500px Creates 500px.me – Hosts Photos in China

500px fingerprint logo   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.

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11 Responses to “500px Creates 500px.me – Hosts Photos in China”

  1. Rachel Cohen says:

    Excellent post Michael! This last move by 500px was particularly shocking and a deal breaker for me! I have been with 500px for many years now, and as you mentioned had high hopes for them. I’ve stayed with them weathering the storms and ups and downs of their changes and policies for four years now, but after finding my profile and images on their Chinese mirror site I was stunned and sickened. I have decided to remove my content and profile from 500px. It is currently a work in progress being that I have so many years of work uploaded there. It is really sad that such a promising company has turned out to be such a disappointment! Thank you for a very accurate and informative post!

    • Michael says:

      Thanks Rachel! The work you put into a platform like 500px is considerable, as will be the work spent dismantling it. An upcoming blog post of mine will likely talk about how spending this sort of time on ones own website is often time better spent.

  2. Mark Johnson says:

    Very good read, and pretty accurate, I had my images removed from the 500px.me site, but Saturday morning it was brought to my attention that another Chinese site shijiue.me had all the 500px.me images available for free download. Even though my images had been removed from 500px.me I could still download them from shijiue.me.
    I contacted 500px about it and they put a stop to it but even so no one knows how long they had been available. Needless to say I quit 500px

    • Michael says:

      I am continually puzzled by the way 500px handled this whole thing. While the number of users they may have lost is likely not crippling, ticking off your user base is seldom a good thing.

  3. Kent Forrest says:

    Can anyone, OP included, articulate for me how the download of your image for free in China harms you, the photographer?

    I do understand how it may frustrate you, depending on your state of mind and viewpoint, but please articulate how it harms you, if someone could.

    • Michael says:

      An image downloaded and used for commercial use anywhere in the world takes away what could have been a license fee for me. This does happen in other parts of the world as well, but I am often able to pursue those successfully to recover such fees, which is not possible in China. Having the images start off on a server that is physically in China may increase the number of infringements I can’t do anything about, so I’ll be avoiding that.

      • Kent Forrest says:

        There’s no potential license fee in the absence of a willing customer. I’d submit that an individual or entity in China misusing your photos had almost no potential of ever becoming a customer.

        Frustrating as hell (again, depending on mindset) if they manage to acquire the image anyway. I can relate to that frustration. But I don’t accept the notion that there is a lost opportunity for licensing fee.

        I just step back and wonder if these issues are worth the emotional cycles spent on them?

        The risks of image theft inherit to hosted images are far outweighed by the benefits of an opened market.

        Before the internet, and its online thieves, you would have been selling prints to a handful of people in your home town.

        The good with the bad?

        • Michael says:

          There are certainly pros and cons to having images available for viewing on the internet, though I think it is still easier to sell prints in person and locally. I understand your point that a thief was not likely to be a customer, and for many that is true. For others, educating them about licensing (and the penalties for not doing so) are enough to make them customers rather than infringers. For those that simply don’t care to pay for anything, I do pursue those people legally, and collect quite often. When I was referring to lost licensing fees I was also including retroactive fees gathered by lawyers or a company such as ImageRights. With China all those options are gone, so I choose not to participate in sharing my work there any more than is already necessary. 500px clearly has an issue as a lot of users appear to feel the same way about China, and are choosing to bow out of participating in their endeavor there. As you may have noticed via my other “9 reasons…” post, I haven’t participated in 500px since late 2013. This post is more about communicating possible issues to those still on 500px than simply indicating my displeasure with their frequent missteps. Current 500px users can then simply make up their own minds with the information.

  4. Kent Forrest says:

    You certainly sound like a reasonable person, we just differ on the amount of our mindshare we’re willing to sacrifice on poachers.

    That’s not to say you’re choice is wrong. I just wouldn’t give it two thoughts, much less a legal process.

    I’ll gladly buy you a whiskey anytime you’re in Seattle.

  5. Georg says:

    Thanks for the Post. But what are the alternatves to 500px? where do all the pros go now?

    • Michael says:

      Most pros that I know don’t use social media as the sole means to drive their business. There are a few social media stars out there than can, but for most of us I think using social media to drive traffic and support our own standalone websites is the best strategy.

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