Earlier this year I wrote a post outlining why I no longer wanted to participate in the 500px website. As you may have heard, a few days ago another rather large issue with 500px came up regarding its deal with the Chinese Company Visual China Group. Initially I wrote this to be an addition to my 8 reasons post, but I think it merits mention on its own as well as mention on the list.
Last week many 500px users noticed a site called vcg.me that contained 500px user profiles and photographs. I don’t know how they found this site, but it appeared to quickly mirror new photo uploads, comments and favorites. This caused some confusion and discord in a number of 500px groups (their user forum) and in other posts on the internet and social media. Initially I speculated this was another Chinese site scraping the content of another website, which isn’t that uncommon. I believe this very thing had happened to 500px before, but in this case, it was not a malicious site – it was 500px themselves.
Back in July of 2015 500px announced they had obtained $13 million in funding from China’s Visual China Group (VCG) in order to fund various ventures including expansion into China. I didn’t think too much about this at the time, China is a huge market and a lot of companies want to explore business there. When the vcg.me site (now rebranded 500px.me) showed up earlier this week it became apparent that there could be some major issues with the move into China. This was to be an entirely new Chinese site written in Chinese and hosted in China. 500px support confirmed with various users frantically asking for an explanation that indeed this was a 500px affiliated website. This was the first the company had indicated that a whole new site would be the platform for a move into China, though nothing official was really released until a few days later when they started damage control. They promised that at some point in the future users would be able to control what images showed up on the Chinese site. Allowing this only after the fact really is too late – the cat is already out of the bag and images have already been transferred to the new Chinese based hosting. As I write this 500px.me has been hidden while it is finished – something I bet 500px wishes it had done from the start.
All of 500px’s customer communication failures in this matter aside, the main issue for me is the Chinese based hosting. As you might know I pursue copyright infringements of my work. All of the legal and copyright infringement “enforcers” I have dealt with immediately bow out when China is mentioned – there is simply no way to enforce copyright laws in that country (or many others). I have tried on my own with a few infringements that I found particularly frustrating (one of my bear photos used on a trophy hunting guide’s website) and got absolutely nowhere with the web hosts or the companies in question. While I realize that any image I upload anywhere may be used in China and other jurisdictions where I have no legal power, I’d prefer my images do not start on servers in those countries. I don’t know all the implications the 500px.me Chinese based site might have for the intellectual property rights of its users, but I bet there will be some. 500px indicated to me on Twitter that if a Chinese infringement occurs they will “act on your behalf to send takedown notices and infringement notices”. Since this is not possible for my lawyers and companies that handle copyright claims already, I have no idea how 500px can guarantee this. I suspect they won’t be able to do anything more about this than any other company or law firm currently can – so their statement to the contrary likely means nothing at all.
Another issue that I find unsettling is one of censorship. As I stated, I don’t have much of a problem with 500px pursuing business for its photographers in any country, including China. I had imagined that this would take place on their current site but it has been indicated by many that the main 500px site is banned/blocked in China because it contains a lot of images that the Chinese government doesn’t want their citizens to see (and not just the nudity). Having the files located in China itself allows the government and VCG to censor it so that it can be shown domestically. While this is not new on China’s part, I do find it an unsettling part of this deal.
I had abandoned 500px in late 2013 due to the reasons I outlined earlier this year, but I had left 5 images behind as a kind of advertisement of sorts. After finding out that this vcg.me/500px.me site was indeed an official 500px entity – I deleted all of these images immediately. Perhaps I was lucky and caught them before they were transferred to Chinese servers, but I have no way of verifying this. As it stands now, 500px has blocked access to vcg.me and 500px.me as they (presumably) continue to develop the sites. Unfortunately this also means people cannot directly see if their content is being transferred there or not. A lot of users seem angry enough about 500px’s handling of this that they are deleting their images and their accounts entirely. I feel that is probably the proper course of action at this point, but I can’t help still feeling disappointment in what 500px has become after their promising beginnings only a few years ago.