Sunday, 23 February 2014

Protecting yourself from plagiarism or image stealing / theft as it is more rightly known - can you even do it?


With the recent discussions on plagiarism (or image stealing as it rightly is) on social networking I did some more thinking around the issue. My viewpoint is that the most popular image sharing platforms e.g. Google Plus, Facebook, Flikr, Tumblr, 500px, Instagram, Pintrest and the multitudinous others have a moral (if not legal) responsibility to eradicate the plagiarism issue.

Let me start of by pointing out I'm an amateur photographer, I do from time to time monetise my works. I've done research on copyright and have taken legal advice and feel I have a good understanding of my rights within Australia. However, don't take any action on my say-so - make sure you seek your own legal advice.

Is it a crime?

Let's be clear, plagiarism is a criminal activity. However, the cops aren't going to help you. You have to take action through civil court and the approach changes depending on your country. I live and work in Australia, the majority of my images are produced within the borders of my country. My images are automatically copyright from the moment I make them unless I declare them to be otherwise. You can visit the site of The Australian Copyright Council for more information. As I understand it, this is similar for most EU countries. In the United States you must register your images with a central body, if you fail to do so you still own the rights but the outcomes of action are very murky.

The general thinking is to concentrate on the big fish - for example, if you detected a use that actually damages you by taking income away from you (e.g. a large magazine, or stock agency selling your image) then you'd likely follow it up. If you found someone else, e.g. it's used on a blog, in social media or in a school project you'd more likely be better off just asking for credit as you aren't really being damaged. This applies to in person followups and legal means. If you use the courts, you will only get an outcome beyond a take-down notice if you can demonstrate that the usage damaged you in some way.

So What can I do?

Creative Commons

It does raise once again the idea of using CC (Creative Commons) - I come back to this idea from time to time. I think that licensing my images as CC non commercial with attribution is probably better than my current closed licensing. Mainly because the reality is that I would not ever follow up a non commercial use to monetise the image usage. I would likely ask for attribution when I find the image or when someone else finds it. I've briefly written about this before in this blog. CC looks American but it is not limited to that country. There are Australian and EU licenses available for use. Use of CC is free.

Using CC would allow you to concentrate on the commercial aspects. The more I think about this the more sense it makes, personally I'd use Attribution, Non Commercial, No Derivs 3.0 Unported. What does this gobbledegook mean? Simple really, anyone would be free to use my image in a non commercial manner as long as they have an attribution to me (my name and or link to the original posting of the image). It also prevents it being used in derivative works where someone uses my image as part of their new image. Actually, I'm open to this too, BUT I'd want to be consulted first so the general starting point is "no". As an example, I publish street images of people and shoots I've done of amateur models. I would never allow one of these to be used in a derivative work without consulting the model.

I suspect should I go down the CC path, in addition to me own watermark discreetly in a corner of the image I'd also place the CC symbols into the image, also discreetly. They wouldn't ever stop the determined image thief, and the casual user probably wouldn't even know what they are, but it gives you stronger recourse with commercial offenders.

Software and Pay Services

I did a bit of a hunt for software options. It really is possible to find your images and how they've been used but it's not ever straight forward or even reasonable to do anything about it.

This is where some of the software options come in. TinEye are planning on a notification program, others like DigiMarc, ImageRights and SignMyImage already do this. Of the three SignMyImage looks pretty decent - except that it's another item to add to your workflow. If it was a LR plugin I'd be more likely to make use of it and it's licensing is pretty cheap. Digimarc and ImageRights are both destructive and produce artefacts that are visible to some extent. SignMyImage seems to be the lesser of the visual evils.

The site Plagiarism Today does a fair write-up on this topic and offers some other advice for photographers.

Terms and Conditions T&C - Do you have recourse?

Now back to the original topic, when we share our images as amateurs its mostly through the various image sharing services and social networking sites. Whatever site(s) you personally choose is entirely up to you. All of these sites have terms and conditions (T&C) preventing users from publishing content that they do not own but most users have clicked through the T&C on registration and never bear it any mind. The T&C are really only there to stop you from suing the platform in civil court. They can demonstrate on a legal basis that they've made an effort and have put business process in place to take down offending images and other content. The take down process varies widely from site to site and is very inconsistent.

Ok, so they're protected - well not as well as they'd have you believe in some countries. I could sue Google in the Australian court system over unauthorised publishing of my images. However, would I sue Google? Hell no, they could/would turn up with a million dollar team of legal representation and I'd have my pimple faced noob. No matter what the law says I'd be unlikely to win. So I have to follow their process.


Am I singling out Google? Yes and no. I feel that Google are actually in a unique place of all the social platforms in that they seem to have a good combination of community, moral and technology.

Google have two take down services that vary quite widely. Abuse and Copyright. If you tag an image as abusive e.g. violent, nudity anyone can do it and it's acted upon within hours and the image is reviewed and taken down. People can even lose their accounts. This is because Google is prudish and determined to be socially responsible and rid the their world of anything they don't care to be involved in. This is fine as it's in their T&C.

Now at this point it gets consistent, it's obvious at least to me that Google don't care about content theft. On their social platform Google Plus only the content owner can report misuse. Only the content owner can serve the take down request. It takes from weeks to months before anything happens.

Why does it take this long? Why is it different? Google claim their hands are tied and they have to work this way. This is plainly rubbish because YouTube (which is part of the Google Plus platform) allows anyone to report copyright violation and surprise, the offending video is offline within hours. Why is it different? When you ask Google they avoid the question instead quoting you stock response. Why is it like this? My personal opinion is that Google are afraid of giant cashed up litigious organisations such as the MPAA who will sue Google over video piracy so they behave differently.

Google are also in a unique position through their technology. Google have spidered most of the internet and continue to do it. They have the biggest image library in the world and can through algorithms work out the owner most of the time. They have developed very good image recognition that can find images on the internet from another image (either uploaded or via url) - of course other services like TinEye have also done this but TinEye do not run a social sharing platform. Google could prevent the upload or publishing of copyright images or at least prompt the uploader or sharer to include attribution. Google could using image metadata (EXIF) apply the correct licensing. I've discussed this on a number of occasions with various staff members and management at Google including the Photography Community Manager of Google Plus. Google believe they are doing enough. There is growing community backlash over this standpoint and I feel that at some point Google will be forced to act.

When (not if) Google act on the issue, they could also provide an image verification service to other social networks that they monetise as a new business stream. This service is why I think Google will eventually act, not out of community good. Google always talk about the good of the community and they do a lot to prove they really do have an interest where they can gain some serious kudos but seemingly ignore community issues such as image theft. This service could be a serious money spinner - every university in the world uses anti plagiarism tools and services to ensure that student works are original and contain proper accreditation and references to valid academic sources. More and more image based courses (media, visual arts, studio, etc.) are using reverse image search to discover if student images are original. Imagine if they could automate this in the same way they do with the text based plagiarism detection. Money money money.

What next?

So where to now? As Neo found in The Matrix the choice is yours. If you feel strongly, campaign, annoy your Google representatives and representatives of other image sharing services. Ask them to take it seriously. Be polite, firm and noisy.

Am I Google Bashing? No.

As a final say, I want to point out that Google Plus is and continues to be my photography sharing platform of choice, it is the best one out there for me. I really enjoy the platform and the social interactions I manage over my art. Google Plus does have excellent T&C and unlike many of the other sites won't see my images through their stock services - don't believe this happens? Here's just one example from The Guardian in the UK.

The very fact that I, a lowly amateur photographer, can talk to Google management and have a serious public discussion over issues means it wins hands down over the other platforms. They don't have to agree with me, actually that would be boring then I wouldn't get to write this rant!

All I really want them to do is make it easier to report content copyright violation immediately by anyone with timely response, and in time detect violations on upload. The astute will notice that this blog is actually hosted on a Google service. The mere fact that I'm confident that they are not evil and will faithfully serve this blog that criticises their approach to plagiarism and their day to day business and their social platform is what gives me some hope that things can change.