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'Image eBay' could solve IP issues

Metadata management could reduce orphan works

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Amidst the submissions to the UK gov's copyright review from trade bodies, and the cranks and nutters who inevitably bombard any public consultation on IP with their unwanted opinions, there's a fascinating proposal that should interest anyone creating or using visual images on the interwebs – photographers, graphic artists and illustrators.

It aims to set the nation's images free, but, unlike similar proposals, without surrendering the creator's rights.

Digital rights group Stop43 is floating the idea of an eBay-style trading marketplace for images that would be the basis of a National Cultural Archive (NCA). The group doesn't call for a quango to administer it – merely some ground rules and an API for techies. Since modern technology has expanded the creative pool beyond the professional interests, and amateurs produce spectacular work, this deserves some attention.

While the major picture libraries have similar systems, this would be more ambitious: creating a free online machine-searchable metadata registry. Like eBay, but unlike systems such as Creative Barcode, submission of material would be free. With open APIs and specifications, material could be uploaded via a browser plug-in. Similarly, queries would also be free. The queries would return contact information and allow a transaction to take place. Publishers who wanted to use an image would be able to deal directly – and a small levy on the transaction would fund the scheme. Stop43 proposes an exemption for cultural use to allow the digitisation and display of objects for non-commercial use. (The full definition is a bit more complicated, and includes their use in political campaigns for example, and forbids rip-offs.)

The Daily Mail now attributes authorship to the interwebs.

The group says it is needed to tackle the problem of orphan works – almost all of the images bobbing around on the internet today can be considered orphan works – stripped of data that identifies their creator. Some large and well-funded organisations are orphan-creators on an industrial scale: the BBC strips data from all photographs that the public submits, for example. And the Daily Mail was recently caught out for using a picture it couldn't be bothered even to attribute correctly: it gave the credit to © THE INTERNET

Image recognition technology such as Picscout or Artfinder can help automate the process. Stop43 also suggests crowdsourcing the identification.

Libraries and other Big Culture institutions have been pushing for a change in the law that removes creators' rights, so they don't have to track down the creators and request permission. That's how Stop43 got started, with a spontaneous and surprisingly successful viral campaign last year to repeal an orphans' work proposal in the Digital Economy Act. Stop43 says photographers weren't responsible for the orphan works problem – and shouldn't be punished for it. (And in any case, they propose an exemption for cultural use.) What's really needed, they argue, is a marketplace.

"Museums, libraries, archives, galleries and educational establishments hold large numbers of artistic works on decaying traditional media, but are prevented from transferring them to digital media by current copyright law. Without urgent action, these items cannot be preserved or used in any way for academic study and will be lost forever," argues Stop43.

"However, the solution to this problem must not be the expense of the careers and livelihoods of the individual and micro-business creators who create most cultural artefacts."

With money changing hands, the NCA registry should be a self-supported entity. The group suggests two conditions to get it to work. One is that large holders of Other People's Images, such as major newspaper groups, must submit work with metadata attached. Registration would be voluntary for creators. In some illustrative screenshots the group shows how it might work – guiding users to the photographer or illustrator's own site – or, if it is an orphan image, to "similar" works in professional libraries (or free archives).

Stop43 says the next step is building a working model. It will be a tough fight, since Big Culture institutions think this stuff is their turf. Particularly the British Library, which has vowed to "do a Google", and digitise in copyright works such as newspapers – whether the copyright-holders agree or not. The group has a ready list of rebuttals to these objections.

Stop43's Paul Ellis told us: "Newspaper groups and organisations who solicit works from the public must lodge a copy by default with all the 'capture metadata' intact – this would make it trackable. There would be an option for anonymous submitters such as whistleblowers would also be available. This would block the mass creation of orphans, which is what we see today."

You would hope a pro-business IP review would lend a sympathetic idea to the idea of a market solution to a problem. We'll have to see. ®

Related Link

Stop43's NCA proposals

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