Tineye: Protecting Images, Preventing Orphans

One of the greatest challenges facing artists when it comes to protecting their work is finding infringements.

This is difficult because search engines, including image search engines, are designed to look for text, not pixels. Though you can look up the title of an image, the filename or even metadata within the image, if that information was changed by a site reusing your work, it has traditionally escaped detection.

Though the technology has existed in various forms, there has never been a search engine available to the public that could take an image and look for other ones like it. That is, until Tineye.

Tineye works differently than any other image search engine. It doesn’t ask you for words or even a description. Instead, you upload an image and it returns results similar to that picture. It is fast, easy to use and, most importantly, effective.

However, there are limitations to Tineye, especially in its current form. Though artists have many reasons to celebrate, the dancing likely won’t commence for some time.

How Tineye Works

For the purpose of this demonstration, I am going to use a standard Google Logo, specifically, this image:

First, after accessing your Tineye account, you upload the image from your computer to the service.

Tineye then converts the image into a fingerprint and begins matching that fingerprint against others in its database, which currently has over 700 million images.

After it is done, Tineye returns the results, starting with the images most similar to the one you submitted, for example, the image to the left. In this case, Tineye found over 3000 matching images, the first one being an exact copy of the image I had used.

Tineye Results

However, the real magic of Tineye is not in its ability to detect images that are identical, but to detect those that are similar, but altered. This includes images that have been resized, cropped, edited or otherwise changed. As long as enough of the original work is left behind for Tineye to understand what it is, it can report the altered version.

As you can see below, in a screen capture from page 23 of the results, that often includes very heavily altered versions of the original work.

In addition to helping you find altered version of your original image, Tineye also helps you see what was changed. For each image you see, you’re able to do a comparison where you can flip back and forth between your image and the one on the Web, noting both similarities and differences easily.

Also, from the search results, you can visit the URL the image is located on, making it easy to follow through and, if appropriate, take action against any infringement.

The site also offers a Firefox/IE plugin that allows users to perform Tineye searches from any page on the Web, thus eliminating the need to download the image first.

Why this is Important

To be fair, Tineye is not the first to attempt and succeed at this kind of matching. Other companies, including both Digimarc and Picscout, have long offered similar matching services that work without text.

However, Tineye is the first to offer a robust image matching service that is free for everyone (at least as of this writing) and is simple enough to use so that artists can take advantage of it on a whim. There is no watermarking, no technology to apply to your images, just a simple upload and search.

As I see it, this has three potential implications that are both very large and very welcome:

  1. Copyright Protection: The most clear use is for artists to punch their images into the service and receive results, thus enabling them to track down potential infringements of their work. They can then take action to secure removal of the images or request attribution.
  2. Image Tracking: Some images, including buttons and banners, are put on the Web with the intention of them being shared and passed around. Tineye can track the effectiveness of such a campaign and determine how many sites are displaying the image in question.
  3. Orphan Works Protection: Assuming that the current orphan works legislation gets passed either as is or with only a few modifications, finding a way to search for visual work is critical. Tineye can do that. If one found a work that they thought might be an orphan, they could run it through Tineye, even scanning it in if necessary, and search for copies of it on the Web, letting them track down the copyright holder. If such a tool were effective, any qualifying search would almost certainly require such an effort be made.

In short, Tineye can help bring visual artists up on par with writers in tracking their content and being able to have their work easily searched. For this reason, Tineye has already garnered several big name clients, including the Associated Press, Digg and more.

Limitations

Of course, as with any new service, there are limitations to how effective it is. However, in Tineye’s case, those limitations appear to only be temporary and should be fixed as the service grows in size and adds features.

  1. Limited Index Size: Currently, the Tineye database is at about 700 million images. While that is an impressive number, one has to remember that Photobucket alone has over 5 billion images according to their numbers. The site does not seem to detect duplications on Photobucket, Flickr or other popular image sharing sites, focusing instead on blogs. Thus, many images that are known to have many copies return no results. Though Tineye has stated that they are growing their database, the number in the index has not moved in the weeks I have been using the service and no indication was given as to when they would start indexing new images.
  2. No Case Tracking: Currently, with Tineye, there is no way to track cases of plagiarism or copying so that they are not acted upon a second time. Though the site does a respectable job finding duplicate images, it does little to help the artist sort through the mess. The good news is that this is a feature Tineye has expressed a willingness to implement later.
  3. No Alerts System: Where writers have Google Alerts and even CopyAlerts, there is currently no system in Tineye that will alert artists to new copies of their work being posted. Once again, this is a feature Tineye has expressed an interest and willingness in adding later.

In short, Tineye is not the system artists have been waiting for today, but it definitely has the potential to be that system in the near future.

If Tineye can continue growing and improving its service, it can easily solve a problem that has had artists struggling to protect their work for well over a decade.

Conclusion

Even though Tineye is a great service with tons of potential, in its current format with the existing limitations, it is little more than a preview of what is to come.

Though you should definitely consider registering for the Tineye beta, if nothing else than to pass along your thoughts to the creators, you should realize that the searches you perform will, for the most part, be ineffective. That will hopefully change soon though.

Tineye, right now, is not intended to be the solution to the problem, but rather, a preview of the solution. So if you want to search for your images and immediately find out who has copied all of your work, Tineye, right now, is not for you.

But if you want to see what might be coming down the pipe, definitely check it out.

Related Links

Arstechnica – Another test case
The Inquisitr – An overview of Tineye
Anniebee’s Posterous – An example where Tineye worked)
Daily Tech Report – Another Tineye overview

Further Discussion

  1. How will you use Tineye?
  2. What features would you like to see added?
  3. How do you think image rippers will respond to this kind of search?

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