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How Does a User Know Who Owns an Image?

The Orphan Works Problem

A significant problem with social networks is that many of them actually delete copyright information from uploaded digital content. Without this metadata information (and a watermark), images that are shared and re-shared, ad infinitum, across the web become "orphans", i.e., losing all ability to have identifiable ownership.

Images contain metadata, i.e., information about the photograph such as when it was taken, the lens used, and the name and contact information of the author. This latter item, the name of the photographer, is part of the copyright metadata, and usually this will be accompanied by another piece of information, the copyright status, e.g. copyrighted and all rights reserved.

This copyright information is embedded in the photograph, and although not displayed can easily be revealed by a tool such as Jeffrey's EXIF viewer. (You can view a help video that shows how easy it is to use.)

Digital copyright metadata is the equivalent of an artists' signature on a painting or the authors' name on a book It is an artists' moral (and legal) right to be identified as the author of their work. To remove the authors' name from a creative work is a dishonourable practice, at best, and contravenes the law in many countries. Below is an excerpt from Title 17, Chapter 12, of the US Code related to Copyright Law.

§ 1202 . Integrity of copyright management information

(b) Removal or Alteration of Copyright Management Information. — No person shall, without the authority of the copyright owner or the law —

(1) intentionally remove or alter any copyright management information,
(2) distribute or import for distribution copyright management information knowing that the copyright management information has been removed or altered without authority of the copyright owner or the law, or
(3) distribute, import for distribution, or publicly perform works, copies of works, or phonorecords, knowing that copyright management information has been removed or altered without authority of the copyright owner or the law, knowing, or, with respect to civil remedies under section 1203, having reasonable grounds to know, that it will induce, enable, facilitate, or conceal an infringement of any right under this title

Unfortunately the practice of removing copyright metadata is common. Twitter and Instagram automatically remove embedded copyright metadata from all images. You can expect nearly the same from Facebook. The result is that when a user shares or downloads your image, it becomes an "Orphan Work", a work whose author is unknown. There are millions of orphan works created each day in this way and they are subject to considerable abuse. In the UK, it is now possible to use these orphaned works commercially. The US is considering ways to do the same.

Protect Yourself

Embedded Metadata Manifesto published a survey of social media and image hosting services (OSPs) that remove metadata from images. Study it and learn who is doing what to your image metadata.

To learn about metadata and digital asset management, visit Controlled Vocabulary and the IPTC.

How You Can Help

At present, various associations and campaign groups are pressing for legislative action to give regulatory authorities the power to require that OSPs (Online Service Providers) preserve copyright metadata. You can help. A first step would be to support the Embedded Metadata Manifesto!

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