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Combating Online Counterfeiters: Ensuring Image Authenticity

The Visual Economy: A Double-Edged Sword

In the pulsating heart of today’s digital marketplace lies a universal truth: visuals are the currency of communication. A photo, a video, a graphic – these are not mere adornments but the lifeblood of sales and marketing. In the visual economy, the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” is not just a metaphor; it’s a business strategy. Yet, this visual dependency harbors a shadowed corner where counterfeiters thrive, using the very tools designed to engage and enlighten, to deceive and disrupt.

Understanding the Counterfeiter’s Deceptive Techniques

The processes and the damages are very similar to the playbook used with news photos and political disinformation.

In order to sell you something false, like a counterfeit product, the only necessary step is to convince the buyer he/she is buying the real thing. And this can be easily done using fake images:

The modus operandi of these modern-day pirates is twofold, each as cunning as it is damaging. First, there’s the art of illusion – fabricating images with such technological finesse that they become indiscernible from the real deal. Generative AI has evolved from a creator’s ally to a counterfeiter’s accomplice. It is child’s play to create fake product images that look as if they were created by your favorite brand. And in the process, sell it to thousands of unsuspecting fans. Once they click “buy”, the damage is done—no need to ever create or ship anything.

Not real. An AI-generated Nike Sneaker via @ai_clothingdaily

Second, there’s the audacity of theft – swiping legitimate images from bona fide manufacturers, leaving in their wake a trail of confusion and infringement. Real image, fake context. In this scenario, equivalent to replacing the caption of a real news image, the actual product image is placed on an illegitimate website, usually offering a popular product at a significant discount.

The implications are profound and far-reaching. Trust, the cornerstone of the digital marketplace, is eroding. Brand reputations, built over the years, are tarnished in an instant. And the consumer? Left navigating a minefield of falsehoods. The numbers paint a grim picture: According to research from Michigan State University, nearly seven in 10 people were deceived into buying counterfeit products online at least once in the past year, underscoring the urgency for a robust defense mechanism.

The Countermeasures:

In a world of deception, all you need are clear signals of trust. And since trust exists only between humans, knowing where your content comes from can be all that you need to know that what you are looking at is real. In other words, provenance identification and certification.

Images should contain a recognizable signal confirming the authenticity of its source. For example, metadata confirming that the brand created the image. Like a certificate of authenticity. That is exactly what Content Credentials strives to deliver. Not just for news images, this standard works for product images as well. If not present, the image is either fake or hijacked. If present, it will reveal the source of the image and any and all alterations it has experienced. And thus answer the customer’s question of whether they are buying a legitimate product or not.

Another effective method to combat counterfeiting is the use of invisible watermarking. This technique embeds a subtle, often imperceptible mark directly into the image. Unlike visible watermarks, these invisible marks don’t alter the aesthetic quality of the image but offer a powerful layer of security. The watermark is uniquely tied to the creator or the brand, making it nearly impossible for counterfeiters to replicate or remove without damaging the integrity of the image. When scanned with the right software, this watermark can instantly verify the authenticity of the product, ensuring consumers receive what they are promised. This invisible badge of authenticity is a sophisticated answer to the growing sophistication of counterfeiters.

With Content Credentials, the origin of the image can be seen, and counterfeiters defeated. Image via @adobe

A Future of Authentic Digital Marketplaces

Marketplaces, like Amazon, eBay, or Facebook Marketplace, as well as any retailers, will soon need to implement similar measures as news media to ensure that their customers can trust what they see and safely purchase real products. The integration of invisible watermarking and C2PA standards is more than a technological advancement; it’s a movement toward a more transparent and trustworthy digital marketplace. As these technologies gain traction, we edge closer to an online world where authenticity is the norm and counterfeiters find themselves without a foothold. The journey to this future requires awareness, adoption, and continuous innovation, but the promise of a marketplace where integrity reigns is well worth the effort.

Author: Paul Melcher

Paul Melcher is a highly influential and visionary leader in visual tech, with 20+ years of experience in licensing, tech innovation, and entrepreneurship. He is the Managing Director of MelcherSystem and has held executive roles at Corbis, Stipple, and more. Melcher received a Digital Media Licensing Association Award and is a board member of Plus Coalition, Clippn, and Anthology, and has been named among the “100 most influential individuals in American photography”
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