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ASMP — American Society of Media Photographers

Google Now Tags Images as “Licensable”: Is This a Game Changer?

It is one of the most vexing questions photographers face: how do I prevent my images from being stolen when the web has made it so easy to find photographs? The answer we wish we had was that when an image is found online, it is also easy to find the photographer and the licensing info. Enter Google’s new Licensing Badge. 

In recent years, Google has been collaborating with the image licensing industry to protect photographers from copyright infringement. On August 31, 2020, it unveiled its latest effort: a photo licensing badge.

How It Works

When photographers provide Google with specific licensing information, a badge reading “Licensable” appears over the image thumbnail in a Google Images search. Most photographers will embed specific IPTC information into their metadata at the time of capture or processing, but you can also use “structured data” in the page that hosts the image itself.  When a user clicks on the thumbnail, the page displays the copyright owner or creator’s information and a link to the license details.

Photographers can also add a Licensor URL, which guides users to the owner’s website where they can directly purchase the photo. If a photo that was embedded with metadata is published on another website, the Licensable badge will appear on the new website, directing people back to the licensing website. Users can also filter image searches based on type of license (“All,” “Creative Commons,” or “Commercial and other”).

You can learn more about this in depth at Google post: https://developers.google.com/search/docs/data-types/image-license-metadata

How It Benefits Photographers

In short, the Licensable badge attempts to ensure that photographers will be compensated for the use of their images and reduces the opportunity for copyright infringement. Users can clearly see that a photo is copyrighted, who owns the copyright or created the image, and how they can acquire a license. Put simply, the Licensable badge educates consumers on the existence, rights and limitations of photo licenses. 

Because the IPTC metadata stays with the image even if it is re-published on another website, photographers may be able to access a wider audience and reach more customers.¹ 

Andrew Fingerman, CEO of PhotoShelter, stated that the badge will “drive discovery opportunities for all agencies and independent photographers.”

Case Study: What PhotoShelter is Doing to Implement Google Licensable Badges

In a wide-ranging conversation, I had the opportunity to speak with Grover Sanschagrin, VP of Strategic Development and Co-Founder of PhotoShelter to discuss this new project by Google, and how PhotoShelter is implementing it in their systems. ASMP and Photoshelter have had a long term and broad partnership over the years, and they serve as a great example of how companies that support photographers can also support these systems.

Grover believes this move by Google could “change the game soon” in terms of the ability of photographers and their images to be found and licensed more regularly and infringed less, something that benefits all photographers. 

“We were really excited [by this program] and went overboard in our support for this,” Grover said. In the PhotoShelter platform, both the IPTC information required for the Licensable badge to appear, AND the “structured data” in the webpage itself are present. And PhotoShelter can batch process these fields for its customers as well to get your entire library processed in a way that be read by Google Images. 

Grover wrote a detailed article on how PhotoShelter is implementing this feature here. It is well worth a read, and, as he says at the end of the article, “this is as close to waving that magic want as we can get.” Grover and PhotoShelter believe this may finally turn a Google Images search into a useful tool for professional photographers instead of a way to steal images. ASMP certainly hopes so too. 

How It Can Be Broadly Implemented

The Licensable badge seems like a major step forward for photographers, but in the age of social media, this is just the first step. Other search engines, as well as social media apps like Instagram and Twitter, should take steps to protect photographers. Additionally, while the Licensable badge is fairly new, Google should continue to collaborate with the image licensing industry to simplify the process and make it more accessible for individual photographers.

While Google leads the search engine market, other search engines do exist, with the same interest and responsibility in protecting photographers’ images. Bing, Baidu, and Yahoo!, for example, make up about 15% of the market collectively. They should follow Google’s lead and develop similar photo licensing badges to ensure photographers’ protection on their platforms. This serves both their and photographers’ interests: the smaller search engines may entice photographers who use Google Images solely for the Licensing badge by providing an alternative. 

Social media apps should also implement similar protections. Instagram, in particular, has recently contended with the issue of photo licensing. A New York court allowed Mashable to embed a photographer’s photo because Instagram’s terms of service include a “non-exclusive, royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license” to the images on the app. The photographer had refused to directly grant Mashable the licensing rights to a photo, so it embedded her photo from her public Instagram to its article.

The court held that Instagram granted a sublicense to Mashable, and because the photographer publicly uploaded the photo on Instagram, she allowed Mashable to display it. Three months later, the court revised its opinion, finding no evidence that Instagram granted a sublicense to Mashable and granting a motion for reconsideration. This is just one case in which photographers have faced social media’s double-edged sword. By sharing their photos on public accounts, photographers enjoy increased visibility and access, but they must accept the risk that their work will be misused. Instagram, along with other social media apps, should follow Google’s example and develop features that promote photographers’ copyright protections. You can read much more about that in a series of posts here at ASMP.

Finally, Google should continue working with the image licensing industry to simplify the process of adding structured data or IPTC photo metadata. Google’s developers blog provides step-by-step instructions and pages of examples. While this is a great start, Google should consider offering video tutorials, coordinating with the image licensing industry to assist photographers with adding the licensing information, and continue developing the badge itself to make the process easier. 

While stock agencies are familiar with the process, individual photographers may find it challenging. By simplifying the actual implementation process, Google could provide photographers with more flexibility. They would not have to choose between paying a stock agency and struggling to add the licensing information on their own.

Google’s Licensable badge accomplishes many things: it signals to photographers that it cares in some dimensions about protecting their rights, establishes an important milestone in photo licensing, educates consumers, and serves as an example for other search engines and social media apps. While photographers and the image licensing industry should celebrate this new development, it is by no means a stopping point.

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¹Google’s new licensable images features: Towards a new era in image licensing, CEPIC (Aug. 31, 2020), http://cepic.org/news/googles-new-licensable-images-features-towards-a-new-era-in-image-licensing.

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