Attributor Hopes to Make Picture Thieves Pay


It might be flattering. It could even make you proud… at least for a minute or two. But finding that one of your images has been copied and pasted onto someone else’s website without your permission is always infuriating.

That’s especially true when that site is generating income.

The fact that it’s not easy to discover when someone has been copying your photos doesn’t make it any better. Without an attribution, Web searches for your name won’t turn up results for stolen photos, and Google Alerts aren’t capable of reporting image use either.

Most Copying Sites are Commercial
That could be about to change though. Attributor is a new system that aims to track content across the Internet so that creators can discover who’s stolen their work — and help them to do something about it. Although the system is currently being used by AP and Reuters to follow text, the company has now launched a Beta version that allows publishers to find their images too. (The Beta will open to individual photographers in the next few months.)

“[O]ur customers point us towards their sources (text, photos, videos),” explains Rich Pearson, the company’s Senior Marketing Director. “We fingerprint the content (creating the ‘DNA’) and compare these fingerprints to the ‘DNA’ [recovered] from our web-wide crawl.”

The system them reports any matching content, describing how much of it was copied, whether it includes a link back to the source and whether the page contains advertising. Users can also receive information about the domain, including its history of previous copying, monthly traffic and search engine strength.

In one test, Attributor found that a picture of Megan Fox was the most copied of the pictures appearing in FHM and Maxim magazines’ lists of the 100 Sexiest Women. Only 13 percent of the copying sites linked back to the original image source… and 73 percent of those sites were ad-supported.

Those figures are only slightly higher than average. So far, Attributor has found that in general more than half of sites that copy content fail to include any form of attribution at all and more than 60 percent fail to provide a return link. Of most interest to photographers who use Creative Commons licenses though is that the biggest content copiers are commercial sites, or as Rich Pearson describes them, “those with advertising.”

“There is a small percentage of what looks to be inadvertent or honest copying — an example being a personal blog or hobby site; however, these examples are dwarfed by sites that exist to make money.”

In some ways, this goes to the heart of one of the biggest problems with Creative Commons licensing: the question of whether non-commercial use covers sites that earn from ads. For many photographers, the answer is no; most publishers, including large sites such as The Economist, are likely to disagree.

Won’t Pay? Lose Your Traffic… and Your Ads
Attributor’s biggest advantage though comes after the system has delivered its matching report. Once a photographer is able to see who has copied his or her works, they’re able to choose from three different requests from the copier: attribution and a link; a license fee or share of the page’s ad revenue; or a demand to remove the content from the page.

“[T]ypically, our customers want to start with link requests for non-commercial sites and revenue shares or license offers for commercial sites that are copying a high percentage,” explains Rich Pearson. “Removal requests (takedowns) are saved for the most egregious copying sites including those that are doing it persistently and have failed to respond to a link request or license offer.”

The results of requests for attribution and links appear to be quite positive. (According to Rich, “most people want to do the right thing – they just need to be asked!”) But the site does have some powerful weapons that copyright-holders can use if the owner of a site refuses to comply. Users are able to contact search engines through the Attributor system and request that the copying site be removed from search results. If they want to get really mean, they can also ask the ad network to remove ads from the page.

“Non-responses happen a small percentage of the time, but preventing [those sites] from being found and eliminating their ability to make money is an effective response.”

That would certainly give a lot more bite to a request to share advertising revenue from a site using a stolen image. In theory, it could even revolutionize the way images are licensed online. Photographers could let publishers help themselves to photos published on their websites, blogs and Flickr streams, then track down commercial users later for payment.

Clearly though any revenues that photographers pick up through the system would have to be measured against the cost of using it. Attributor hasn’t yet rolled out a pricing scale but Rich Pearson says that they hope to be offering packages of between $10 and $20 a month. He would however like to hear what photographers think.

You can tell him what you think below and sign up for the Beta at

4 comments for this post.

  1. Shawn Said:

    This is a great idea... As I begin to venture into the world of trying to make money from my photos, this is one of my biggest concerns. I am trying to find that fine line between being an advocate of Creative Commons and worrying that I might be losing money because I am too forgiving.

    I hope this website works as advertised.


  2. Lynda Lehmann Said:

    Thanks! Will watch for this service to be ready to accomodate photographers!

  3. Carolyn E. Wright Said:

    Remember that the biggest weapon against copyright infringement is registering your photos with the U.S. Copyright Office so that you are eligible for statutory damages when prosecuting unauthorized use. A business model that allows publishers to use photos without permission and requires the photographer to find and collect for those uses is probably going in the wrong direction these days. Too many people believe they have a right to use online photos freely.

  4. Jordan McClements Said:

    Thanks very much for this post.

    As Shawn said - 'if it works as advertised' then this web site would be the best thing since sliced bread for me!

    (NB - what was the best thing *before* sliced bread was invented?)

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