Image Licensing Confusion

Google’s new Usage Rights filter is an attempt to help bridge online use of imagery, but they’re missing the most important part of the licensing puzzle: education.

A large portion of online image searches are conducted through Bing and Google’s search engines, by a wide swath of content-seekers from consumers to professional image buyers for major corporations to corporate marketers themselves. Given the broad indexing by the search engines, the expectation on the search side is complete exposure to the world’s imagery (not true) and the startling diversity and breadth of results based on search query (true).

For years, Google came to define the experience of image search, often being the point of entry for even professional image licensors such as Corbis and Getty. Within the search experience, Google did little to prevent anyone from stealing an image, by shunning its role as gate-keeper in exchange for accessibility and expediency of delivery. Meticulous UX design informed users of what they were looking at, and by whom, but did not educate around how to interact with the image – users soon started to conflate the ease and accessibility with the notion of public domain, and deeper misunderstanding of what Fair Use means.

With global photographic and professional trade associations vocalizing their concerns over Google’s role as a conduit for infringing use and generating orphaned works of their property, and with Google recognizing a way to legitimately circumnavigate the image licensing industry, Google implemented the means to filter image search results by rights access. Bing soon followed suit.

Both leaned on leveraging the largest image rights attribution engine available to them: Creative Commons – a copyright straw man for digital media; but the categories of use as defined by Creative Commons, and leveraged by Bing and Google, obfuscate the rights of the user and rights holder more than educate. The categories of use assume an aggregate consumer knowledge of rights and use, which are also wide open to interpretation. Bing uses “share”, “use”, “commercially” with no definition, while Google, extending a stiff arm by prefacing each category with “Labeled”, translates to their own user base. Further, accuracy of labeling/categorizing is highly suspect, as there’s no central authority for warranting ownership with Creative Commons – anyone can assert rights over an image in the digital age.

The implications of Bing and Google as licensing intermediaries does little to promote the ethical use of imagery online. It is a Tower of Babel, with little value and assurances to an end user of an image, disconnecting a rights holder from a user through a language that needs clear comprehension.

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