13 Oct 2009 The PicScout Image IRC and ImageExchange Explained

PicScout LogoPicScout has made waves in the stock photo industry this week with the announcement of a collection of new services.   Designed to help buyers connect with the owner and license source of images they find online, the system actually has many more wide reaching benefits for the stock photo industry.

Quick Context on PicScout

Until now, PicScout has only provided image tracking services.   They ‘fingerprint’ their clients’ images so they can find them in use, even if they’ve been modified. Working only with Rights Managed images, they inform their clients when they find their images in use so clients can determine what is authorized and what is not. Getty Images, Corbis and Masterfile are among their clients for this service that has reportedly recovered over $50 million from photo misuse over the past few years.

What is the PicScout Image IRC & ImageExchange?

They are systems which together allow anyone (including photo buyers!) to find the owner of images they see online or in print.

The terminology is a little confusing, but not critical to understanding the system. ‘Image IRC’ is the fingerprinting and registry part: Index, Registry & Connection. ‘ImageExchange’ is a system that enables commercialization of the registry.

How will People Use the IRC?

That’s part of the genius behind the system.   The IRC has an API (Application Programming Interface) so existing software, websites and systems can all be enabled to access the system directly.   This means developers will be able to create plugins so we’ll be able to query images in the IRC through many different systems, including a web browser and applications like CoolIris, GiniPic, PhotoShop, Aperture, or whatever programs we use to search or manage photos, both on the web and on our own computers.

Each application will identify images that exist in the index by showing a small icon over the corner of the image. Clicking this icon shows a small window with the metadata of the image and a link to the page where the image can be licensed. PicScout has already built a plugin for the popular web browser FireFox which is currently in closed beta test – apply for an invitation to test it here.

PicScout ImageExchange Firefox Plugin Screenshot

How will PicScout Access the Images?

Unlike the image recognition service TinEye, which crawls the web for images and links them together, PicScout’s service is an index, so the contents are sourced through specific channels. The initial channels will be stock photo agencies, many of which are already PicScout clients. Dreamstime will also be the first microstock agency to index all of their images in the registry. Creative Commons images from Flickr will also be included, with over 7 million already in the registry.

Note that PicScout doesn’t store any images. They just create a fingerprint of the image, which they can do from a thumbnail. Agencies need to supply the thumbnail, basic metadata of the image and a link to the page where the image can be licensed.

Individual photographers will have to wait to be able to index their images individually and directly. Given the cost structure, PicScout is only seeking collections of 30,000 or more at this time.

How will PicScout Make Money?

For agencies that sell photos, PicScout will negotiate agreements before fingerprinting the images. Whenever a buyer licenses an image they find through the IRC, the agency will pay PicScout a commission or referral fee as per their specific agreement.

Alternatively, because clients get to set the link destination in the IRC, they can pay to have their images indexed.   This will be great for publishers to drive traffic to their articles whenever someone looks at the metadata for one of their images.   Manufacturers and retailers can also drive traffic to their online shops by indexing images of their products.

This strategy keeps the IRC free for photo buyers, which will help make it popular. It’s also free for photographers when their images are indexed through an agency. Depending on the details of their specific agreements, agencies only pay for the service when they make a sale and publishers only pay when they generate traffic.

Why Would Agencies Want to Have Their Images in the IRC?

The IRC has the potential to send a lot of interested photo buyers to the agency. When images are fingerprinted, the agency includes a link to the page where the image can be licensed. Any time a photo buyer looks up the metadata for an image using the IRC, it’s an opportunity for the agency to connect with the buyer and offer a license.

For exclusive images, which includes most stock photos in the traditional market, it’s a chance for the agency to connect with buyers interested in licensing that particular image. Without having the image in the index, it’s more difficult for the buyer to find out where the image can be licensed.

But for non-exclusive images, agencies compete for the buyers. At this time, Dreamstime is the only microstock agency with an agreement to have their photos fingerprinted.   Until other microstock agencies get on board, all buyers who lookup a microstock image in the IRC will be directed to Dreamstime exclusively.

In addition to attracting buyers, agencies can use the system to drastically reduce the frequency of stolen images being approved into their collections. By checking submitted images against the index, they can automatically avoid accepting images that are not owned by the contributor where the image is in the IRC.

Why Would Photographers Want to Have Their Images in the IRC?

First, the IRC protects images from theft and misuse. It won’t stop it, but it’s a significant level of protection.   Second, the ImageExchange redirects buyers to where images can be licensed, helping photographers connect with photo buyers and make more sales.

Why Would Buyers Want to Use the ImageExchange?

When photo buyers find a photo in use, it’s not always easy to find out who owns it or where it can be licensed. The ImageExchange solves that problem easily and quickly. Having access to the IRC built in to various applications also makes it effortless to use.

Photo buyers can also use the IRC to discover the source of images already on their system. If they’ve previously licensed an image but don’t have records on which agency, the IRC will instantly solve that problem too.

What Happens When More than One Agency Indexes the Same Image?

Any agency with permission to license an image will get space within the metadata. The details on how this will be managed are not currently available.

What Happens When Someone Indexes a Stolen Image?

PicScout has this covered.   Each image will have a button to ‘report’ it, at which point the image will be deactivated and the reporter will have the opportunity to challenge the ownership information.   Malicious use of the report function will be discouraged by requiring registration of identification information.

What About Images Not Available to License?

Copyright owners who want to have their images in the registry but don’t want them available for license can also use the service. They have their images indexed into the registry (the Image IRC part) but don’t participate in the commercial referral program (the ImageExchange part). Instead, they can use PicScout’s legacy service, ImageTracker, which also uses the IRC. This is a paid service which finds and reports images in use.

This service is already available for ImageSpan clients and will soon be connected up with many other platforms.

A Giant Leap Forward

The IRC has taken a lot of criticism in the week since it was first announced. Most critics highlight what the index doesn’t do, as if it was intended to solve all problems. It’s not designed to do that, and it will not do that. However, an industry with the IRC is a far more organized and profitable than an industry without this capability.

PicScout’s strategy is also worthy of high praise: Photographers, agencies and buyers all benefit from the service. It’s free to use and clients only pay when they generate revenue or traffic.   The system is open to be integrated into any software application or website. It also protects against illegal use while simultaneously helping the industry generate revenue. As an industry, it’s in our interests to see this platform succeed.

  • Steve Gibson
    Posted at 21:03h, 13 October Reply

    thanks for rewriting that press release in English! I look forward to smaller agencies being able to register their images. As long as enough browsers and applications support it by default so that there are enough buyers seeing that little icon then I can see it being very successful for everyone.

    In the long term perhaps a more open service will win the race but that’s not going to happen any time soon, and an open solution would bring inherent problems of not having a company with a financial interest in solving infringement complaints – money’s always a big motivator and will no doubt help in promoting the growth of IRC/ImageExchange/Pic Scout

  • R. Kneschke
    Posted at 04:42h, 14 October Reply

    Hm, I am not quite sure how the IRC benefits the photographer by “protecting images from theft and misuse”. For example, I have all my images as thumbs on my website with my name, website and copyright info embedded in the image (not as invisible watermark or metadata, just plain text on the image).

    So everybody who wants to licence one of these images found via Google images or the like can easily do so by entering the website stated on the image. However, I find people on a regular basis who steal the image anyway without licensing it.

    So I don’t see how IRC should prevent this.
    But of course, trying to establish a wordwide index is a good idea. Just let’s hope the agencies don’t forward the usage fees to their photographers.

    Bye, Robert

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 15:45h, 14 October Reply

      Hey Robert,

      It protects your photos from theft in some ways but not others. If your photo is in the index, then it’s impossible for anyone else to upload that photo to an agency as their own, assuming the agency checks submissions against the index first. Additionally, if someone puts one of your photos on their website and claims that it’s their own, anyone with a plugin will be able to see that they are not the true owner.

      However, it doesn’t stop people actually stealing your photos and using them. It just makes it easier for them to get caught when they do.

      I doubt agencies would forward fees to photographers. Depending on the agreement they make, they will only pay for the service when they make a sale. Most agencies already do this through their referral programs, so this is not a new cost.


  • Amy Love
    Posted at 18:47h, 14 October Reply

    Hi Robert,
    This is Amy Love, VP of Marketing and Business Development at PicScout. You asked a great question about how the Image IRC could encourage users to license an image rather than blatant infringement.

    By providing license information at the point of use and discovery, we will automatically create a new level of copyright awareness that will clearly enhance proper usage and ultimately enforcement. Since users will know immediately the copyright status and contact information, they will have the opportunity to do the right thing: license the image. If they choose to use the image without securing the right to do so, the license owner or owner’s attorney can confidently and quickly contact the user and state their case. The approach gives power back to the image owner.

    In addition to the ImageExchange, which visually shows the information, the PicScout ImageTracker, can also report web image usage to agencies or owners who can determine if the use was legitimate or not.

    Currently, during the beta period, the Image IRC is open to agencies and large photographer collections. We are looking at different ways to bring the Image IRC to individual photographers. We hope to make an announcement in 2010.

    If you’d like more information, please contact us via Twitter @picscout or at our web site: http://www.picscout.com/about-us/contact-us.html

  • Holger Mette
    Posted at 17:21h, 15 October Reply

    Thank for the summary Lee – good job in putting a pretty complicated technology into something most people will be able to understand!

  • Robert Perro
    Posted at 22:30h, 17 October Reply

    Actually tineye is indexing image collections: http://blog.photoshelter.com/corp/2009/09/photoshelter-and-tineye.html

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