PicScout Announces New Image Matching Tools

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Imagine if you could open up your browser, search for an image using Google and instantly know who produced every image that came up and how you could license it for reuse. Likewise, as an artist, imagine that you could index your works into a database and everyone would know who the creator was and be able to license it from you, no matter where they saw it on the Web.

That’s the future that Picscout is trying to bring about with a pair of new initiatives , Image IRC and Image Exchange.

But while this brave new world likely sounds very enticing to visual artists, the framework of it has just been announced and it has many hurdles to overcome before it becomes a part of most artist’s daily lives.

Still, it is an interesting idea with a great deal of promise.

How it Works

The system consists of two parts which are both required for it to function:

  1. Image IRC: This component is essentially a very large database of Images that PicScout has collected information on. The images are fingerprinted to make them easily identified and are then paired up with their metadata, which includes information about who owns the image and where it can be licensed.
  2. ImageExchange: This is the component that is end user facing, allowing Web surfers to automatically locate and license images contained in the Image IRC. One example is a planned Firefox extension that will be released that allows users to automatically find out if images they see on the Web are licensed via the Image IRC.

The result is that, if a user is surfing the Web with the ImageExchange addon running, they will see an “i” over images that are in the Image IRC database.

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Users can then click on one of the “i”s and will get a popup like the one below with more information about the image.

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From there, they will be given the ability to correctly license the image, including the ability to click through and purchase a license if needed.

Currently the Image IRC includes “tens of millions” of images, including some 7 million CC-licensed images from Flickr. PicScout is also opening up to agencies, professional photographers and photo-sharing sites that can provide bulk image delivery.

PicScout hopes to open up the platform to smaller copyright holders and sites in the near future.

Why It’s Important

What is interesting about these new tools is that image matching and fingerprinting has typically been used as a one-way street. Creators have used the technology, often PicScout’s, to locate copies of their own works. The idea is to take the process and put it in reverse.

Rather than scanning one image to find its copies on the Web, one now automatically scans the images they see to find which are available for use. It is the same technology but, rather than starting from a known source and locating unknown matches, you’re starting with unknown sources trying to locate known matches.

This has the potential to be a boon for those who regularly license images. Rather than going through stock photo libraries to find the right image, they can have their browser (or a third-party site using the API) passively scan images as they surf the Web, allowing them to use the broader Web and better search tools.

These tools could also, foreseeably, have an impact on the orphan works issue, or works with unknown authors. By creating a database of easily-identified images, it decreases the likelihood an image’s creator might become unknown. Though PicScout is careful to not guarantee its service will be part of a “reasonably diligent search”, which was the language of the previous orphan works bill when determining whether a work was an orphan or not, it is easy to see how it could be useful in such searches.

However, this service does have a lot of obstacles in its way and there may be at least one problem that it can not solve with technology alone.

Problems and Concerns

Obviously, since the service has not been unveiled publicly, there isn’t much that I can say about it. However, there are several areas of concern that need to be addressed before this system can be called a success.

  1. Database Size: Though the database should swell in size as testing begins, tens of millions of images is not an impressive sample. Tineye has over a billion images and is growing very rapidy and, even then, it doesn’t escape criticism from me for not catching all infringements. While it is true that the Image IRC database doesn’t have to be as large as Tineye’s as it is only indexing originals of images, not their copies, if the database is too small, it will not be useful for performing image searches and that will make it useless for everyone.
  2. Licensing Limitations: All of the images in the Image IRC must be made available for licensing either as a commercial work or under one of a few CC licenses (according to a representative from PicScout, the image must be licensed for non-commercial use at this time). There’s no way to use the Image IRC to say that you do not want your images used. This limits the usefulness to photographers who have no interest in image licensing.
  3. The Wrong Audience: While this will be seen as a great product for those who routinely purchase photos online, it remains to be seen how well it will be adopted by those who misuse images, either through ignorance or malice. Those who don’t know or don’t care if they are violating copyright are unlikely to download a Firefox plugin to start buying images they see on the Web. If that’s the case, the actual impact on getting users to license images could be small.

However, the gravest concern I have is that this tool could create even more confusion when it comes to licensing. Given the current level of copyright understanding on the Web, it is conceivable some could use this tool and think think not that they can license the images with the “i”, but that those are the ones they have to pay for and the others are free.

In short, without proper education about how the tool is to be used and without proper groundwork on copyright education, it is conceivable that this product could actually backfire, especially against those not in the Image IRC system.

That being said, these are issues that can and should be addressed as the product development rolls along. Right now we have a very brief glimpse at a promising new tool that could, if it is able to grow to a large enough size, could revolutionize the way people buy stock images and the way people find works for their various projects.

Bottom Line

There is no doubt that PicScout’s matching technology is among the best in the industry and its ability to use fingerprints of images rather than watermarks (visible or invisible) to track works enable it to track a much wider range of material. There is also no doubt that this application of their technology can have a lot of benefits to copyright holders of all kinds.

The questions that remain unanswered is how will this system be developed and how will it be used. If PicScout is judicious and wise with how they build this service, it could become an incredibly powerful tool for users and a major coup for visual artists, who have struggled with being found since the dawn of the Web.

If it is developed unwisely, it will likely remain a niche product, used primarily by those already in the business, that does little to improve the overall copyright climate. At worst, it could even introduce additional confusion and headaches.

Without a doubt, this will be an offering to follow over the next year or so. No matter what, it seems destined to make an impact.

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