PhotoBucket, the Web’s largest image sharing service, has been drawing criticism from a growing number of artists over its practices regarding copyrighted material.
At issue specifically are two elements of PhotoBucket’s services. First, their image printing service, which is powered by Qoop, and second, their takedown system, which often leaves the work available on other parts of the site.
Some of the artists have banded together by creating a petition directed at PhotoBucket, which I helped author, asking them to change some of their policies to help better protect artists and photographers whose works are being posted, and even sold, on the service.
What makes this case unique is that the artists have not just specific concerns, but also specific solutions to the problem and have requested that PhotoBucket take a series of steps to help ensure that their rights are protected.
The first complaint deals with PhotoBucket’s relationship with print-on-demand service Qoop.
Qoop works with other image sharing sites, including Flickr and Webshots, but at those sites the relationship is a bit different. Elsewhere, users can only request prints of their own photographs. however, with PhotoBucket, strangers can access users accounts, including those not logged in to the site, and request prints. All that they need is the “Share” URL, which is available in most search results.
This feature of PhotoBucket is not mentioned clearly in any of the marketing materials. Nowhere on the front page of the site or the registration page does PhotoBucket mention that, by default, prints of your work will be available to anyone finds your account.
Furthermore, PhotoBucket does not mention in any clear location that the way to prevent this from happening is to set your account to private or not display the “Share” URL under your images. This creates a very worrisome situation where not only are artists likely having their works printed after being uploaded without permission, but also photos being uploaded in the intended manner can be printed by complete strangers.
Few, I doubt, would be comfortable with a stranger printing a calendar based upon their family photos and this raises many unsettling possibilities.
Artists, however, also have to contend with Qoop’s printing service. Qoop does not make any attempt to filter out infringing material from their service, other than providing a standard terms of service and presenting warnings to the user. One artist, Sandi Baker of Wolf Song Studio tested this by
logging into visiting a strangers account (she did not log into PB in any regard), one who had uploaded some of her images without permission, and printed several stickers of her own work, seen right.
All of this without her explicit permission or the permission of the person who created the account.
However, if an effective take down regime were in place at PhotoBucket, this problem might be significantly lessened. Unfortunately, as many artists have discovered, the take down system at PhotoBucket does little to actually stop distribution of their work.
Take Down Problems
Though all of the artists who have filed takedown notices with PhotoBucket agree that the staff is friendly and efficient, the problem is that takedowns rarely remove the work from the site.
Several artists have reported that their images are reuploaded, often within minutes. This often takes place through a series of spam-like accounts owned by usernames that contain a large amount of numbers and don’t seem likely to have been created by a human being.
However, filing a takedown of an image does not result in removal of all copies of the work, just the specific one mentioned. Given that there are over four billion images on PhotoBucket and the difficulties in search for images on the Web, especially if the title has been changed, it is unlikely that an artist can find all or even most copies of their image.
Many artists feel that, between the other copies of the work and the reuploading of removed images, that filing takedown notices with PhotoBucket is almost completely. It is impossible to remove an image, especially one that is popular with PhotoBucket’s users, from the service.
However, the answer to this problem might actually rest with PhotoBucket’s parent company Myspace as they have already cracked this problem, at least as it applies to video.
According to the artists, the issue of photo printing can be greatly mitigated by limiting access to the service. The default setting for the printing feature should be set to “off”. This can be achieved initially by ensuring that all PhotoBucket accounts are initially set to private and are only turned to public with the express understanding that it enables printing.
A more permanent solution, however, would be to turn off the printing service itself, unless specifically requested, and limiting it to the user’s own account. Exceptions might be available in cases where well-known artists use PhotoBucket, such as with director accounts on YouTube, but those accounts would carry special rules and require more effort to create.
Though such a system would still enable users to grab an image they wanted to print, upload it to their own account and print the image, limiting the access to the feature greatly reduces the number of people who can produce prints and ensures that the person who requested the image is also the original infringer. This eliminates much of the “innocent infringer” argument and prevents people from accidentally making works available for commercial printing.
The system works by taking a fingerprint of any video that a takdown is requested for and comparing it against all future uploads. If the video matches, the upload is blocked preventing the work from reappearing on the site.
Theoretically, such a system could easily be applied to images. Once a takedown of an image is requested and a counter-notice seems unlikely, the image could be fingerprinted, compared against other images on the service and against other uploads. If other copies are detected, they are either removed or blocked, meaning that the artist need only submit one DMCA notice to secure the removal of all of their images.
This would likely service PhotoBucket as well as the artists as, most likely, the majority of PhotoBucket’s DMCA complaints stem from a small group of artists dealing with a relatively finite number of pictures.
The technology for such a system already exists and can even detect if the image has been reduced, cropped or otherwise trivially edited. It is at least technically possible for Myspace and PhotoBucket alike to implement such a system.
There is little doubt among the artists that PhotoBucket is a good service and was built with the best of intentions. However, the service is having some unintended consequences and needs to be adjusted to make sure that rampant copyright infringement does not harm the reputation of the service with its target audience, artists and photographers.
There is no desire to “kill” PhotoBucket or to hinder the usefulness of the service for its millions of legitimate users. However, there is a growing expression of concern regarding the service.
As of this writing, the petition is closing in on fifty signatures despite being up less than 24 hours (Update: 10 PM CT Currently at 575 signatures). All of the signatories of the petition are visual artists, many of whom have had their works abused by PhotoBucket members. The current list includes many well-known artists, especially in the airbrush art communities.
Hopefully Photobucket will see these issues and make the needed changes before it is too late. Otherwise, it is only a matter of time before the artists get more hostile towards the service and both the reputation of PhotoBucket and of its legitimate members starts to suffer.
But most importantly, the artists are trying to avoid a situation where others are tempted to try the Viacom route and simply go after PhotoBucket in court. That is not in anyone’s best interest.
With that in mind though, Myspace does not tolerate these types of issues with their video offerings and should not tolerate them with their image offerings either. Art and photography, though not always backed with the most powerful lawyers, are no less creative and require no less effort than video. They are also no less protected.
Still images deserve the same protections as videos. Let us hope that Myspace and PhotoBucket see it the same way.