With the likelihood of some form of an orphan works bill being passed sometime within the next few years, visual artists, whose works are not easily searched for, have been worried that it could lead to them losing some of their rights to their works.
However, several companies have been working on technology solutions to the orphan works problem, both to reduce the need for an orphan works bill and to prevent works from becoming orphans needlessly. The hope is that by creating search tools and indexes to locate copyright holders of images, artists that take adequate steps will have little to no reason to worry about their work becoming an orphan.
One such company is StockPhotoFinder.com, which has launched a new beta service The Copyright Registry. Though The Copyright Registry’s site may not look like much, it actually belies a powerful set of tools that could help artists and publishers, especially stock artists, keep their works from being mistaken as an orphan.
The question is whether this service will gain traction, if so, will it be useful enough to entice artists and searchers alike to use it.
How it Works
The Copyright Registry, which is not affiliated in any way with the Copyright Office nor is it a substitute for a copyright registration, actually has several different components.
However, the main functionality of the site requires you to either install a bookmarklet in your browser or paste a URL into a form on their home page. The site will then go through the page and extract all of the image, letting you select which works you wish to mark.
If you do not have an upgraded account, you’ll be able to view who has been tagged as the copyright holder/aritst of various images. You’ll also be able to edit or add such tags to work, provided a formal claim has not been made. Should anyone else run another copy of that image through the service, even if it is from another site, they will see the information that you added identifying the owner.
The idea is that, should anyone be interested in using that image but be uncertain of who the copyright holder, they can run the image through the service and get the needed information. For the most part, the service works in a wiki-like format where anyone can add or alter information. Copyright disputes, should they arise, will be handled with a dispute resolution policy similar to ICANN’s Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy.
The exception to the wiki format is with authenticated accounts. Those who pay $25 per year and provide additional personal information can put a formal claim on a work and “lock out” others from altering that information. Though a system such as this could easily be abused, especially since $25 would not discourage a person with bad intentions from claiming multiple works as their own and locking out non-member copyright holders, it also guards against abuse by anonymous users.
The service also keeps track of where the images it finds are used on the Web. It only looks for exact copies of the images, meaning even slight modifications of the image could throw off the detection system. The system, right now. focuses mostly on finding matches that have been processed via the bookmarklet and/or form, but there are plans to begin spidering the Web at large to look for additional matches.
The entire system works without uploading any images to the service, only fingerprints are stored, and that should help the site scale neatly even as more and more images are added to the site.
Another interesting element of the service is its new copyright management information tool, Veripixel. Veripixel adds a barely visible barcode to an image in the upper-left hand corner. However, since it is a full-color barcorde it is able to use only nine pixels, all in one row, to dispaly and read the data.
Here is a sample of Veripixel using the top of a large picture of Marilyn Monroe. Notice the highlighted part in the upper left hand corner (You may wish to click the link and open up the full image).
Now here are the pixels zoomed in very tight.
The pixels are a code that instantly tell The Copyright Registry which image it is and who the copyright owner is as the script looks for those pixels before matching against the fingerprint. With those nine pixels, if left intact, the registry has all it needs to determine the owner of a photograph or image. Though they can be easily removed, knowingly doing so for malicious purposes is a violation under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and can be sued for.
However, Veripixels is a side project for The Copyright Registry and is not needed in order for the system to function. Still, it is an interesting idea and a free service for all to use.
Drawbacks and Limitations
Though there are a lot of reasons to get excited about The Copyright Registry. There are some kinks that need to be worked out and issues that would be better off resolved. They include the following:
- Site Apearance: Though it is in beta, the site doesn’t look well put together and the usability is lacking. Though the form to sign in and add a URL are clear, it isn’t easy for a first-time user to understand how to use the site. Even the video, embedded below, only demonstrates the bookmarklet system.
- Tagging Issues: The process of tagging images is slow. If you add a Flickr URL, for example, it will pull every single image on the page, no matter how small. This includes the logo, the avatar, the thumbnails from the photostream and much more. You may have to wade through four or five pages of small images before finding the one large one that you want. You can overcome this by pasting in only the actual image URL or by using the bulk import tools, which will be available to authenticated members shortly. However, the lack of intelligence on the script’s part in detecting which images are the highest priority can be frustrating.
- Uncertain Future: The site is going to have something of a chicken and egg problem. For the Registry to be considered part of a “reasonable” search, as was discussed in the last drafts of the orphan works bill, it must be widely used by a lot of artists. However, until it is part of such a search, artists have little motivation to use it. The site hopes to overcome this through partnerships with stock photography agencies and larger artists. That may be enough to “jump start” the cycle of artist use and reasonable search.
- Exact Matching Only: However, the biggest limitation that I see is that the matching performed by the service is exact only. If an image is modified even slightly, it will register as an entirely knew work. This means that artists could have to lay claim to many dozens of copies of their work floating around the Web just to be sure that none of the individual images become an orphan. This could be very time consuming.
In regards to the final point, it would be nice to see this service paired with a visual search, such as Tineye, to take some of that burden off. The decision to focus on exact matching is understandable, especially when you start looking into fair use issues and that the site was never designed to track or prevent copyright infringement, just to aid those who want to the right thing and license images properly.
But with the way copyrighted works are passed around on the Web, if anyone wishes to do the right thing but has the wrong version of the image (unless the Veripixel is intact), then there is a problem. The sad truth is that every popular image has multiple versions on the Web, if someone doesn’t search for the artist’s original, it may still appear to be an orphan.
I’m hoping that the first two aspects of the site will be fixed as the site moves out of beta, they both should be relatively trivial fixes. The third problem seems to be well-addressed already but the fourth may be a problem that plagues the registry for some time to come. Though a strategic partnership could probably solve it, it is unclear if they will do so.
Overall, the Copyright Registry is an interesting service. Though it has much of the same functionality and structure as Numly and even MyFreeCopyright, it is well-targeted at artists and photographers, especially large ones with many works (at least once the bulk import tools come online).
Though I worry that the name may cause many to believe it is a formal copyright registration, despite numerous disclosures to the contrary, the idea itself is solid and most of the flaws in execution can be addressed as the site comes out of beta.
I recommend that artists at least be aware of this site and, if they have a few moments, to poke around and try it out. Registry services such as this one will likely play a major role in artists’ lives in the coming years so it is important to be familiar with the anti-orphan tools now.
Furthermore, The Copyright Registry seems to be well-poised to be one of the leaders in this field moving forward. Even if it isn’t a perfect solution, those who register and try it now will have a voice and help determine the direction it grows.