People are claiming that a new British law is going to allow anyone to steal your online pictures and sell them and keep the money. I think they’re mostly wrong about that law, but in the process of checking it out I ran across some bad behavior by social-media companies.
OMG they’re stealing my pretties! · Someone linked, with a gasp of horror, to UK.Gov passes Instagram Act: All your pics belong to everyone now by Andrew Orlowski. I was prepared to blow it off because Orlowski is generally wrong about everything. This is the man who, back in 2004, referred to Wikipedians as “Khmer Rouge in nappies” and has continued to get attention with lurid Internet contrarianism; which has also worked for Jaron Lanier, Andrew Keen, and lately Evgeny Morozov. The Net is important enough that it needs sensible pushback, but we can do better than these guys; I miss the days when Cliff Stoll was our best-known naysayer.
In this case it’s not just Andrew; the British Journal of Photography is less alarmist in Controversial copyright framework receives Royal Assent, but they’re still upset.
Um, maybe not · I haven’t read the British legislation, but what it apparently does is turn people loose to re-use “orphan works”; those for which the creator’s and/or rights-holders’ identities can’t be established. I think this is sensible enough; the tricky bit is in identifying the orphans.
Orlowski says “the user only needs to perform a ‘diligent search’” to establish orphan-hood. So, what’s the problem? The things I publish online, as for example here, tend to appear on pages which clearly assert they’re by Tim Bray and that certain rights are reserved. So you wouldn’t have to be very diligent at all to establish parenthood, at least in my case.
But then I read, in the BJP piece, “a large number of online services, such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr, strip the metadata from uploaded images, creating millions of new orphan works each day” and I thought, that can’t be right. But it is, partly.
Side trip: On Exif · (Those of you who know about it can skip to the next section.)
It turns out that electronic photograph files contain not just the pixels that form the image, but also textual fields containing “metadata”, information about the picture. This is generally referred to as Exif, and it identifies some or all of: the camera, lens, date, location (if there’s a GPS), size, aperture, and lots of other arcane photographic details. Plus, crucially, the name of the creator.
Exif is super-useful but also sort of a disorganized mess; there’s poor compatibility between cameras and photo-editing packages. For example, there are at least three fields you can store authorship in: Artist, By-line and Creator.
There are plenty of tools that let you peek behind the pixels at the Exif; most photo-editing packages will do this, and those of us who like the old-school command-line approach use ExifTool by Phil Harvey.
Most serious photographers arrange that when they publish an electronic photo, the Exif data includes their name. And getting back to the legal discussion, a “diligent search” to determine who owns a picture would obviously include checking out the Exif.
Metadata amputation · I decided to check and see whether the BJP was right. So I took the picture above, made sure it had my name in the Artist, By-line, and Creator fields, and posted it to Twitter using the Web interface. Then I downloaded the picture and checked the Exif, and sure enough Twitter had nuked it. There were 245 lines of Exif info going in, 58 coming out, and none of them included my name.
In fact, Twitter clearly states “We remove the Exif data upon upload. It is not available to those who view your photo on Twitter.”
Now, I don’t think Twitter is evil. And I suspect there are some fields where this makes all sorts of sense. Lots of cameras and phones put GPS data into pictures, without telling you, and I think it’s probably sensible to keep from sharing your location with the entire world by default.
But I think removing the photo’s attribution is a serious mistake and Twitter should fix it.
Also, it’s not just Twitter; kora foto morgana pointed me at the Embedded Metadata Manifesto site, which has done the digging and published Social Media sites: photo metadata test results. If they’re accurate, they reveal that Facebook, Flickr, Photobucket, and Twitter are losing attribution. On the other hand, DropBox, Google+, Pinterest, and Tumblr are doing the right thing.
Oops, me too · I checked the pictures right here on the blog and, uh, blush... It turns out that the original image (what you see if you click on my picture) retains the attribution, but the reduced drop-shadowed version just above lost it somewhere along the pipeline through ImageMagick and then also Framer, which I wrote.
Practically speaking it’s not a problem, because anyone who wants to use one of my pictures will want to start with the larger version. But this does show that it’s easy to get this wrong. Doesn’t mean that Twitter should, because some of the competition doesn’t, and they’re supposed to be pros.
Summing up · So yeah, Orlowski was wrong as usual; “diligent search” seems to me an entirely reasonable way to determine whether any digital artifact is an orphan or not, and even with missing Exif, the amount of diligence to required to figure out if a picture in a Twitter stream is an orphan or not isn’t that onerous. And unleashing the digital orphans into the public commons is a good thing.
On the other hand, certain well-known social sites are engaging in what feels to me like egregiously abusive behavior in stripping authorship information from works whose publishing they facilitate.
Please fix that up, Twitter and Flickr and Facebook. Or we might start suspecting your motives.