On January 1st, Sures Kumar, working as part of a Scientific Hoax project at the Royal College of Art in London, launched a site named Pro-Folio.
Described as a “Speculative academic project aimed at intellectual stimulation and debate regarding the fragility of online identities,” what Pro-Folio did was generate fake artist portfolios, all for false identities, using the work of other artists.
Word quickly spread through the art community and many, in particular those who had had their work used by Pro-Folio, were upset about the project and cited copyright infringement as a primary concern.
On January 7th, Kumar shut down the service but kept open the possibility of relaunching it later after tweaks.
But while the artist reaction to Pro-Folio is understandable, the truth is what Pro-Folio did is not unique nor was it the worst offender. What made Pro-Folio stand out was that it was open about its efforts and listed itself as an art project.
Simply put, far more nefarious people have been doing far worse on the Web for far longer.
What Was (Is) Pro-Folio
The basic idea behind Pro-Folio was that visitors to the site could create fake portfolios for fictional people. The portfolios would be filled with high-quality art, have a professional design and look like something that could be presented to a potential school, client or employer.
The copyright issue dealt with the images themselves. Pro-Folio didn’t pull images from a library of stock photos that were correctly licensed but, instead, scraped them from users on the portfolio site Behance. Behance asked Kumar to stop scraping from its site and he’s done so, taking down both the generator and the previously-created portfolios.
Kumar, for his part, says the entire project was designed to “Be an ephemeral speculative project” and that it had already accomplished what it was built for.
However, while much of the conversations around Pro-Folio has centered around the legality of the service and whether or not it is a fair use, what it was beyond an art project was a demonstration of scraping technology and, in particular, how powerful it can be for taking the works of others.
That’s because what Pro-Folio did was not unique on the Internet. Spammers have been doing similar things with all kinds of content for years. Though few have tried to build portfolios, mostly because the lack of text isn’t very good for search engines, spammers have a long history of scraping images and other content to go alongside their lifted text.
In short, if Pro-Folio is scary, it shouldn’t be the only thing that scares you.
Spammers, Scrapers and Artists
The truth is that scrapers have been operating for longer than this site has been around. Many of the first posts I penned were about scraping, going back to 2005.
Of course, the problem is actually much older than that but for many visual artists, the issue hasn’t been on their radar because scrapers, by in large, have targeted RSS feeds with lots of text. After all, text is the type of content that does best in most Google searches and is what spammers need to make their pages appear legitimate.
However, as Google’s requirements and recommendations have changed, so have spammers. Having images on pages has been crucial for search engine optimization and that’s put visual content in the crosshairs of spammers.
Though, as with text content, spammers have a variety of ways to get content, one of the more common ways has been simple scraping.
Many image sites have made this easy as sites like Flickr, Pinterest and Behance all have APIs that make it easy for outside sites to access content with a program, thus making it easy to grab the images. (Note: It’s not clear if this is how Pro-Folio worked.)
Combine that with the fact that images are also routinely available in RSS feeds, it’s easy to see why spammers would find images a desirable target.
The same is also done with videos and, in some cases, audio, but in those situations it’s usually done through an embed, not by copying and pasting the work.
All that Kumar did, in truth, was use the techniques already employed by spammers but, instead of creating a spam blog or a fake news site, he created fake portfolios.
The Legality of Pro-Folio
As an aside, since questions about the legality of Pro-Folio have been raised, it’s interesting to take a look at the legal issues the project faces.
Fast Company already did an excellent write up about the fair use issues that the service raises for those who want more detail, but I personally ide with Kevin Tottis in saying that it is not likely a fair use.
The fake portfolios were simply not transformative enough, especially respective to the original pieces, to be a likely fair use. Even though he claims to be a student and that the site was an art project, his use of the images themselves was not transformative and could definitely be seen as harming the originals in the market, especially since the market they were in was as portfolio pieces.
However, I also acknowledge that fair use is a very unpredictable area of law and the case could have gone either way. Surprises happen all the time on fair use issues.
The potentially more interesting legal issue is the scraping itself. Scraping is a legal minefield and there are multiple laws that you can break scraping content from a third party without permission.
The Behance API terms of service requires that attribution always be appended to every image and that such sites agree to the intellectual property terms in the main TOS, which include respecting copyright. In short, if the site used the API, it was likely in violation of this TOS at least one, possibly two different ways.
If it didn’t use the API, it could be considered trespass to chattels, which is basically trespass to personal property or even a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act if it’s deemed that the site’s TOS is valid and the scraping violates it.
In short, while copyright is an important angle to this story, it’s far from the only one.
In the end, the legal issues are moot right now because Kumar has shuttered the controversial service. Unless he does start it back up, legal action seems unlikely.
What is important is that this case should serve as a wakeup call for visual artists: Scraping can and does affect you much the same as it affects bloggers and other authors.
It’s not a matter of whether your images can be scraped, it’s a question of when they will be and if they have been already.
Hopefully, if nothing else, Pro-Folio can bring new attention to this issue and get artists think about how their content can be and often is misused on the Web. That, in turn, can start a different conversation, one about how to protect works and prevent abuses like this from happening again.