Put a copyright notice and caption on every photo!
Once upon a time…. photographs were physical prints. “8×10 glossy” was a then-pop-culture buzzword. People usually/often/hopefully wrote notes on the prints about who or what was in the picture, who made the picture and when. If you looked at that picture later, you knew what it depicted and who owned it. Now, when we look at the old family snap of Great Uncle Harry and Great Aunt Mildred standing in front of the family Hudson, parked beside the old house, we’re pretty grateful for whoever took the time to write a note on the back. Seriously, at this late date, who would even recognize Harry and Mildred, or their Hudson? That note kept our connection to Harry and Mildred intact. Without it, that photo would be an orphan, instead of a treasured family heirloom.
Nowadays, pictures are digital, people make thousands of them, companies and professionals make millions of them, and rather than keep them in albums or in a company file cabinet we set them adrift on the internet. And nobody writes on the back of the print anymore.
A big problem crept up on us
The internet is bubbling over with photos. Every day, millions more show up. They are shared and re-shared. Or stolen and re-stolen. Their connections to whatever site originally posted them fray and break. Most of them wander aimlessly, like lost pets. We don’t know to whom they belong. We don’t know who or what is depicted in them. We don’t know if they are being used by rightful licensees or if they’ve been stolen. Or how many times they’ve been stolen.
Let’s say you, as an ethical and law-abiding sort of person, want to use a photo you find on the internet, lots of luck trying to figure out if that’s OK. If you’re a photographer, you could make a full-time job out of chasing down copyright infringers. If you could collect the usurped fees, it could be a job, that is. Make that “full-time hobby.”
This isn’t a good thing. Why don’t people write notes on the back of their pictures anymore?
Make metadata save the day
What? How the heck? Do digital works have “backs”?
Yes, they do. Digital files are able to include metadata – literally “data about the data”. We can write on the back of the print, so to speak. We can stamp our copyright notice on every work that goes out the door, just like in the old days. We just need to do it.
Watch the video for a demonstration of adding metadata to pictures
This isn’t exactly a new development, by the way. The technology to label our pictures was invented when the internet earth was still cooling. Word about the new technology just never got around, save in a couple of specialized areas. The internet wasn’t that big a thing, yet. Support for IPTC metadata headers was added to Adobe Photoshop in 1994, according to keywording guru David Riecks.
In addition to being the year Pulp Fiction was released, 1994 happens to be the year I first learned Photoshop. I started on version 2.5, but I held off really diving in because we heard that 3.0 would bring us… layers! To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to the newly introduced ability to caption photos. The internet wasn’t that much of a thing back then! (Hmmm. Not only am I getting old, it appears I just bragged about it. That’s a little troubling.)
Today’s world demands metadata
No photographer should ever send a photo out into today’s cruel world without a copyright notice, a byline, a caption and contact information. Never ever!
You might think about adding a “no strip” clause in your contract or delivery memo, too.
It’s just too dangerous out there. Photos (and all kinds of digital assets) are stolen every minute. They’re shared. And then stolen. Or they’re stolen and then shared. Or they end up in imprisoned for eternity in some sort of archive or index (Google Images, Flickr, whatever dungeon comes to mind) with no caption or contextual information that might serve to secure them useful employment or help them find their way home.
Even if your photos never leave your own computer you’ll make tens or hundreds of thousands of them over a lifetime or career and you’ll one day need to be able to find them. Embed the information you’ll need to search for right in the file today and you’ll thank yourself later.
As I write this, Google CEO Sundar Pichai is on live stream delivering this year’s Google I/O keynote. He is telling us that even now Google has artificially intelligent machines working to build even more artificially intelligent machines whose express purpose in ”life” will be to help you make metadata for your photos. More on this later. But neither Google’s genius robots, nor your grandchildren will know who Uncle Harry is unless you tell them. Write it down!)
Preserve your legacy
Even if – and ESPECIALLY if – you want to share your photos freely, you need to sign your work and provide contextual information. A hundred years from now, your photo (and you, by extension) might be historically significant – but only if people then can figure out what’s in the picture and what generous person was the author.
All the Creative Commons licenses expect CC0 share the requirement that someone who uses the work credit the creator. But if photographers fail to sign their work, or even note on the work that it’s licensed under Creative Commons, how the heck can we expect that to work?
It’s easy to embed metadata in your photos. Chances are, the software you already use will allow you to put copyright notices and captions and your contact information on your work. Heck, in many cases, you can have your camera write contact and copyright info to your photos, the moment you press the shutter. Yes, there are fancy, expensive products you can use. Of course there are! This is America! That’s just the way we roll. But free solutions work, too. It’s not hard. We just have to put on some brand name athletic footwear and just do it. The future -and the integrity of your copyrights – is counting on us.
Every photo deserves a copyright notice, a byline, and a caption.
Metadata makes it better for you, and the world at large
If we all embed our rights and caption info in our photos, will all be right with the world, apart from that tricky mid-east thing? Well, not exactly. Or not right away, anyway. Life will be ever so slightly better for you because you’ll be able to find your stuff. You’ll feel better about your work. And making it possible for honest publishers to reach you and give you money might mean some nice reuse fees. But it won’t be a hundred percent thing by any means. You know what they say about the longest journey…that it starts with one step in name brand footwear!
For things to get better, we need to help three things happen.
Responsible photographers need to put good metadata on their work before it goes out into the world.
Responsible publishers and webmasters need to understand that they need to preserve metadata when they publish pictures. Indeed, ethics and making the world a better place aside, it’s illegal under the US Digital Millenium Copyright Act to remove or alter copyright management information – metadata – from digital works. But sadly, there’s a tradition on the web of doing just that. We have a lot of educating to do.
People generally need to understand that they can and should check for authoritative information “on the back” of digital assets before they use or share them. Honest people know if they pick up a wallet, they can look inside to see who owns it. Nobody seems to know they can look inside a digital work to do the same thing. First, the information needs to be there. Then people will learn that they can look for it. If we empower honest people to do honest stuff, then we’ll expose the less than honest ones and maybe, just maybe, they’ll be inhibited from doing dirty deeds.
And it all starts with us – you and me. One picture at a time, we can save the internet/world with captions and copyright notices.
Let me know what you think. Post a comment below, or hit the “Contact” button.