Getty Images Launches Automated Rights Licensing for Photo Sharing Services

Getty Images announced on Monday a deal with SparkRebel, a site that calls itself a “collaborative fashion and shopping inspiration” — but is perhaps more expediently described as “Pinterest for fashionistas, with Buy buttons” — in which images that users post to the site are recognized and their owners compensated for the use.  The arrangement uses ImageIRC technology from PicScout, the Israeli company that Getty Images acquired last year.  ImageIRC is a combination of an online image rights registry and image recognition technology based on fingerprinting.  It also uses PicScout’s Post Usage Billing system to manage royalty compensation.

Here’s how it works: SparkRebel users post images of fashion items they like to their profile pages.  Whenever a user posts an image, SparkRebel calls PicScout’s content identification service to recognize it.  If it finds the image’s fingerprint in its database, it uses ImageIRC to determine the rights holders; then SparkRebel pays any royalty owed through Post Usage Billing.  PicScout ImageIRC’s database includes Getty’s own images; it is the largest stock image agency in the world.  (Getty Images itself was sold just last month to Carlyle Group, the private equity giant, for over US $3 Billion.)  In all, ImageIRC includes data on over 80 million images from more than 200 licensors, which can opt in to the arrangement with SparkRebel (and presumably similar deals in the future).

This deal is a landmark in various ways. It is a more practically useful application for image recognition than ever before, and it brings digital images into some of the same online copyright controversies that have existed for music, video, and other types of content.

Several content recognition platforms exist; examples include Civolution’s Teletrax service for video; Attributor for text; and Audible Magic, Gracenote, and Rovi for music.  Many of these technologies were first designed for catching would-be infringers: blocking uploads  and supplying evidence for takedown notices and other legal actions.  Some of them evolved to add rights licensing functionality, so that when they find content on a website, blog, etc., instead of sending a nastygram, copyright owners can offer revenue-sharing or other licensing terms.  The music industry has experimented with audio fingerprinting to automate radio royalty calculations.

The idea of extending a content identification and licensing service to user-posted content is also not new: Google’s Content ID technology for YouTube has led to YouTube becoming a major legal content platform and likely the largest source of ad revenue from music in the world.  But while Content ID is exclusive to YouTube, PicScout ImageIRC and Post Usage Billing are platforms that can be used by any service that publishes digital images.

PicScout has had the basic technology components of this system for a while; SparkRebel merely had to implement some simple code in its photo-upload function to put the pieces together.  So why don’t we see this on Pinterest, not to mention Flickr, Tumblr, and so many others?

The usual reason: money.  Put simply, SparkRebel has more to gain from this arrangement than most other image-sharing sites.  SparkRebel has to pay royalties on many of the images that its users post.  Yet many of those images are of products that SparkRebel sells; therefore if an image is very popular on the site, it will cost SparkRebel more in royalties but likely lead to more commissions on product sales.  Furthermore, a site devoted to fashion is likely to have a much higher percentage of copyrighted images posted to it than, say, Flickr.

Yet where there’s no carrot, there might be a stick.  Getty Images and other image licensors have been known to be at odds with sites like Pinterest over copyright issues.  Pinterest takes a position that is typical of social-media sites: that it is covered (in the United States) by DMCA 512, the law that enables them to avoid liability by responding to takedown notices — and as long as it responds to them expeditiously, it has no further copyright responsibility.

Courts in cases such as UMG v. Veoh and Viacom v. Google (YouTube) have also held that online services have no obligation to use content identification technology to deal with copyright issues proactively.  Yet the media industry is trying to change this; for example, that’s most likely the ultimate goal of Viacom’s pending appeal in the YouTube case.  (That case concerns content that users uploaded before Google put Content ID into place.)

On the other hand, the issue for site operators in cases like this is not just royalty payments; it’s also the cost of implementing the technology that identifies content and acts accordingly.  A photo-sharing site can implement PicScout’s technology easily and (unlike analogous technology for video) with virtually no impact on its server infrastructure or the response time for users.  This combined with the “make it easy to do the right thing” aspect of the scheme may bring the sides closer together after all.

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