclaim and generated 75% of her business. Heather is a sought-after presenter and has spoken at numerous conferences across the country. She was recently named one of LinkedIn’s 150 Thought Leaders, along with President Obama, Governor Romney, Richard Branson and others.

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  1. Hi Heather… about how much controversy Instagram’s new TOS have caused!

    With regard to sharing photos of client’s homes, I have never seen a problem with it as long as you do not disclose an address and you ask them first. You know how I take hundreds of photos and create collages and vignettes of corners of listings – it’s what I’m hired to do and what makes me stand out from the rest. The real question should be of authority over your intellectual property and protection of privacy.

    Even Flickr, one of my favorite photo sharing platforms does not allow its use for anything commercial – so posting photos of listings and or developments, may be construed as breaking their TOS.

    Now to look for a great watermarking app for the iphone 😉

  2. oh, forgot to add something – it upsets me more that I have to relinquish copyrights to my local board when uploading property photos to the MLS after I pay a professional photographer to take them. Agents steal my photos all the time and our MLS is protected. (leave that one for another discussion)

  3. Maureen Francis

    With syndication of listings, my listing photo are spread over thousands of sites. My clients know that when I list their homes. I have no problem with anyone who puts listing photos on Instagram, flickr, etc. if you google the address of most of my former listings you see my photos. Frankly, I don’t see the concern of having them on Instagram.

  4. You guys are funny. Sellers pictures are all over the internet. Just google the address for any listing. I love Instagram but I can’t say I care what happens to my Instagrams on the site. I have copies of them and I can use them any way I want. I can’t imagine anyone would want to buy them.

  5. sorry about that. I suppose there are Instagrams that people could sell.

  6. Heather Elias

    The way the TOS are written, IG could sell your photo to a third party, who could then use it in ways you didn’t intend. Imagine if your clients’ home photo turned up in an advertising campaign for “We Buy Ugly Houses” or as part of a home and garden site’s blog post on “America’s Ugliest Kitchens”. That wouldn’t be your intention by releasing the rights for the photo to the wild, but it could happen. I think it’s better to be overly cautious when it comes to clients. Photos you’ve posted as a consumer, not as a business person, are of course a different case.