Interview with Offir Gutelzon, PicScout CEO, December 12, 2009
Disclaimer to John Lund: The answers provided reflect PicScout’s opinion as of the date of this response. Given the highly fluid environment we are in, answers could change quickly based upon market changes.
Q. Offir, can you give us a brief background; how PicScout came to be and your role in that, as well as a little about where your company stands today?
A. In 2002, Eyal Gura and I founded PicScout. At the time, Eyal’s girlfriend (now his wife), was working for an Israeli stock agency in the job of searching for image infringement on the web in the old fashioned way--manually. That is, searching online for images and looking for attribution and ownership both online and in the real world and trying to determine if licensing had been engaged for the online usage of images owned by the stock agency. This proved to be a challenging task, if not an impossible one. Eyal and I, who at the time were both getting advanced degrees from IDC Herzliya (http://portal.idc.ac.il/en/main/homepage/Pages/homepage.aspx), recognized a tremendous market need to have an automated system which could track, protect and monetize images in the ever-exploding Web. I assumed the role of taking our vision from an idea to a product operation model to R&D and into reality, which we knew would require a seamless infrastructure capable of serving millions of Rights Managed images globally.
Through the PicScout proprietary and highly scalable image recognition technology, we created the image copyright protection marketplace, bringing millions of dollars back into the industry with our now widely-used product, ImageTracker™. From the outset, we envisioned our goal: Image commerce becoming a legitimate Internet economy.
PicScout believes every image on the Web—whether an amateur or professional image-- is usable, saleable and trackable. The company recently launched products and services to assure that every image gets its credit™ and engender a new model for image commerce, moving the industry from a practice of policing infringement to one of enabling use. The enabling technology we recently announced, the PicScout Image IRC™ includes our products ImageTracker™ and ImageExchange™, and creates a pervasive online image marketplace. PicScout does not run the image marketplace; running the marketplace is, and always has been, what the image industry itself does. PicScout just makes it possible for our customers to present their store fronts to their customers—the many millions of online users trying to find them—through the use of the PicScout ImageExchange™ add-on.
Today, PicScout, with its many customers, is realizing the new model in an actual online marketplace of images that exists everywhere an image resides. The Image IRC assures that every one of its images is recognized with ownership and rights and equipped for transaction at the point of the user experience, wherever that may be. See: http://www.picscout.com/news-and-events/industry-wide-support.html and http://tinyurl.com/ybfu7tj.
PicScout has moved from a single product company to a company with a platform of products and services that now serves multiple industries: The image industry and all its users. These users are challenged every day both to find images and determine their rights, so they can legitimately use an image they find online. These users are from many categories of creative groups who employ images to accomplish their work—designers, corporate marketing and communications professionals, the advertising industry, the publishing industry, bloggers, photography editors and buyers. The image marketplace, based on the PicScout Image IRC, facilitates communication and connection between image owners and image buyers in a new model that moves away from infringement to legitimate and immediate image use.
Q. There is considerable buzz about your new products ImageExchange and Image Tracker. Can you give us a brief run down on these products?
A. PicScout products offer both the carrot and the stick.
Our first product, ImageTracker, represents the stick. Launched in 2003, ImageTracker is based on proprietary PicScout image fingerprinting technology that allows any image to be identified even if it has been altered. ImageTracker has been widely adopted by image owners and licensors across the industry. ImageTracker has successfully identified potential cases of infringement for our customers. Equipped with the information, our customers have acted to restore tens of millions of dollars to the industry by pursuing infringement charges.
ImageExchange, the carrot, reverses the image commerce model and leverages all that the new PicScout Image IRC has to offer. ImageExchange is the tool for image buyers and users to see ownership and available rights and transact for image use at the point of encounter with an image anywhere online. ImageExchange, currently in beta trials, is a free Browser add-on. Creative professionals register for the beta and download at http://imagex.picscout.com/ Once the tool is installed, its button can be turned on or off. Using ImageExchange, an image buyer recognizes any of the tens of millions of Image IRC images by markers wherever they encounter one of the images online—whether in a search, such as through Google or Yahoo! Image Search, or at a site, or anywhere online that an Image IRC image might appear. The international information symbol—a small, encircled appears in the upper right corner of an image. ImageExchange enables an easy 4-step image acquisition process: Find, click, view metadata, click-through to transact.
Our creatives in the beta (marcom people, designers, photo editors, etc) are telling us that they are saving hours and days of time. They tell us they get requests all the time to find and use certain images in presentations, marketing materials, and in print or online publications. While the new Google Similar Image feature and Yahoo’s search functions make searching for the right image easier, the image user still must then spend hours and days trying to find the rights, and usually they're not able to do so. It's been very frustrating for them, to say the least. PicScout ImageExchange is making their work much easier.
Consider that until now professional image buyers—those in corporate marketing, designers, advertising agencies, and magazine, newspaper and online photo editors, for examples—have steered clear of online images altogether, because of ownership ambiguity. A designer risks too much for themselves, their companies or their clients if they reproduce an online image and later must face accusations of and charges for infringement for themselves and their client. So individuals in professions comprising image users must avoid the feast of images the internet inherently has to offer with ready availability, because image copyrights have been impossible to manage. ImageExchange opens the online image marketplace for legitimate transaction and a new model for image commerce emerges.
Q. Some of my images, particularly my Animal Antics photos, are infringed to a truly amazing degree. The infringements, though, are mostly on social networking sites, Flickr, non-commercial blogs and so forth. I get the feeling that few if any of the many infringements of my images are worth pursuing. Is that true? If so, do you think it is true for most photographers?
A. You present an example of where Image IRC and ImageExchange are invaluable. While you are right in saying that using your images without permission is infringement, it is impossible to fight all infringements unless you have endless time and money. Rather than you, the owner, having to bear the responsibility of pursuing infringement by using a product like the ImageTracker and then enforcing your findings, if users are enabled with ImageExchange, they will recognize your image’s ownership, what the rights for use are, and be able to pay for/license the rights to use the image at the point of encounter. Essentially, cases of infringement become promotions; though you’re not condoning the infringement, you provide an immediate remedy for it.
In terms of the ImageTracker, today most of our clients find it worthwhile to specifically pursue business accounts rather than individual accounts, although some do consider individual cases as a matter of principle.
With the new ImageExchange, infringement and any excuses for non-legitimate use can no longer withstand scrutiny, if your images are part of Image IRC. So ideally, what occurs is a reduction in the number of infringements because you take away the excuse and the hassle of trying to figure out how to buy it. At PicScout, we fundamentally believe that if you give people the opportunity to do the right thing (by identifying images with the icon and providing corresponding licensing information), the vast majority will do the right thing – and for those that don’t – the ImageTracker serves as the enforcement tool.
Q. I believe one of the dysfunctions of the current system for licensing and distributing photography is that there doesn't seem to be a practical way to license for "personal use", i.e. screensavers, homework reports, non-commercial blogs, or prints to stick on your refrigerator. Do you agree? Is there an answer?
A. Any image, including those you mention here, can be recognized with ownership and rights and equipped for immediate transaction if it’s part of the PicScout Image IRC. Wherever one of our images is encountered, its marker, the icon, can be seen by anyone using ImageExchange. This means the shopping cart and pricing charts provided by the licensors can include a range of potential uses and a range of prices. We believe if our industry makes it easy for people to buy (not necessarily license), and buy at a level they seek to use the image for, they will do the right thing. You can think of it as the same as people who buy music for personal use, they do not necessarily know about the music studio that created the music, they just use iTunes or go to Virgin.
Q. Does registering your copyright with the Copyright Office make any difference when dealing with many of the most common infringements such as unauthorized use of pictures on social media sites and/or non-commercial blogs?
A. When an image is registered with the Copyright Office, you do have the right to file for statutory damages, which carry many substantial penalties, and in some cases you can recover legal fees, as well. You should speak with an attorney for additional information regarding this question.
Q. PicScout is for collections over 30,000 images. I, for example, have about 6,000 images out there, and they are almost all handled by various agencies. Should I just leave it up to the agencies to enforce the copyright?
A. You are referring to ImageTracker in your question, where we typically require a minimum number of images. The images for ImageTracker also must be Rights Managed images where the licensor can easily validate who does and who does not have permission to use a particular image. The primary image usages should also consist of commercial web sites in order for the product to be of value in terms of revenue recovery. If your images are represented by one of the agencies working with us, you are safe. If you want to get reports directly from us, you should be aware of the efforts you’ll have to make on your own behalf and the necessary fight you face to prove your rights, even when a case may seem clear.
Image IRC with ImageExchange embraces any image—rights managed, royalty free, or creative commons. We are about to announce a photographers platform where images may be submitted to the Image IRC through a photographers service. This will be the first of many announcements forthcoming which will enable photographers, regardless of image collection size, to be able to include their images in the Image IRC, which means all their images will appear to ImageExchange users with the icon.
Copyright enforcement is a component of the “stick” model. Enabling use—the “carrot”—is the more proactive solution and much easier on you and buyers of your images.
Q. It is my understanding that it is impossible to track and enforce infringement of RF images. Do you think that your technology will move the photography world more towards RM images and away for the RF business model?
A. From a tracking perspective, RF images are the same as RM images. However, to enforce copyright infringement, you must be able to prove the person/entity did not have the right to use the image. Historically, given how Royalty Free images have been distributed, tracking of an image’s use by image owners and distributors has proven very difficult to do. You should also speak with an attorney for a specific legal opinion on this point.
Our ImageExchange technology provides no advantage for one license type over another; Under ImageExchange use, RM, RF, as well as UGC images, all contribute to growing the overall size of the marketplace by enabling more people to buy more images at the point of the user’s experience. Whatever the technology, market demand will ultimately judge the model which best meets the needs of customers.
Q. Are the concerns of stock agencies any different than those of individual photographers?
A. PicScout is focused on ensuring that Every Image Gets Its Credit. Doing so aligns the interests of agencies and photographers by specifically focusing on growing the overall market size of paid/authorized image consumption.
Q. Are agencies doing a good job of combating piracy?
A. Technology has evolved quickly and as a result piracy is as easy as a right-click-and-save-as. The best way to combat piracy is by providing a solution that does not require consumers of images to significantly alter their behavior. ImageExchange does just this by providing a solution at the point of the user experience – enabling users of images to connect with the licensor for authorized use. Until there are more ImageExchange equipped users and knowledge of how to use legitimate images increases, agencies will use products such as the ImageTracker with their own good compliance teams, or one of the legal partners from the PicScout network, to do what they can to combat piracy.
Q. One hears that copyright is less respected in countries such as China and India. Is that true? Is that changing at all?
A. PicScout provides ImageTracker services on a world-wide basis depending upon client needs. While we are in the process of reaching out in India and China, our statistics show that even in developed countries such as US, UK, and Germany, the infringement rate of RM images on Commercial websites is as high as 85%. Can China and India be much worse?
Q. I have given permission to many people who make "siggies, tags and tubes" to use my “animal antics” work non-commercially in exchange for links to my site and a credit line. The idea is to at least bolster the importance of my site and get the word out about my work. That would seem, however, to make tracking unauthorized uses very difficult, or even impossible. In your opinion is that a good idea or a mistake?
A. I greatly believe it’s a good move to permit others to use your images in exchange for marketing, even if tracking unauthorized use is difficult. This is one of the reasons we created the Image Exchange, so you can market your images and manage their use in different applications through the Image IRC. It doesn’t matter where your image appears or who is using it, the ImageExchange always displays the icon, which can also serve as a sales/traffic generator for the artist/agency.
Q. You say 90% of images on the web are infringements. How did you come up with that figure? What percentage of copyright infringements is worth going after?
A. Today, PicScout company data shows more than 85% of rights managed images on commercial web sites are being used non-legitimately. We came up with this number after constantly crawling the growing web for more than 7 years to maintain accurate reporting of non-legitimate usage to our clients.
Note some additional historical information about infringements: Currently, Image Tracker serves only RM images, because we believe these are the only image infringements actually worth the time and effort required for enforcement. As we see the market shifting increasingly to RF, the advantage to the industry clearly comes from creating awareness of every image’s rights and connecting people directly to images’ licensors.
In 2003, PicScout was searching commercial web sites for Rights Managed images of some major stock collections and discovered that nine out of every ten images found were unauthorized uses. (Infringements of Stock Images and Lost Revenues, 2007)
In 2005, SAA and PicScout joined together to conduct a more in-depth study of the infringement problem. Using a sample of 20,000 images over a four month period, PicScout used its own technology to comb commercial websites in the US, UK and Germany. In just 4 months, 388 infringements were located. Translating this to an annual number, it was determined that nearly 1 out of every 17 images was being used non-legitimately. Interestingly, the highest rate of misuse was in the US (64%), followed by Germany (23%) and then the UK (13%). Furthermore, it was determined that on 29 of the sites where images were found, another 91 images that were not included in the sample were also being used. This suggests a pattern of misuse – if one image is found to be non-legitimate, it’s a good chance there will be more. Unfortunately, we also determined that these unauthorized images were not short-term uses; one year after the study, “many of the same images were still in use” on the websites. (Infringements of Stock Images and Lost Revenues, 2007)
“Getty says it finds about 42,000 examples of copyright infringement a year. For its part, Corbis says it uncovers about 70,000 violations annually.” (LA Times, 9/13/09)
Q. Is piracy on the web going to be an increasing problem, or will developments like PicScout turn the tide?
A. We believe that given the opportunity and the tools to “do the right thing” most people will do it. The PicScout Image IRC with ImageExchange model opens the online image marketplace for legitimate image use and transaction; such a model has not been widely available until now. As the industry and its users embrace the new image commerce model, we believe online image rights infringement will diminish and become comparable to the real world, at least. Having said that, we believe that infringers will always exist, and therefore, there always will be a need for the stick, such as the ImageTracker.
Q. What kinds of copyright challenges do photographers face in dealing with Europe and Asia?
A. Each country has its own regulations and laws regarding copyright. We would suggest that you speak with a copyright attorney for specific opinions and quotes here. If you would like an introduction to attorneys in the UK and Germany, we would be happy to provide them to you.
Q. If it isn't economically viable for PicScout to handle photographer accounts with fewer than 30,000 images, what advice do you have for such photographers?
A. See previous answers regarding pending platform announcements. First, make sure all of your image distributors are using the ImageTracker. Second, when PicScout announces the photographers platform upload your images to be part of the Image IRC.
Q. Do you have a favorite PicScout success story you can share?
A. For the ImageTracker, PicScout has brought millions upon millions of dollars back into the industry through recaptured revenue and we are very proud that we have created this revenue stream for photographers and agencies. Some agencies are more effective in copyright revenue infringement collection than others – this is why in 2010, PicScout is devoting significant attention on an account management basis to help our agency clients improve their processes and collection methods for image infringement either internally or through using outside third party legal partners.
I’ll tell you one story that demonstrates well how important it is to recognize that every image gets its credit and why every image should ultimately be part of the Image IRC.
One of our own PicScout team members and her husband, an amateur photographer, were on vacation and he took a beautiful picture of our employee on a dock during (sunrise/sunset). Weeks later, after returning home, they received a promotional mailing from the lodge where they had stayed. In the advertisement touting the lodge’s many features and assets, the company had incorporated a slightly altered version of the very photograph our team member’s husband had taken. It was discovered that the lodge had acquired the image through Flickr without permission to use it. The lodge thought the amateur’s image was valuable enough to promote their business – and should have sought permission and/or compensation to use the image. This image is part of the Image IRC, and as adoption of the ImageExchange becomes commonplace, the image will populate with the icon as users encounter it.
Q. Do you see Google Image search becoming an increasingly important tool for art directors, designers and art buyers to find images for commercial uses?
A. Kids and students now growing up to be the next image buyers are making their choices now from among one of the big three search engines. According to PhotoShelter, 6% of image buyers surveyed use image search engines, which adds to the traffic coming through traditional stock houses. Google, Yahoo! Image Search, Bing, as well as any web page that contains an image, offer technology to inspire creative professionals and enhance their productivity, such as Similar Image. Ultimately, incorporating the ImageExchange icon and the PicScout connection functionality, where owner information is readily identified, will further expand the relevancy of these search engines for users and buyers of images.
Q. Do you forecast the consumer ever becoming an important revenue source for photographers?
A. We see potential for current expansion among the quasi creative professional as being an immediate source of additional revenue. This group, consisting of corporate communications professionals, i-bankers, consultants, sales people—in fact, anyone needing to convey messaging through today’s graphical environment, both internally and externally—as being an immediate source of market expansion. Over time, we also see the general consumer market developing, once ImageExchange use penetrates among the professional and quasi professional image buyers to find images and transact for legitimate use.
We believe this will occur because of the precedent that will be set for image buyers to transact online for image use.
In terms of the casual image buyers, like those wanting to enjoy images they find online to use as posters or emblems on a t-shirt, of those that are aware of copyright protection, they believe today there are only two real options: Either don’t use the image; or copy the image and think no one will know or no one will get hurt. The reality is the marketplace has not made it easy for them to use an image in a legitimate way.
Also, it's not that everyone online has gone bad, it's that awareness of what is legitimate use is limited. On behalf of iStockphoto, KRC Research in Washington DC, conducted an online survey of 1,003 adults in June 2008 asking them about digital media usage. The study “revealed that 33 percent of Americans are using downloaded digital content, but nearly 30 percent are unaware that permission may be required for its use. This lack of awareness spikes to 38 percent among Americans in both the 18-24 and 65 and older age groups.” http://www.istockphoto.com/file_pressreleaseview/35/iStockPR_09_17_2008.pdf
To illustrate the difficulty in identifying image ownership and rights, do a Google Image search for a happy family or a youth soccer team. You'll see some great images, but with many, many duplications of same photos that all seem to have different origins or site residences. Without the ImageExchange, actual ownership of any image found in a search is anybody's guess.
Q. This may be a little off topic, but I believe the biggest challenge facing photographers in the coming years will be getting seen amid all the mind-numbing quantities of photographs being uploaded onto the internet. Do you have any opinions or insights you could share with us on that potential problem and what photographers can do about it?
A. I believe this question is best addressed by asking agencies how they feel quality, uniqueness, freshness and other characteristics of images can best be showcased when there are such vast quantities of images being uploaded onto various sites. While the amount of images is growing, I greatly believe in the idea of price discrimination, where prices should be different based on the type of usage of the image, or considering different levels of services for different sizes or types of companies; i.e., profit or non-profit.
Q. Are there issues that I haven’t brought up that you feel are important for photographers to be aware of?
A. Collectively, it’s in the industry’s best interest to ensure that Every Image Gets Its Credit. Therefore making images part of the Image IRC and enabling use of the ImageExchange, either through an add-on or as a native part of an application or program, provides a clear mechanism for enabling a legitimate internet economy to develop for images. This means a vast increase in the quantity of images purchased as well as an awareness increase in terms of the valuation of images. Rapid adoption of both are important to the industry’s ability to play catch-up with technology advances and consumer behavior trends. Also, making content available for more marketing applications and promotional use, while selling content as RF, is essential. Photographers should follow your actions, like those you’ve taken that improve rankings on search engines, and promote themselves in new ways, even at the risk of image infringements.