We cannot achieve anything significant by ourselves. As much as we would love to, it is impossible to succeed without the help of others. Yet, over and over, we try with the same predictable outcome.

For decades now, the number one issue that has plague the photo licensing industry has been attribution. Indelibly linking an image to its rightful copyright owner has been an issue since the dawn of photography and is now exacerbated in our digital age. A photograph properly credited offers an easy path to knowing the rights associated with it and with it seamless copyright protection and enforcement. Yet, over the last 2 decades, the key holders of the industry have done little to nothing to solve this issue, preferring to huff and puff, complain, raise their arms in the air or shake their heads in silent desperation. As we enter an age where photographs are being produced and used at a massive scale never seen before, these same stake holders seem to have completely abandon the fight, leaving it to third parties to decide what should be done.

This week, the UK-based Copyright Hub, released an alpha version of what is intended to be a central meeting point for those wishing to exchange information about copyrights. Inspired by the Orphan Works  legislation, it offers a tool which allows a user to easily check for image “ownership” via a central database of images. As of today, and ironically enough, only one content provider can be searched and it is an Archive library who happens to license a lot of images that are in public domain sending the wrong message that those images should be licensed from them when it truth, they do not have to be. Why not start with a photo agency that actually has original current content is a complete mystery. However, this clearly exposes a vast flaw in the process of having non industry party leading a project like this. But, since no one else is doing it, why not?

None of the trade associations, CEPIC, PACA, BAPLA, ASMP and others have been capable alone or together to tackle the issue even thought they represent the people who have the most to lose  ( and win) in the process. Companies like Google, Pinterest, Tumblr and many, many others have been able to strive and manipulate copyright law to their advantages, thanks to their complete absence of resistances and lack of practical  initiatives. It took a porn company to sue and lose against Alta Vista when they first published thumbnails of images on their search results, opening wide open the doors to today’s Google or Bing image search which everyone complains about. A porn company but not a trade organization. And it took a lonely Getty to forcefully stop Microsoft Bing from delivering copyrighted content freely.

The copyright hub has a great intention. Easily allow anyone to find who is the owner of an image’s right. You would think it was built by photo licensing trade organization. No. Not at all. They either hardly take part in it or completely ignore it as shown by their lack of reaction to the news. Instead, some have build  competing members-only  meta search engines ( Cepic search vs. Paca search) which, besides making some of their creators a little bit wealthier have solved nothing.

While European seem giddy about trying to break down Google ( as if this will solve the underlying issue) and Americans seem self-satisfied in their lack of reactions, there is value in what the British are trying to build. Youtube, fed up with time-consuming DMCA take downs, took upon themselves to build a database of copyrighted material so that they could automatically filter out, before they get published, content that might be litigious. Owners of  copyright material are informed that their content might be made public via an unauthorized party and decide to either let it happen in exchange of a share of the advertising revenue or block it. And it works very well. Why not do the same with photography so that companies like Pinterest or Tumblr could continue their trade while working with copyright owners. All it would take would be the photo licensing industry to build an easily searchable ( via an API) image database where internet companies could link to and automatically filter copyrighted content.

Picscout before Getty, with its Imagexchange ( now Picscout search), was on the right track to making this possible and the Getty -Pinterest deal showed that there is a strong viable opportunity here. But, without the full agreement and participation of all copyright representatives, it has little to no chance of evolving. And it should not be the initiative of a private company like Getty to lead the initiative. Nor should it be the initiative of government founded third-party. It should be a 100% trade initiative. It doesn’t look like it will happen.

At the recent PACA conference held in New York, a  top executive from Getty urged the association’s members to stand united and take a stand together against what they clearly see as the biggest threat to their existence as a business. Without full cooperation of all industry stakeholders in an organized effort to combat copyright infringement, there will soon be no industry.

Persistent attribution, whether in or via the image, is the solution . Due to technical restrictions ( the jpeg image format is not by nature attribution friendly) there is little chance that photographs will carry their own licensing information wherever and whenever they are posted. However, thanks to other critical advances ( like image recognition, api and linking), it is a challenge that can easily be overcome. Photographs, if not able to carry their own information can now easily link to a database that does. Thus, there is no reasons not to make happen. Except, maybe, the stubborn obsession of some in the failed belief that they can do it alone.


* thank you Adam Cairns  for help with title…

Author: pmelcher


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