How do you identify an image you find on the web and find the copyright holder if you want to license the image?
This is the core question that concerns photographers when Orphan Works legislation is discussed, and the impetus behind the PhotoMetadata project to embed identifying information. Now a possible solution has emerged.
Last week Picscout announced a set of products which aim to solve this problem, at least for images in collections of stock agencies or others who sign up for PicScout Image IRC™ (Index, Registry and Connection !)
The idea is simple. IRC clients submit small versions of their entire collection which PicScout analyzes, fingerprints and indexes for visual recognition. Any candidate image can then be matched against the entire Registry. If a match is found then a prospective buyer can directly contact the distributor to license the image. Alternately, the collection owner can tell if any image found on the web is part of their collection and whether it has been properly licensed.
The result is two products: ImageExchange™ allows photo buyers who find an image anywhere, in their files, online, even scanned from a magazine, to search the registry (via an API or a plugin) and then directly connect with the distributor or copyright holder for rights clearance. Image Tracker™ allows collection owners to find unauthorized uses by looking through crawl data.
It sounds sweet in theory. If all commercial and professional photographs were in the registry then there would be no more Orphan Works problem for those images. In practice it is unlikely to be so easy, though without doubt this is a promising start.
Here are some of the potential problems I see:
Picscout currently only indexes collections of 30,000 images or more. Fewer than that is not considered cost effective, i.e. the overhead and setup is too expensive. Photographers with agency images will be covered, but where this leaves direct sellers with smaller collections, is unclear. There are definite advantages for PicScout to have uniform interfaces, particularly for the licensing/connection backend. Dealing with many different photographers with different levels of expertise could be time-consuming, so an arrangement with a technology platform like Photoshelter would be ideal. According to Picscout, participation in the Registry does not require subscribing to Image Tracker™ so collections can choose which platform features to subscribe to. Picscout would do well to make the cost of participation for distributors be as attractive as possible, particularly for early adopters.
Reduced License Percent
Picscout aims to take a percent of sales, noting on their site: “ImageExchange acts as an online affiliate program, sharing image-licensing income between PicScout and licensors.” This will reduce the percent that goes to the photographer. How the affiliate program will be automated is unclear since every distributor will need an automated interface. The exact percent or transaction fee taken has not been revealed, but should become apparent during the initial public testing period.
Reduced Search through Distributor Sites
If buyers find it easier to find images through web search they will move away from distributor sites for search, and only use the distributor site for the final licensing.
Increased Microstock and RF Sales
Since the vast majority of images available online are microstock or RF, these are the images buyers are likely to find. The premium RM collections of Getty, Corbis, even Alamy are not indexed by Google and so will not be found in web search, unless the images are licensed (or copied). One issue could be that distributors do not pursue RF or Micro copyright infringements, so have less incentive to participate in Image tracking for these images. (They could track them but low prices and multiple reuses make it less cost-effective).
Free and Unindexed Images Highlighted
If a buyer can tell which images are in the Registry they can also tell which images are not in the Registry and therefore can be copied with less risk. Over the long run, though, this might encourage greater Registry participation by distributors.
Creative Commons Images
PicScout has already indexed several million image licensed under Creative Commons. John Harrington has raised concerns about this, thinking it will encourage users not to pay for image use. Since Google search already allows search for CC images, this is not the real problem. Most CC Licenses offered on Flickr are NC so do not include commercial use; such licensing is assumed to be handled separately. The result though is perhaps worse, because individual owners usually have no idea how to structure a commercial copyright license. Rather than free images, the real downside with CC images in commercial uses is risk and liability.
Evaluating an entire page of thumbnails is time-consuming. Each thumbnail must be downloaded and analyzed by the PicScout servers before returning index comparison results, No doubt the PicScout engineers are hard at work solving this. However Google search is highly optimized for rapid response and any major drag on response time will discourage clients from using any add-on,. Single image testing is less work, but to be useful image search will need to analyze hundreds of images at a time.
The long-term success of IRC depends on buy-in from stock distributors, photographers and photo buyers. The more images online, the better the buyer experience and the more widespread acceptance there will be. It will take time to build up a critical mass of contributing agencies, but the greater the number of participants, the better the chances will be for success.
In summary, though there is much to be seen in the details, the PicScout move is a promising first step in identifying and facilitating licensing of images on the web. Other competitors will no doubt arise. If there is widespread adoption of efficient and comprehensive Image Registries, then photographers and photo buyers alike will benefit.
[UPDATE Oct 13: PicScout announced today the first set of collections in the IRC: Time Life Pictures, Aflo, Dreamstime, Glow Images, Maground, Masterfile, Mauritius Images, PlainPicture, SeaPics, and Trunk Archive including both RM, RF and micro images.
Hopefully they’ll be able to sign Getty Corbis and Alamy. It will be interesting to see how they fare with the large micro agencies like iStockPhoto and Shutterstock.
But so far no news of a link with Photoshelter so that individual photographers can participate.