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The Wall Street Journal

February 1, 2006

The Downside of Photo-Storage Sites

By WILLIAM M. BULKELEY
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
February 1, 2006; Page D1

Failure to Log On, Buy Prints Can Lead to Loss of Pictures;
Wife 'On the Verge of Tears'

Online photo-storage sites have proliferated in recent years, many of them offering "free" and "unlimited" photo archiving.

But the sites are increasingly determined to make money in other ways -- and some users may not realize their photos are at risk. Many are requiring users to purchase products, charging other fees, or setting conditions to ensure that customers gaze at ads. If users don't follow the conditions for service -- often disclosed only in the fine print -- their photographs could wind up getting deleted.

Eastman Kodak Co.'s chairman, Antonio Perez, signaled the industry's posture toward free storage when he told an investors conference on Monday that Kodak's online Easyshare Gallery last year quietly added an option in which consumers can pay $2.49 a month for storage if they want to avoid a rule that mandates an annual purchase from the site. "Consumers have the attitude that everything should be free," he said, indicating that was unreasonable.

In another tack -- this one geared to bringing in advertising dollars -- Time Warner's AOL in December converted its "you've-got-pictures" service for AOL members into AOL Pictures, a Web-based service that is free and open to all, but requires users to sign in periodically. AOL has the right to "deactivate" the account anytime a user fails to log in for 90 days. After that, the pictures could be erased.

AOL Pictures and Kodak Gallery (formerly Ofoto) aren't unusual in setting conditions on using their photo archives. Despite come-ons offering "free storage," some sites require viewing pictures as often as every 60 days; others require users to pay to print out at least one picture every year, or buy some other product, like a coffee mug, calendar or boxer shorts with photos on them.

Some eight million Americans got new digital cameras over the holidays, promising good prospects for the photo-storage industry. But consumers who register complain that the conditions on photo Web sites are often poorly disclosed. Ronald P. Bailey, a Tobyhanna, Pa., real estate investor, found out about some rules the hard way in November, when he tried and failed to retrieve pictures from Snapfish, a unit of Hewlett-Packard Co. that offers free storage. When he emailed the company, he was told that his photos had been removed because there hadn't been any orders placed from his account for over a year, he recalls. "I told my wife, and she was on the verge of tears," he says. "My children were in shock."

Snapfish had sent Mr. Bailey two email warnings, but he says he gets so many emails with special offers from Snapfish that he automatically routes them to junk mail. "For something as important as my photos, they should have a stamp to mail me a letter," he says. After an email exchange, Snapfish was able to restore his photos. Mr. Bailey has bought two 12-by-18-inch poster prints of his family; he plans to hang one in his family room as a reminder to order something new from Snapfish every year.

Disclosure of the rules isn't obvious on Snapfish's Web site, which says: "We enable our members to share, print and store their most important photo memories..." Only by clicking a button labeled "T&C's" at the bottom of the page does a user come to the terms and conditions page. There, in a detailed, fine-print section, a reader finds that: "A condition of Membership is your 'Active Participation,' " which is defined as buying something every 365 days.

Paul Schumer, vice president of marketing for Snapfish, says "we try to be as lenient as possible," but "given the costs," of storing digital images, Snapfish needs to see an action by consumers to show they are still interested in using the site. He says the requirement "never becomes an issue for the vast majority of people" who post pictures because they visit frequently and buy prints or merchandise.

Similarly, at Kodak Gallery, users must click the "Terms" button at the bottom of the home page and read down to item 17 to discover that photos may be erased if a member doesn't buy something every 12 months -- or pay the $2.49-a-month storage charge.

Many services sell ads that appear above or beside the photos they display, giving them a financial stake in having people view photos as often as possible. "We have an advertising model," says Martin Green, senior vice president of CNET Networks' WebShots.com service: "If you want to store for free, you need to use the product." WebShots used to delete photo albums if they weren't viewed every six months, but after being questioned for this article, Mr. Green said WebShots decided to extend the limit to a year.

Other services have tighter time limits. Mystic Color Labs, a unit of Maryland-based District Photo Inc., boasts of "free unlimited photo storage" on the front page of its Web site. But if you click on "terms" at the bottom of the page, you find that digital pictures are removed after just 60 days. Neil Cohen, president of District Photo, says the site allows users to upload an unlimited number of photos, but he says the site is being changed to make it clear that Mystic's business is printing and that it doesn't provide long-term archiving. He says he doesn't know of any customer complaints about deleted photos. "Before any image is whacked, they get three or four notices," he says.

FortuneCity.com, a New York-based Web-hosting firm, offers a free photo-storage service called MyPhotoAlbum that requires not only making an annual purchase but also uploading a new picture every 60 days and visiting the account every 90 days. Peter MacNee, president of FortuneCity, says that it hasn't actually erased any pictures and has the conditions in place "to protect ourselves." FortuneCity says many users opt for its $15-a-year club membership that eliminates the restrictions as well as providing ad-free viewing.

Other companies simply get their revenue from fees. Phanfare.com, a Metuchen, N.J., paid-storage site, last month added a $300 "lifetime" membership to its $55-a-year or $7-a-month options.

With many sites, there is another risk for consumers: Companies who don't consider storage a core business could later completely discontinue the service. Indeed, a number of companies have abandoned the business, including Microsoft Corp., Canon Inc. and Adobe Systems Inc.

To ensure that pictures don't vanish unexpectedly, almost all the services advise customers to keep their own back-ups on CDs or DVDs. A photographer who has pictures stored on a computer hard drive, a back-up disk and a paid online service that bills his credit card regularly has a high likelihood of being able to recover from any disaster.

Yahoo Inc. doesn't delete photos so long as users log onto the Yahoo Network every six months. But they face other risks. If the user dies, no one has the right to access his or her archives: "any rights to your Yahoo! I.D. or contents within your account terminate upon your death." A Yahoo spokeswoman says that keeping others from logging onto accounts is part of its privacy policy.

But with the photo sites' huge capacity to store and preserve photos, many users are undeterred by potential risks. Meghan Jordan, a homemaker from Pass Christian, Miss., lost thousands of photos when she and her husband evacuated ahead of Hurricane Katrina last summer, but she counts herself lucky that she had many pictures of her year-old son safely stored on Snapfish, which later gave customers from hurricane-affected areas free reprints of all lost photos. Two days after the hurricane destroyed her apartment, she says, she went online late at night "to look at the pictures," she says. "I was overwhelmed with relief."

[Protecting your pictures]

 

Write to William M. Bulkeley at bill.bulkeley@wsj.com

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