Chasing Down Image Thieves to Hand out Free Stock Photos


Just how bad is online image theft?

If the results recorded by PicScout, a technology company tracking images across the Web for clients that include Jupiter Images, Getty and Corbis, are to be believed, the situation is very bad indeed. An incredible nine out of ten of the photos that its Image Tracker program finds on websites, and which belong to its customers, are being used without permission and without payment.

“Ninety percent of the images we find have been stolen,” Karen Shemesh, PicScout’s marketing communications manager confirmed in a phone call to the company’s Israel headquarters. “That’s true for photos on commercial sites as well as those on private sites.”

PicScout, which was formed just five years ago and whose customers already include some of the world’s biggest stock companies and hundreds of individual photographers, uses special technology to create a “fingerprint” from photos uploaded to its site. Crawlers then scan the Web looking for images that match that fingerprint.

The match is confirmed by PicScout’s QA team and customers receive a report indicating when, where and how the image has been used. They are even given a screenshot and the offending company’s contact details. The system can recognize images that have been cropped, colored or Photoshopped and, according to Karen, the results are 100 percent accurate.

We Sue for You
What happens after the report has been received depends on the rights owner and on the image’s user. Photographers or stock agencies with their own lawyers can contact the website’s owner directly to demand compensation. But photographers can also use PicScout’s network of law firms and collection agencies in North America, the UK and Germany. While that might be easier — and less risky — than hiring your own legal advisor, PicScout will retain half the funds collected. Some of those funds will cover the legal fees, while 10 percent of the amount recovered will be donated to a photography industry organization.

PicScout’s compliance team only chases commercial sites however, presumably because it finds that pursuing small-time webmasters is too much work for too little reward. Interestingly though, the company’s definition of a “commercial” site is broad enough to capture almost everyone:

“If the site makes money… if they have ads or any financial income, they’re commercial,” Karen declared.

In theory then, a site that swipes an image owned by Getty and uses it on Web page alongside an AdSense unit, could find itself receiving a letter from a firm like Russo & Burke.

In practice though, that’s more likely to happen to sites that have large traffic flows, and not all of PicScout’s customers are keen on dragging a few dollars out of even a commercial user. Many of the offending publishers are unaware that they’ve infringed copyright, we were told, and some are happy to become regular buyers once informed.

“It’s not about suing sites. It’s about notifying them,” Karen said. “Everyone uses ImageTracker differently. Some are looking to see that no one is using their images, some for protection, and some to gain new customers. If someone has used an image from a stock company or a photographer, they might be interested in buying from them in the future.”

Get your Free Stock Images Here!
For image users who really don’t want to pay though, PicScout has now produced a new product — and this is likely to be much more controversial. PicApp lets publishers use images owned by stock sites for free, in return for placing a targeted ad — whose revenues go to the stock company — alongside the photo. The type of images available have recently been extended to include editorial photographs, including shots of celebrities.

The aim of PicApp is clearly to allow the photography industry — or at least stock sites — to recoup some of the money lost when a blogger, for example, places an image on his site without paying for it. But if those bloggers aren’t being chased by lawyers then the only motivation they might have for using PicApp’s photos is that the photos might not have already appeared on someone else’s website. They can still find stock-quality images on Google and the fact that PicApp’s products are legal might not be a great draw.

The question then is whether the presence of an ad that provides no benefits to the publisher would put them off stealing images — and perhaps more importantly, what effect giving away photos worth hundreds of dollars in return for advertising revenue will have on the industry.

It is possible that stock companies have finally discovered a revenue model for image users with the very smallest budgets. But it’s also possible of course, that publishers will simply steal the images and delete the ads.

Take a look at PicScout’s services for individual photographers here, and tell us what you think.

[tags] PicScout, PicApp [/tags]

3 comments for this post.

  1. Andrew Jacobs Said:

    Fascinating to see the people who hunt down thieves turning them into a profitable enterprise.

    It blows my mind that people even need to steal images any more. There are so many free images and creative commons licensed images that are easy to find.

  2. Brian Said:

    One of my clients who purchased an image from a stock site had a large bill thanks to this company. turned out the stock site didnt have the rights to the image and my client got a bill for several thousand!

  3. Brett Said:

    I don't see how PicScout can possibly account for Print Screen and pasting the result in any image editor. This will just drive infringing parties to other means.

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