Pixel Police: DRM and Securing Photos Online

Posted by Cyberbear on May 1, 2015 in Copyright Law, DMCA, Intellectual Property, Internet |

Posted by: Lauren Stewart

April 20, 2015

pad-lockA disturbing trend has emerged, primarily on Instagram, called baby-role playing. This is where a person, often a teenage girl, steals images of a child from the Internet, gives them a new name, and creates a user profile claiming the child as her own. Some even portray themselves as adoption agencies and followers request photos of specific babies they would like to adopt. Also labeled “digital kidnappers” the general reaction to this apparent fantasy role-play is that it is bizarre and horrifying. Worst, parents fear that some of these people might resort to more abusive or sexual fetish behavior. Once reported, Instagram will remove stolen photos pursuant to their terms of use and community guidelines. But parents are likely wishing they could prevent the thefts altogether.

Stealing photos is nothing new or surprising. Most people probably think that it is ok and that there is no harm in it. But baby role-play presents a chilling scenario where preventing digital photo theft seems more pressing. Without a doubt, stealing photos online is copyright infringement and if identified, a parent could file suit against a baby role-player. Ideally though, there should be a way, other than not sharing photos online, to prevent photo theft beforehand or to catch the thief when stealing occurs. Enter digital rights management.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a general term for the practice of using technological restrictions to prevent uses of digital media.. DRM is the copyright notice or watermark on a photo, the fact that you can’t export a Kindle book to your Nook, and part of the reason why you use iTunes, Pandora, or Google Play Music as your exclusive music service. Controversial for its ability to cabin users into software or device platforms, license terms, and limited access, DRM is a much misunderstood concept and one deserving of a new perspective.

Applied to online content like ebooks, song downloads, and videos, DRM protections are generally disliked by consumers but vital to the industries that create books, music and movies. In these media, DRM is often an industry-adopted encryption system placed within or on top of the media format itself. Examples include CSS for DVDs, Topaz for ebooks, Steam for video games, and Apple FairPlay for music. The utility of these schemes is always challenged by its respective industry with compatibility, lock-in, and obsolescence issues, and by hackers who quickly exploit system weaknesses and bypass DRM protections—As soon as a new DRM system is designed and adopted by an industry, hackers sweep in to break the locks and happily show you how to do it too (donations are appreciated). These hackers surely know they’re breaking the law, but setting aside their reasons to believe it’s ok, the reality is that they’re not likely to get caught.

Photos have a DRM problem

In the social media genre, photos seemingly dominate Internet content and yet they are the least protected digital medium. Photographers can apply several methods to protect images on the web. They often place watermarks or copyright and attribution notices on their images. These discourage copying and may be the most effective protection, but also these are the least desirable because the image itself is marred. Further it would be inappropriate for a photographer to watermark a licensed photo. So, this is useless in preventing the next person from stealing the photo from the licensed use. Metadata can also be included in a photo file, but because uploading to the Internet generally involves conversion to a different file format, metadata gets stripped automatically. The photo below shows blank metadata for a photo pulled from Facebook; even the original file name (a convenient place to include attribution info) is stripped (photo by Benjamen Purvis).



Even if this didn’t happen, with photos, file conversion isn’t even required. Starting in the MS-DOS days, computers have included the “Print Screen” feature for the practical utility of printing exactly what appears on a screen. Surely not intentionally designed for committing copyright infringement, Print Screen persists and is an embedded feature in smartphones. Even if you didn’t know how to use the Print Screen feature on your computer, you almost certainly know how to take a screenshot on your smartphone. Interestingly it seems to be the easiest thing to do on a phone—even copying and pasting text requires more effort. Granted, screenshot resolution provides some protection here, but unless someone wanted to print an image, it’s not stopping anyone from copying images. The point is that no media is so easily stripped of its DRM as photography.

Commercial photographers are well aware of this, but the need for customers requires them to promote their services online and likely accept photo theft as a business reality. In many cases though, simple permission and attribution goes a long way in transacting with photographers. If the stock photo market is any indication, making a sale on every image placed online is not the necessary goal. At the very least, attribution serves as a promotional tool for commercial photographers and asking permission gives them a degree of control over undesired or conflicting uses. The Creative Commons license scheme is a valuable tool in this setting. When Creative Commons is embedded into search features on media portals like Flickr, its starts to look like a viable transactional tool for photographs—a user who doesn’t want to steal can easily get permission to use photos from from a photographer willing to share.

For amateur photographers, smartphone cameras have ignited a renaissance in photography. Further, mobile apps have democratized the artistic tools previously reserved for commercial photographers. Adding to this, the Internet has so vastly changed photo distribution that everyman can produce and share incredible photographs in just seconds. In most situations we may not be so concerned about someone using our photographs. Clearly we like to share photographs and in a commercial case would appreciate attribution and a reasonable royalty in exchange for license to the use. But screenshots, “regrams,” memes, and general online social behavior prompts users to brazenly take without asking.

Solution: Reverse image search and copyright

Fortunately, there is hope. The powerful scanning capabilities of the Internet have made deploying image search tools, like Reverse Google Image Search and TinEye, a simple and powerful weapon for locating an image anywhere on the Internet. For example, a Reverse Google Image Search performed using a famous 1960s Esquire magazine cover by George Lois revealed in 1.13 seconds that a copy of the cover exists on about 315 web pages. The tool even put words to the photo and suggested a search term to match the image. Additionally, these tools can find similar images, making it possible for rights owners and litigators to find altered images and perhaps even derivative works and confusingly similar trademarks.

For the parent victims of baby role-play, anyone having their photographs misused, or anyone needing to suppress distribution of a photo, these tools provide a path to recourse. Once located, a photo owner can send a DMCA takedown notice to the website’s host service provider. By law, the host provider must rapidly remove the photo.

This process is helpful in the case of one or a few photos. But the process could be expanded to provide a level of whole-photo presence protection that could truly combat photo theft. These reverse image search tools could be developed to monitor personal digital media platforms, particularly social media platforms, and provide alerts when images are discovered elsewhere. Google is a natural choice for this sort of service. To do this, the Reverse Image Search and Google Alert functions could be combined to notify a user when a particular photo appears in a new location online. This would be cumbersome to setup for every photo placed online. But a wholesale solution comes in developing these tools into a photo monitoring online service, or even embedding such features directly into social media platforms. Imagine a dashboard product like HootSuite or TweetDeck that accesses your social media sites, caches your photos as you post them, and routinely reverse-searches for them on the Internet. When it finds a photo in an unapproved place, the user would receive an alert and if desired, auto-generate a takedown notice and send it to the website’s host.


A solution like this isn’t farfetched: consider identity theft products performing similar monitoring for personal finance concerns. And like identity theft, catching the actual culprit wont be the end-result. But a rapid search and notice system would give photo owners an aggressive tool in mitigating fears, reputational harms, and even commercial losses from photo theft. Perhaps over time such a tool, combined with expanded use of Creative Commons licensing, would change perceptions about photo theft. Reverse image searches could even help a person locate the original owner of a photograph so he can request a license. The legality of photo copying rests on authorized use. Licensing is asking for and receiving permission—just ask! And if your photos are stolen (stressing that they are truly yours), don’t hesitate to send a takedown notice to have the copies removed.

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