Facebook, Flickr Strip Copyright Data from Images


Update 4/20/2010: Flickr appears to have rectified this problem and is now showing EXIF data on both original and reduced sized versions of the images uploaded through the service. A follow-up article is pending.

Update 4/21/2010: Sadly it appears I spoke too soon. Flickr is still stripping EXIF data on resized images. Update coming.

Though the orphan works bill has been defeated for this year, there is still a tremendous amount of interest among visual artists about ensuring that their works carry their names and information with them. It is largely assumed that the bill will be reintroduced next year and that, at some point in the near future, that there will be a risk of their works becoming orphaned.

However, in the age of the Internet, photographers have also become more reliant on photo sharing services for hosting their work and their online portfolios. It has been an easy way to get their works online and find an audience.

Unfortunately, at least some of those services seem to be working against artists in keeping their works clearly marked. Though many routinely insert EXIF metadata into their images, at least two of the most popular image hosts, Flickr and Facebook, are routinely stripping that information out before posting the information online.

This could, should the orphan works bill passed, cause many photographers, including those that used due diligence in marking their work, to have their works become orphaned and used legally without their permission.

The worst part is that it is a simple fix on the host’s part, but also one that Flickr has been aware of for at least six months.


Back in April, photographer James Duncan Davidson posted a blog entry detailing an error with Flickr that caused copyright and other metadata to be stripped from uploaded and resized images. He also posted his observations to Flickr’s feature request forums, where it became a popular suggestion.

However, even after over six months of activity, the post has not gotten a single response from the Flickr admins nor has the feature been implemented. So, I decided to conduct an experiment to see if Flickr had quietly instituted the fix and also see if a few other popular image hosts had similar problems.

The results were very surprising.

An Experiment

To conduct an experiment, I took one of my snapshots from my trip to Newcastle, UK and added some very basic copyright metadata to it. To do this, I used the open source application Reveal for the Mac.

After I added the metadata, this is what was shown in the photo information.

I then uploaded the image to some of the popular photo sharing sites and re-downloaded the image to see if the metadata remained intact. I started with Flickr.

After uploading and re-downloading the displayed copy of the image, I noticed that the file size was significantly bigger but, once I opened up the metadata in Reveal, this is what I saw.

The new photo had completely stripped out the pertinent copyright information, along with all of the other metadata that I could see.

After that, I decided to try Facebook. With over 10 billion photos hosted, Facebook is the largest image host in the world currently. I did the same process with Facebook and, when I re-opened the metadata in Reveal, I saw that, again the information had been stripped out.

It was immediately clear that both sites strip out all image metadata. Though Flickr does make a point of reading and parsing much of it, especially information pertaining to the camera, before posting it, none of it is displayed on the versions that are public-facing.

Two that Preserve it

After being disappointed with Flickr and Facebook, I decided to try two other image hosts to see how they handled the metatadata. First, I tried a host that I have used in the past on this site, Imageshack.

With Imageshack, I did two checks, first I uploaded the image without resizing and then with a reduction to a “Web-friendly” size. I downloaded both versions. In both cases, the metadata was preserved.

I then decided to try Photobucket, an image sharing service I continue to have many sharp disagreements with, taking a similar set of steps that I did with Imageshack. However, once again, both the raw and the version resized with their online software preserved the metadata perfectly.

While I have many other copyright-related concerns regarding Photobucket, it is nice to see that their system does handle this one issue correctly.

Still, for photographers, these results leave a lot of uneasy questions to be answered.

What Can Be Done

The problem with the results above is that neither Photobucket nor Imageshack are widely used by professional or even amateur artists. They are much more common as image hosts for blogs or social networking sites and host a lot of personal photos as well as more than a decent amount of copyrighted work.

However, there are a lot of photographers and artists putting their work on Flickr to share it or using Facebook as something of a personal resume. In those cases though, any metadata that they are adding is being stripped out before at least most of the images go online.

The onus, right now, is on these services to fix this problem but there seems to be very little push to do so. As such, the only way to ensure that your copyright information is carried with the works you submit through these services is to make it part of the image itself, most likely through some form of visual watermarking.

Until these issues are fixed, artists have to assume that any image posted on Flickr or Facebook will be passed around the Web with no identifying information, greatly increasing the probability that they could become orphan works should the bill pass.


Sadly, these aren’t the types of issues most image hosts think about when designing their product. They worry about providing a good user experience, giving enough space, having enough features and building a good business plan. Whether the metadata is preserved, is not a major issue from their standpoint.

However, to me, these are the types of small details that can have a big impact on artists and separate the great image hosts from the good.

Though Flickr has made a great reputation as a place for artists and photographers, it has shown a lot of disregard for their rights. From snafus with the API to confusing licensing terms, Flickr has been anything but an oasis for artists concerned about how their work is being used.

If the orphan works bill passes, these issues will go from being minor inconveniences to major concerns and all image services are going to have to address these problems, one way or another.

However, the time to start thinking about these things is now, before the law passes and a potential crisis is at hand. Waiting until the law does pass could be too late.

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  1. You start with the premise that Orphan Works is dead for this year. However, it seems almost certain there will be a lame duck session of Congress. If so, still pending before the House Judiciary Committee is HR 5889, the Orphan Works act of 2008. When Congress did not adjourn in September, as scheduled, Senate staffers not involved in the financial “bailout” fight found something to keep them busy. They managed to get passed by (“Hotlined”) acclimation S 2913, the Shawn Bentley Orphan Works Act of 2008. While it's not appropriate to call either bill “better” for creators, S 2913 seems clearly worse. When Congress finally adjourned, its consideration was pending before the House Judiciary Committee. Should that committee devote its efforts to Orphan Works, rather than to citing Karl Rove for contempt, a version of 5889, revised to match the passed 2913, could very well make it to the House floor, where passage would be likely. There's been no comment from the Bush administration – and almost no vetoes of other bills – so it would likely become law.

    In other words, be ready. If this issue resurfaces this year, things will happen very fast. The window to influence the outcome – assuming that is even possible – will be very narrow, and our only hope to stop a revised bill (or the revision itself) will be a massive and immediate outpouring of well-informed messages to our representatives.

  2. It is possible we could still see the orphan works bill this year but one of the advantages those who oppose the bill have had is that it has not been a high priority for those in Congress. With everything else going on, it seems likely that it will. I had honestly thought the bill was completely dead but I do see that there is at least some life in it this year, still, the odds are slim.

    However, the bottom line is that it is currently a matter of “when” not “if” we will see such a bill passed. If it passes this session or early next, it isn't much difference to those affected, it is just a timeline shift.

    The bottom line, and I would argue the real starting point of this article, is that both Flickr and Facebook need to change these issues now. Whether it is this year, the next or the one after it is coming and it is best to be ready.

  3. Mr. Bailey-

    Great post, thank you very much for the insight. I've been a long-time flickr user and never really paid attention to the fact that they were stripping all of the copyright data. I noticed that the camera exif data was still there and just made the (apparently invalid) assumption that my other data remained. It looks like I'm going to have to set up a section of my personal site to host my photos….

  4. I'm personally very much in favour of an orphaned works bill. But this preference makes what facebook and Fickr are doing even worse, they are altering your image, recompressing it with a lossy process that loses details and their stripping off your legal copyright notice.Isn't that illegal? At the very least stripping of a copyright notice would be taken as a very strong indicator of bad faith!

  5. this was extremely useful to me as I have often had my images lifted from flickr (indeed, that's what led me to this site). normally it's ok – i have creative commons and have relied largely on trust until now and many people place a link on blogs. but it has really started pissing me off that people assume more and more these days that flickr is some giant free photo agency. sometimes money-making websites use my photos without asking, it's only when i notice a sudden rise in views and faves that I realise something's afoot. thanks a lot Jonathon for putting the point out there.

  6. Let me know if I can help getting any of those sites to remove your image. If they're violating your CC license, you have the right in most cases to demand removal. Just let me know if I can help and I'm glad the article was able to help!

  7. Also, digital photography is neither art nor work. It's pushing a button. If your rent payments depend on posting files to public internet sites and hoping people don't use them for their own purposes, I suggest you get a real job, in which case you'll be able to lighten up and better enjoy your hobby. If you don't need the money but for some reason get upset that other people use your images without your permission, I suggest you consult a psychiatrist. Your copyright laws concept is obsolete and morally bankrupt. Welcome to the future, sharing is the new paradigm, your approval is not required.

    • Making a copy IS stealing. Digital photography IS both ART and WORK. If you think that all it involves to make a good photo is pushing a button then you are sadly mistaken. As professionals we have to have camera equipment, lighting equipment, studios, computer equipment, software (which I assume you would just "copy"), hire assistants, hair stylists, make up artists, retouchers, wardrobe stylists, models, pay for travel, work 60 – 80 hours a week, pay for insurance, spend thousands of hours testing lighting and photoshop techniques and I could go on. I'd love to know what you do for a living Benjamin, besides being a thief that is.

  8. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I assumed Facebook and Flickr wouldn't be dumb enough to strip the EXIF, but alas they are. They have the highest volume of pictures and yet they overlooked this step.However, even if EXIF was passed, people can still edit the EXIF information with programs and get away with 'stealing' someone's photo perhaps, unless the creator can prove it is theirs.

  9. I haven't tested it but I have heard from others that SmugMug does not have this issue as it preserves the original image. That being said, any smaller versions may still have it. If you have an account, feel free to run the test described above and let us know. I'd be happy to publish your findings.

  10. Is there one that you would particularly recommend? I had been thinking of setting up a Picasa account since I know I can use a template to make a reasonably presentable gallery without having to code it myself, but I see their terms include them using the user's images for promotional (commercial) purposes. (Which is a right I wouldn't be able to give them.) And I don't want a site that's going to prevent me from identifying my images as my own, obviously.

  11. The best solution is to simply self-host your images when possible, possibly using an Amazon S3 account if needed. However, you can always test any service that you do use to see if it keeps the data intact. I believe that I did hear that SmugMug leaves the info intact but I have not validated it yet.

  12. I tried it and Flickr is not removing my metadata nor is it removing any EXIF data. I embed my copyright in the EXIF and IPTC files and when I download it it is there. Also if I look at the image properties whilst viewing on Flickr all of my copyright is intact.Possibly you are using different uploader or Flickr settings, there is an option to turn of EXIF and perhaps you have inadvertently turned this feature on. Here's an image so you can see for yourself.http://www.flickr.com/photos/cledry/4529164020/…..

  13. To be clear, this article is over a year old and Flickr may have changed its policies.I just did a recheck and it does seem to be preserving the info both in original and reduced sized versions of the image, which it was not previously.This is create news and calls for an update!

  14. What I would like to see is GOOGLE spider the metadata in images. This would let us perhaps embed a character string so we could track anyone using our unaltered images.