A portrait of the artist as a technophile

January 13, 2010: 10:00 AM ET

The Internet has been an important distribution platform for artists, but piracy is having a chilling effect.

By Ted VanCleave, co-founder and executive vice president, ImageRights International.

VanCleave discusses the challenges artists face protecting their work online. Photo: Ted VanCleavel.

As a professional fine arts photographer, I depend on my website to market and sell my images. In fact, my site outsells galleries 10 to 1 for my work.

This is the case for many photographers, artists, musicians and content creators today: the Internet offers an unparalleled medium for global distribution and marketing of art and entertainment at a low cost.

But there's a dark side to free distribution: piracy is rampant. Various studies indicate that the music and entertainment industries lose billions of dollars per year from piracy and copyright infringement. In the business of photography, image theft accounts for hundreds of millions of lost revenue per year.

Unfortunately, it's easy for anyone with a computer (or increasingly, mobile phone) to steal content-- but difficult for the copyright owner to monitor unauthorized usage and recover lost income. Ongoing revenue loss due to Web-enabled infringement raises the broader question around the future of creative content.

Most photographers, artists and content creators do not have high levels of income and every dollar counts. So when it becomes too complex and time-consuming to protect the revenue that you do earn, there's a disincentive to produce valuable work and place it online. Talented content professionals will choose other lines of work, and young people out of school may not choose to enter creative fields in the first place.

This is a disturbing trend: if photographers and artists are unable to adequately protect and control their content's copyrights, the world of professional art, music and film will become diluted with amateur works, sold for pennies online. This trend, of course, has already been occurring over the past several years.

Watermarks, thumbnails and metadata, oh my!

There are ways to protect creative works online, yet none are foolproof and all have inherent drawbacks.  To protect online images, for instance, one can make them small, so that they are not easily reused elsewhere. This is not optimal as a seller, however, because a potential customer misses the detail and scale of an image when it is too small.

Watermarks are another protection method which can easily be added through software programs, yet I find them visually distracting for a potential customer, and nearly ruining the visual impact of an image if you can't easily crop them.

Metadata in the form of embedded text can be added to an image, although it's time-consuming if you have hundreds or thousands of images. And like small watermarks, the metadata can easily be stripped from the image by an infringer. Other companies have developed technology for embedding visual codes in images, which in some instances may be used to track an image's use.  Again, it's time consuming to add embedded codes into your images and costs associated with these services can be prohibitive on a large scale.

The solution that I've chosen over the years has been to simply add my URL to a corner of my images.

This too, is not foolproof: it can easily be cropped out of the image but since large watermarks blight the image, it all boils down to tradeoffs.

Pirates get brazen

I find my work being used illegally on blogs and other commercial sites on a regular basis, as well as on non-commercial Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.

Sometimes the theft can be downright shocking: a blogger once posted my images on his site, and replaced my name with his as the copyright owner. Months of emails and phone calls later, I was able to persuade him to remove all of my content from his site. The process was laborious, lengthy, and frustrating. It didn't warrant a lawsuit, but it did require considerable action on my part to resolve the issue.

As the music industry has so painfully learned, if someone wants to steal your work, they will do it; there are always new ways to get around infringement barriers.  Without any indication of ownership and rights associated with unattributed works online, there's nothing stopping others from sharing or reselling them to hundreds of others with relative ease.

The answer for creative people, then, is to take reasonable steps with prevention but also focus on monitoring the unauthorized usage of your works and determining when and how you want to pursue infringers.

I have often used Google Alerts or any other number of online search tools to help automate the process of discovering my work online. But the reality is, as an individual artist, I only have so much time to spend researching the sites where my images have been posted. Then I need to evaluate if it's worth following up with the infringer.

Lawsuits? Rarely the answer

Legally pursuing a teenager on Facebook or a non-profit blogger is not financially viable, but since such individuals have the ability to help me gain additional exposure for my work, I always insist that they include a link to my site. The sites I'm most interested in pursuing are those that have gained financially from the use of my images: typically, for-profit sites owned by media companies and businesses. And I want to catch these infringers quickly, before my image has been shared and possibly reposted elsewhere.

In the world of images, there are services now available that help image libraries and photographers monitor usage of their work online by matching their content against a database of images downloaded continuously from the Internet and stored on a Web server. The trick is, the search must be backed up by sophisticated image recognition technology and advanced search tools for optimal accuracy, and targeted at site owners who are able to pay.

Ideally, we need services that are affordable for individual artists and content creators, giving control to the creators instead of just large agencies and corporations. In addition to affordable monitoring and tracking services, we also need service providers who will help content owners, for a reasonable cost, pursue and recover fees for their work from the infringers.

I still believe in the power of the Internet as an incredible tool for building community around creative works, and for helping small and relatively unknown artists and other content creators gain notoriety and generate income. But we have to strike a balance: broad, cheap distribution comes at a price. The future of digital art and media depends upon technology, services and appropriate regulation that can protect copyrights and support revenue generation for photographers, artists and content creators around the world.

VanCleave is co-founder and executive vice president of ImageRights International, which uses search and image-recognition technology to help rights holders act on unlicensed use of their works. He also is an award-winning photographer.

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