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News & Insight

Google: A Photographer’s Friend? Image Licensing Proves Not Really

By Kishore Sawh on January 16th 2014

Photography’s business model must change, and what Google has just done is sort of pointless. It’s an interesting time for photography at the moment, a disconcerting time. People are being photoshopped beyond all human recognition, everyone and their mother thinks they should use their DSLR to generate some money and call themselves a photographer, which is diluting the single-malt scotch potency of the moniker (one glance at should convince you), and iPhones take more photos than any other camera – though it’s not not even a camera. But the biggest issue – it’s the bruised side of the apple; the pimple on prom night; the tax on your lottery winnings. It’s licensing – or the lack of.


Google has made image searching easy, with a range of refining abilities. They also have made it easy to see if any image of yours can be found anywhere else online, through a simple reverse image search, which I highly recommend you all do from time to time. However, Google has always hidden the search field, for usage rights, in the bellows of advanced options. Not anymore. Now, it joins Bing (who has done this for a while) and it’s right up front with the rest of the search criteria fields. Simply typing in a search query, selecting images, then search tools, will bring this new option to your screen.

It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not a big enough step, and it’s not entirely in the right direction. This may simply provide info as to an image’s status, but frankly can be easily dismissed. Better would be a move towards making it more difficult for those images to be downloaded/saved, somewhat like Flickr does. Except even protected images on Flickr can have that protection bypassed with ease, from your browser ‘Develop’ functions. The image below show where they can be found in Safari, using my own Flickr page to show my images aren’t safe:


Broader Applications

I’d long mentioned that one of my fears for the future was the Internet’s slack distribution of media. I don’t refer to the easy ability to lift songs and movies from torrent sites. More that it has made the distribution side of the factors of production so inexpensive, and quick to set-up, that it poses a risk of killing quality media productions, if the model doesn’t change. Allow me to explain.

On YouTube, for example, you can spend a fortnight watching people falling off things without seeing the same video again. There are videos of everything, most harmless. But what you can also find, are full episodes of television programs, or even movies, even ones that haven’t aired yet. This means that the production crew who have toiled at the scripts, selected and paid the actors, and have gone through all the trouble of creating something of value, have less chance of it being picked up or sponsored by a television company for screening – since everyone’s already seen it online.

[REWIND:Government Shutdown Affects U.S. Copyright Office]

No problem you may say, the production company will just file some legal proceedings against YouTube, likely win, and then get on with life. YouTube will be made to respect copyright laws and all’s well. Except, you haven’t thought it through. YouTube is a weed. Even if it were to crumble today or unable to host copyrighted materials, by morning some kid in his pajamas, for the price of 50 cents, will anonymously start up a new sharing site and it’ll be posted on there. Sue him, you may say. No, that’s pointless because he is just a kid with pajamas who still picks his nose and has no assets.

So What?

So what? Well, the upshot is that media in all forms from video, to print, to music can be put online and accessed by all. Except that this model means the ones creating it won’t get paid. And if they won’t get paid, people will cease to produce quality videos and photos. The art forms are not cheap endeavors, as equipment and talent is expensive, and the time needed even more steep. So, why would anyone make anything at such cost if there’s no payment?

Music and film have slowly been molting their old business model for a silky new one, which is beginning to gain ground on monetizing ‘free’ online media. It’s more difficult for photography. Often, people won’t pay to look at a photo. Largely, there is still this notion that a photograph just takes a click of a button to make, so it’s no big deal to take one, nor crime to use one without permission. One of the problems in this regard has been how images are found and farmed online. It’s almost always through a search engine, and since it’s the biggest, it’s mostly Google. This change needs to be bigger, and would be great to come from them.

So, what do you think of this? Is it useful? If so, who will benefit from this most? Is this a move to simply add a veneer of legal protection for Google with no altruistic thought at all?

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Chris

    “Except, you haven’t thought it through. YouTube is a weed. Even if it were to crumble today or unable to host copyrighted materials, by morning some kid in his pajamas, for the price of 50 cents, will anonymously start up a new sharing site and it’ll be posted on there. Sue him, you may say. No, that’s pointless because he is just a kid with pajamas who still picks his nose and has no assets.””

    I’m a photographer. I’m also a software developer. You say some nose picking child in his pajamas is impeding your ability to keep on keeping on and I say it’s just as justifiable that your (though mostly aimed at Hollywood’s) attitude about your inability to adapt to changing conditions (and conditions have always and will always change) is impeding my ability to create new technology. It’s like arguing that digital cameras shouldn’t be allowed because it messes with the market for developing film.

    Actually, I have less issue with your argument as I do with your condescending attitude. If you want people to respect you and your work you should probably not antagonize them.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Chris, Hi there. Thanks for taking the time to read and voice your thoughts. Please allow me to address them. Primarily I’d like to make it a point to mention I made it no aim to antagonize. I assume this was regarding, at least in part, the the, “you haven’t thought it through.” In an effort to be more concise, and poignant, this is the result of a distillation of conversations I had on the topic, which often had opinions and thoughts ending at the point made just prior.

      Furthermore, the very first line set forth the premise of what I wrote – that photography’s business model must change. This seems in agreement with one of your concerns, is it not?

      Condescending, is a tricky word – can cover all manner of sins, and is subjective. I have no patronizing feeling of preeminence, especially to our good readers such as yourself, to truly convey such an adjective. The reference to the asset-less child was not to belittle developers or the like, but as an easy-to-visualize symbol of a motif, that it doesn’t require much capital or years, to create a platform to distribute media. Ergo making it pointless to sue for what amounts to nothing.

      I am curious, as someone who has, clearly, given some thought to the matter as well, how do you think the industry is going to go, pending the eternal evolution? What could we as photographers do to help it along – instead of being passive?

      I took a look at your site, by the way, nice stuff. Brought memories flooding back from PeeWee baseball.

      Thanks again Chris, and be well. Cheers -K

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    • Chris

      For some reason I can’t reply to your reply, so I have to reply to mine.

      My question about how this new feature will affect photographers is if someone tries to claim they thought the image was free license because Google said so and so damages aren’t awarded in court. So then it could be possible that I create a flickr account and upload all the images I downloaded from elsewhere, setting the license to something more open, Google indexes that and now I can, theoretically, claim before a judge that I thought it was legal. If Google comes across the same image (we know it can compare images because of its reverse search capabilities) then how does it treat the same image with multiple licenses?

      I also don’t feel like the majority of what is technically “infringement” is concerning. Unlike the other big industries (music and movies) where an incident of infringement is theoretically a lost sale (even though studies show that infringement increases sales), the vast majority of people that download images off the internet are not going to have ever paid for it (thinking specifically about people using them for wallpapers and such). Now, the ones that I feel we should be concerned with are the ones that use them in ad campaigns or maybe sell prints of others’ work, use them in portfolios, etc. These are fairly easy to find and there are already legal remedies for that (and if you register like you should, will pay more than you would’ve made on sale anyway).

      As someone that is tech savvy I find that when websites right click protect (and worse, try to sell it to me as a feature (as a photographer)) I am insulted. DRM is fundamentally impossible; it’s encryption, but the user needs to be able to decrypt it to see it eventually, and that’s where the flaws begin.

      My recommendation would be to streamline your detection of infringement (not the way YouTube does) and sue. If someone is really infringing, you have a case you can go to court with and get paid. If you can’t collect from them you wouldn’t have made money from them anyway. Does it make it okay for them to take it, no, but it’s not worth your time to try to fix it. Best case scenario, perfect world, everyone pays, no one steals, do you really feel like you’re going to make more money or are the little guys going to go towards free resources? Meanwhile, you went bankrupt trying to make the world perfect.

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