If Your Instagram #Selfies Aren’t Private, This Site Might Sell Them To Total Strangers
In 2013, shortly after the Oxford Dictionary declared “selfie” the word of the year, The Atlantic published a defense of selfies as “a deliberate, aesthetic expression.”
Sellfie, which launched in July, lets you scroll through a random stream of public Instagram pictures that have been tagged #selfie:
Once you find a selfie you fancy, you can go ahead and order a print (for a whopping $150), which will be delivered to your home within a couple weeks from a printer in Portland, Oregon. After a selfie has been purchased, it won’t show up in the stream again, which means no one else will be able to buy that same pic.
While the Sellfie website doesn’t show the name of or link to the Instagram accounts that post these selfies, it doesn’t blur people’s faces in the photos.
Here’s another problem with the site: Its photo stream appears to be uncensored. As we were scrolling through the stream to capture the GIF above, we saw multiple nude pictures (mostly women), as well as one racy image of what appeared to be a very young person, possibly a minor. Such photos aren’t permitted on Instagram, per the app’s community guidelines, but policing this rule is a constant challenge.
We reached out to an Instagram representative about this matter, and he responded thus: “We don’t allow nudity on Instagram, and we will remove content from the platform that violates our policies.”
Pita said that he’s aware of the issue with nude pictures. “Instagram takes its time to censor pics. Because of that, from time to time nude pictures appear,” he explained. However, he said that if somebody were to order a print of a picture containing sensitive content — such as an underage person without clothes on, or a photo containing racist subject matter — he would cancel the order and issue a refund. “We won’t support that kind of behavior,” Pita said.
But Sellfie also raises questions about copyright and fair use in the digital age.
The website draws inspiration from the work of Richard Prince, a visual artist whose controversial 2014 show “New Portraits” repurposed pics from Instagram accounts of celebrities and teenagers. Prince printed the images on canvas and sold them for $90,000 apiece.
Here’s one of the shots he used in his show:
The Sellfie project also exists within this gray area that some call “appropriation art.” In a nutshell, appropriation of copyrighted material isn’t copyright infringement only insofar as it amounts to fair use. In recent cases, some courts have found forms of appropriation art to be fair use, concluding that the art transforms the protected work sufficiently. In the instance of Prince’s “New Portraits” show, the artist left an Instagram comment on each of the pics he printed out from other people’s accounts, and he made sure his comment was visible in the prints that he sold — though many didn’t think he transformed the works enough to rightly call them his.
“If you take a protected work and you give it sufficiently new meaning, new purpose, or new content, that’s generally treated as transformative, and will likely qualify as fair use,” explained Shyam Balganesh, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who specializes in copyright law and innovation policy.
“There is today a debate in the copyright law community on just how much modification of the protected work there needs to be to qualify for fair use. It doesn’t have to be an enormous modification; but there’s also a recognition that there needs to be more than something inconsequential, like a few words or a couple of brush strokes,” Balganesh said.
According to Balganesh, the prints being sold on Sellfie seem insufficiently transformative and therefore unlikely to qualify as fair use.
When we asked Pita about this, he said he stands by the goal of his project. “We definitely think we are walking in a grey area. And we think that even the Richard Prince pieces are in a grey area,” he said. However, he added that, “based on our printing process — using a printer that usually does prints for museums and galleries — we are adding value to the pictures and transforming these from a digital state into a concrete state.”
Legal questions aside, the Sellfie website — which is one of several projects created by Pita through DoSomethingGood, a union between an incubator and an art collective — aims to reveals the power of selfies as an artistic form of self-expression in the digital age. “A selfie is like the mirror of our time,” Pita said.
It’s no surprise, then, that Pita was also inspired by the undisputed queen of selfies, Kim Kardashian West. Pita said he and a friend purchased Selfish, Kardashian’s book of selfies, just a couple nights before starting the website — and it made quite an impression.
“The book is super cool, even if you are not a Kim Kardashian fan, like us,” Pita said. “So the next two nights after work we put the website together.”