The Google+ conundrum
There has been much talk about Google's new social networking platform and their Terms of Service, especially regarding their use of photos uploaded to the site. Many professional and semi-professional photographers go crazy whenever they see legal-eze terms and fear for the future of their images. Bah! I say, and there are a couple reasons why.
I've posted on this topic before. I've since moved my blog and, though the posts are in the archive, I'm too lazy to dig that one up. I'll just summarize.
I have had nothing but awesome experiences sharing my photos online. I share on Flickr, Facebook, Picasa, JPG magazine, TrekLens, and a couple different forums; all in varying degrees of regularity. There is great fear out of images being stolen and, though I'm sure it happens with a fair degree of regularity, there is still an infinitesimal chance that my images will get stolen, no matter how much I think they deserve to be. With the billions of photographers, ka-zillions of images floating around the web, and cheap imagery in istockphoto.com and the like, I really don't have fear. I have learned significantly more through sharing than I feel is at risk in this medium.
But people are clamoring about the ToS on Google+ (or Facebook, or Twitter, or Flickr, or ...) specifically; the fear that these companies will outright claim ownership of your work. Scott Bourne of Photofocus most notably fired off a blog post about its hazards: Scott Bourne: http://photofocus.com/2011/07/06/google-plus-read-the-fine-print-before-you-sign-up/ .
Now, that might have been a knee-jerk reaction to a potential problem and there have been a couple responses already. Jim Goldstein has a wonderful article on his blog parsing almost the entire ToS: http://www.jmg-galleries.com/blog/2011/07/08/how-i-evaluate-terms-of-service-for-social-media-web-sites-google/ and Denise Howell also dissects it for us: http://www.bagandbaggage.com/blog/2011/7/10/google-user-licenses-clarification-would-be-nice-but-theyre.html .
Don't get me wrong, that is a legitimate concern and a careful reading, understanding, and consideration of the ToS is surely in order before you post an image to any distribution service.
How do I feel about the issue personally? My opinion falls into two distinct categories. First, if you don't want to put your photos at risk, don't post them. There may be a couple of reasons for this. In the Scott Bourne example, he makes a living by granting exclusive rights for his images to his clients. In that case, he has almost no choice but to hold onto those images and not share them with the rest of the world, except through his clients medium. If he sells an image for an advertisement, he can then share the ad with his followers, but not the original image. For any user that lives in constant fear of having work stolen, you also have no choice but to hang onto that work yourself and no show it off. In this case, I disagree with you but respect your decision. It's a shame that you live in such fear and, if you don't make a living from your work, I certainly don't understand what the potential harm could be, but, nevertheless, not posting your images isn't going to hurt anyone else either.
In a second case, I see users who want to share their work, but are hamstrung by over-aggressive ToS. Though Google's seems to be one of the better ones from what I've read (Facebook being the other end of the scale), the fear still persists. Let me clue you in on a little secret: the world wide web was built on sharing information across servers. Here's my workaround. Either get your own website or find a trusted host, post your photos there, and link back to them. No matter where you post them, you have not granted any other company the right to use those images for anything. All they can do is pull them from your website to display. Now, I'm no lawyer and do not proclaim to have any education in this area, so please consult someone who knows better before you employ this technique expecting security for your work. My understanding is that you would retain every last drop of ownership and license of your images which no one else can touch.
You would miss out on a few advanced functions of certain sites, like tagging individual people in a photo, allowing others to use your work for their avatars, or maintaining a remote album. In my opinion, those are fairly minor problems.
If you've made a gallery of images that you are trying to share and sell, I'd recommend using both techniques; make only a few available in your social / sharing locations for your clients to use at will and retain the bulk of the work on your own host. That way you get the benefit of your clients sharing images and only put a couple at risk.
I still feel the value of reaping the resources of every photographer in the world far outweighs the risk of a single image.