02 Feb 2016 Why you Want to Track Usage of your Stock Photos and the Services that Do It [updated]

Image theft and misuse are common pain points in the stock photo industry.

“Revenue recovery” –where agencies with exclusive representation of Rights Managed content check usage against license sales and demand payment from unauthorised users– is a big part of the industry.  Some agencies legal teams generate more revenue than their sales teams!

This is made possible by service providers that simplify the massive task of finding images in use on the Internet, and sometimes also in physical publications.

But that’s really only suitable for agencies who have sufficient Rights Managed content and the resources to follow through.  It’s not so suitable for individual photographers who aren’t selling much Rights Managed content, in most cases.

But there are other reasons why photographers may still want to track usage of their images, and some of the same service providers are even geared up for that part of the industry.

How They Work

Most of these services use image fingerprinting technology to identify images and match them to images their crawlers find on the web.  Image recognition search engines, web crawlers, custom algorithms and lately also AI technology are used in combination to track images in use.

Some services open up their massive databases of crawled images for the public to use via the web or through plugins, and others are closed, only opening up actual matches to their paying customers.

For images sold with only a Rights Managed license and through a single, exclusive agency, this works well.  Fewer licenses are sold and the end customer is known to the agency, making it easy to know which uses are licensed and which aren’t.  This is part of the process that can’t be easily automated yet.

But for images sold with Royalty Free licenses, like all microstock, it’s almost impossible to know who has a license and who doesn’t, and the revenue to be recovered – assuming it’s related to the price of a license – makes it much less worthwhile.

Are Image Tracking Services Useful in Microstock?

These services easily pay for themselves when used for high-priced RM content, but there are other ways they can be profitable for royalty free agencies and photographers.

  • Agencies use them to check images uploaded from new contributors are not stolen from another photographer
  • Production feedback, seeing how images are used and incorporating that information into future production, such as:
    • How copyspace is used
    • Cropping and orientation edits
    • Filter effects applied to images
    • Which industries use your images
  • Building a list of prestigious companies that have used their photos for their bio and About pages
  • Boost the ego of the photographer

PicScout is also now working with some agencies tracking usage of RF collections identifying images that have never sold but are found in use, then recovering the revenue.  Given how watermarks are consistently weak in the traditional market, this does seem a lot like entrapment by the agencies, but it works.

The Service Providers

PicScout – launched in 2002 as pioneers of the industry and operated for many years without competition.

They have an internal revenue recovery service which they call ‘License Compliance Services’ operated out of Seattle and London. It does most of the revenue recovery for clients, which adds up to multiple millions of dollars for clients each year and is still growing. The division also identifies the nature of the target websites, such as commercial, editorial and non-profit, to help triage the revenue recovery possibilities.

They also launched an ambitious public service called Image IRC and Image Exchange intended to become an indispensable tool for image buyers wanting to track the source of images, and taking bids from stock agencies – which all have a lot of the same content – for that referral traffic.  This service has since been scaled right back to a web-based upload tool.  It was difficult for PicScout to grow the user base given it required installation of browser plugins and wasn’t very clearly explained or branded.

PicScout was acquired by Getty Images in 2011. Given most of Getty’s competitors are still clients of PicScout, they now operate with Chinese Walls to maintain separation.

TinEye – originally branded as Idee, Inc, the company first launched their image fingerprinting service for stock photo agencies in 2008.  By fingerprinting the images from a stock photo agency client, they could match them against the images they indexed from the web and report back to the agency. In addition to stock photo agencies they had many large brands as clients – companies who needed to protect their brand image by controlling how their photos were used.

In 2012, Idee, Inc launched the Tineye service which opened up the system to the public, enabling anyone to submit a link to an image, or upload an image, and find matches from Tineye’s database of crawled images in use, which today includes almost 14 billion images.

The company counts a lot of the top agencies in the industry among their clients and provides various services via a few different APIs which use a combination of image recognition technologies.

The open Tineye website and browser plugins, still free for non-commercial use, are a common way for microstockers to manually find their images in use. The service lost a lot of momentum when Google introduced their reverse image search, but even though Tineye has indexed fewer images, it’s much better at finding images from stock agencies given they’ve fingerprinted those entire collections.

Stock agency clients get some referral traffic from people using the service to track down the source of images they see on the web, which is how the fee public service is monetised.

ImageWiki – Launched last year as a free, publicly accessible image copyright and licensing information database. Essentially, any user can upload their images to their platform, embedding the copyright ownership and contact information. These images are then fingerprinted, indexed, and searchable. They have an API for large volume users.

The purpose of this registry is to connect image buyers with copyright owners, but also to make copyright information publicly available. They expect this to become more relevant as the new Orphan Work laws state copyright infringement may not be punishable if the infringer can prove the copyright information wasn’t accessible. They also add a revenue recovery opportunity: the system can track images in use, and they offer to negotiate a license with the infringer, on behalf of the copyright holder, to use the images in native advertising.

Protectapic – It’s a monthly-fee based software service aimed at photographers. It was originally named searchmyimages.com, but was rebranded and relaunched to the public in late 2014. 

The service offers image tracking for all submitted images, and even has a function to sync a portfolio from Shutterstock.  Like the others, they then use web crawlers to find images in use.

Results are stored in the user’s account on the site. User must classify these results. When unauthorised use is found, the system includes a ‘Take Action’ button that links to the Wayback Machine and saves a copy of the URL with the image in use to be used as a legal proof of the infringement. 

It’s a very simple but limited service. There’s a free 50 image trial, and then volume-sized $10 and $20 per month fees –that according to their site are a 50% promotional discount– and they also have custom plans for enterprise/high volume clients. 

ImageRights – A more complete service charging annual fees. It’s designed by photographer Ted Van Cleave and was launched in 2009. This system analyses all image usage in terms of potential revenue recovery in case of copyright infringement, so it excludes Flickr and similar sites.

It offers two separated services, Discovery and Recovery. Discovery, that uses web crawlers, enhanced search engines and proprietary algorithms to find copies of customers’ images in use, delivering results in their accounts. Again, it’s up to the user to identify infringers. But when they do, the Recovery service offers to take legal action through a global network of specialised lawyers for a cut of the proceeds and no upfront fee. This enables photographers and agencies to pursue infringements they couldn’t otherwise afford, though does limit it to the most winnable cases.

They have a plan that’s free up to 1000 images. Their paid memberships are $495 and $1295 annual, based on volume. They also offer free copyright registration with the US Copyright Office.

What do You Do?

Are you using any tools to find your images in use?  How do you use the information you discover?

[2016-02-07 – Corrections were made to the PicScout section of this article]

  • Nadia Reckmann
    Posted at 08:02h, 03 February Reply

    Great post, Lee! Hopefully, with more people knowing about how to deal with copyright infringement, infringers will think twice before right-clicking a photo.

    I wanted to add another tool to the list – Pixsy (http://pixsy.com/) . Disclosure: I work there and I love it 🙂

    Pixsy helps photographers track their photos online and claim compensation in case their work was stolen. You can import your photos from various platforms (incl. Tumblr, Flickr, Instagram, Photoshelter, 500px, etc.), as well as from Dropbox, and your computer in one click. We have a team of licensing super-heroes and a global network of law firms to help you get the best deal possible.

    The service is completely free (for the import of up to 5,000 photos) and we get 50% royalties fee in case of successful resolution only.

    Let me know if you have any questions or want to give us a try — I’d be happy to walk you through the process!

  • Robert Kneschke
    Posted at 08:37h, 03 February Reply

    I started testing Pixray and it offers quite a huge amount of possibilities. They use their own search engine, not the Google based one. It’s a paid service, though.

    Another service is PlagHunter which builds upon Google Image search.

  • Matthew Britton
    Posted at 16:19h, 03 February Reply

    Great article.

    Microstock is widespread enough that the majority of big studios have got a handle on what licenses are fit to purpose now. A lot still slips though though, and there’s still a lot of confusion from smaller setups.

    Large companies like supermarkets often use designs pitched to them by mid-level agencies, who in turn buy from smaller companies or individual designers, and sometimes in that process orignal creator attribution can get misplaced (or in a couple of cases i’ve tracked down it’s clearly been ignored – removing attribution does not make it public domain!)

    Big studios or companies are generally very good about this and sort out any required licenses quickly, but at the lower levels there’s still a lot of confusion and/or pushing the boundaries. My portfolio is coming up to 400,000 images at Shutterstock and I cannot express how often this comes up both online, and just walking through stores that really should know better.

    For established creatives, selling microstock across many sites capturing earnings is a lot like casting a wide but badly repaired net and being grateful for whatever you get to keep once it’s hauled in.

    Companies like Picscout could really help to patch some of those holes – short-term for premiumstock and RM (as it’s easier to track) but perhaps in the long-term even for large RF portfolios. It’s great to see a positive development for contributors after a couple of years of pretty hard knocks.

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