Preventing images from becoming Orphaned

Guest post by Doug Brooks


  1. How can you prevent images from being stripped of their © information?
  2. How can you find a copyright holder when the image you want to license offers no information of any kind?
  3. What can you do to protect your images from becoming Orphans?

Answers: There are ways* (notice the asterisk)

In this second article on Orphan Images, the first may be seen here, I want to discuss and make suggestions for how images may be protected even when they are stripped of their metadata.

Photographers who make a living licensing their images know very well the importance of labeling and identifying their images before letting them ‘out’ into the world. They may apply visible watermarks, insert a copyright © credit or other name visibly at the image border and/or add IPTC metadata to the image, telling the world who the copyright owner is and how to find them. As an image researcher, I’m annoyed by visible watermarks that are placed dead center over the image, unless they are ghosted and avoid infringing on the details of the image. When watermarks obstruct the image from being clearly seen, I often don’t want to show them to my client. Watermarks, to put it simply, can be very distracting.  But I’m not the person who would steal an image! Our clients retain our services to ensure the images they use are licensed properly.  I believe we all need to worry about the people who will ‘take’ images and strip them of all metadata, as this is how great images can become ‘Orphans’.  Here’s an example.

When a photographer places images on a social media site like Facebook, they believe they are getting a bit of exposure and promoting themselves. They are hopeful that their website SEO will improve and that maybe … just maybe … someone will want to license their image, for a profitable use and licensing fee.  Facebook, as an example, renames images as they are ingested into and onto their site.  This means a customary search by image file name has no chance of finding a copyright holder.  They also strip all the metadata, IPTC and EXIF, from the image. This leaves little or nothing that will help people find the copyright holder should they wish to use an image. If an image creator has taken the time to insert a copyright credit on the face of the photo, there is a good possibility of finding this person. For this reason I suggest strongly that any image posted on the Internet, for any reason whatsoever, contain the creator’s name preceded by the © symbol, visibly within the picture area. But that’s not necessarily enough. An unscrupulous user could crop the image to remove that © notice and the image becomes an Orphan.  More on this to follow.

Our Colleges and Universities are not doing a very good job of instructing their students in the basic points of copyright. Professional trade associations are missing the mark, as well. Many ‘picture professionals’ who are users of photographs still believe that any image they find on the Internet is free to use. Ouch!  Fortunately, many others don’t, so I won’t be discussing ‘the good guys’ any further other then to ask each of you to spread the word and inform co-workers and clients. The ‘bad’ guys will find your photo, take it, crop it to remove your visible © notice and remove all of the metadata. The image is out there and it is orphaned.

As legitimate image creators, researchers, marketers and licensors, it is in our best interest, even our fiduciary responsibility, to prevent images from being orphaned. We should then be aware of what we can do to help images maintain their identity and not become Orphans. Here are some cool solutions.

You may be familiar with an App called Shazam® that will, on your command, listen to music and identify the name of the song and the performer. This technology also enables newer car radios to identify the music and, in my book, this is pretty fabulous. In the world of photography, there is Digimarc®.  In 1996 Digimarc released its first digital watermarking system in conjunction with Adobe® Photoshop®. If you’re a Photoshop user, take a look under the ‘filter’ drop down menu and you’ll see the Digimarc option at the bottom of the list.  It’s been there for over 17 years. The Digimarc digital watermark is embedded in a picture file so that it is both imperceptible and persistent … you can’t see it and it can’t be removed.  For about $50 a year you can embed a digital watermark in up to 1,000 images.  For about $100 a year you can embed a digital watermark in up to 2,000 images and you get their ‘search service’. The search service crawls the Internet scanning billions and billions of images for a digital watermark. The image owner receives a report showing each use the bots find. The lower cost program does not provide this searching service leaving the image owner hoping that someone who wants to find them will know to use the free Digimarc Viewer to see if there is an embedded watermark. This tool allows researchers and buyers to see if there is an ‘invisible’ watermark that will lead them to the image owner. I fear very few researchers or buyers know to search otherwise Orphaned images for a digital watermark. This makes the extra $50 per year, for the subscription that includes the search service, well worth the investment.  Sadly, I believe we are at a moment in time when professional photographers may be able to make more income from images that are being used without permission then those that are properly licensed. This would only be true if the unlicensed uses are found and this is the value of the Digimarc search service. There are, of course, Digimarc pricing options to watermark more then 2,000 images and enterprise solutions for stock agencies and others holding large volumes of images. Check them out at Digimarc. Image researchers, marketers and licensors need to know that they have this ‘extra’ option that may help them find image owners for otherwise Orphaned images. Please, spread the word.

Another technology advancement that will help image users to properly find and license images thought to be Orphans is image recognition. We’ve all seen TV shows and movies where the authorities, using surveillance cameras, zoom in on a persons face and in no time have scanned databases worldwide to identify the person of interest.   Images have their own online recognition system which you’ll find at TinEye. The TinEye reverse image search service allows you to upload a URL where you’ve seen an image, the image file itself if you have it, or you may drag and drop an image onto the TinEye page from your own computer.  I tested TinEye this week by dragging a half dozen images off of the Getty website onto their page.  Search results indicated each of the images I chose appeared on websites other then Getty’s and allowed me to carefully compare the images and learn the URL where the image appears. In several instances, one of the URLs was a photographer’s website … Yes, I found the image owner.  Image creators will be able to use Tin Eye to register their images. By creating a database of your images within the TinEye registry the TinEye search bots will report back image uses found across the Internet.  Check out TinEye to see how their services might work for you.

At the beginning of this article I asked three questions:

  1. How can you prevent images from being stripped of their © information?
  2. How can you find a copyright holder when the image you want to license has no information?
  3. What can you do to protect your images from becoming Orphans?

I hope I have sufficiently answered these questions and as image creators, researchers, marketers and licensors, we will all move forward with a unified agenda that reduces the number of Orphaned Images dramatically.

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