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The copyright conundrum


At a time when fundamental concepts like ownership and value are challenged by new technologies and relationships, creative work is taking on a new level of legal and commercial complexity. A design or a photograph can be hosted on dozens of platforms, in a variety of formats accessible to thousands of users worldwide. But one thing hasn’t changed for centuries: the author’s right to their work is protected by law.

This principle has never been harder to enforce or easier to break, though. An eloquent testimony to that is the aggressive litigation routine undertaken by stock image industry giant Getty Images over the past decade.

What does a copyright to a design or a photo imply? Its owner has the right to reproduce the piece, create derivative works from it, sell it, or display it to the public. All of these actions can spark controversy and contradict common sense. Take, for instance, a photographer who released her work into public domain and was sued by Getty Images for publishing it on her own website. Or a design company that sold their whole studio to fund a copyright infringement lawsuit against a retail powerhouse. Even the species of the copyright owner can be subject to disagreement.

Some of the trickiest legal arguments concern the right to modify copyrighted images. The defense of derivative work is often constructed upon exceptional clauses like fair use or fair dealing. Fair use is a doctrine in the law of the U.S. that allows copying or transforming copyrighted work for the purpose of commentary, criticism, research, teaching, or news reporting. In a famous precedent, an appropriation artist appealed his initial defeat and managed to convince the court that his images were transformative enough to be deemed fair use:

– Left: original. Right: derivative work by the appropriation artist –

Fair use balances out the legal system in favor of content consumers. It ensures reasonable public access to work that would otherwise be completely locked away by copyright holders. The commercial domain is a mirror image of this distribution of power: it leaves too many open doors for content theft, and this time it is the authors who need a hand. Blockchain copyright management can offer them a means of “fair control” over their work.

The costly defense

Intellectual property is not protected universally, and the existing international agreements are either too broad or too obsolete in the digital age. Copyright laws as well as the will to enforce them vary greatly by jurisdiction, which can be tricky to determine for online content.

This is in part why rigorous global data on image theft is hard to come by, and with billions of images posted online every day, the overall scale of image theft is nearly impossible to measure. However, companies working in this field have attempted some research within the limits of their user base.

Copytrack has discovered that most copyright infringements occur in China, France, and USA:

According to Pixsy’s 2016 research, 64% of its users experienced photo theft, but merely 33% of them chose to pursue the thieves in court, and only 22% could afford a legal team. An ordinary copyright lawsuit might set the author back thousands of dollars and dozens of hours.

The few cases that make it to court at the artist’s initiative do so either thanks to a lucky accidental discovery or as a result of proactive image tracking. For a professional artist or photographer, regular checkups of online usage for their entire portfolio would currently mean hours of daunting reverse image search. This time and effort could be slashed if every image had its history and metadata stored in an immutable distributed ledger spanning multiple platforms.

As for legal action per se, the wheels of the legislative machine are turning slowly, but blockchain data is already on track to become admissible evidence in court.

Some infringement is unintended

Search engines cover a vast range of sources where many images are posted without any licensing information. It is common for users to assume these images are not protected by copyright at all – so common that this myth is featured in every article mocking the most naive infringement excuses. Oblivious bloggers are not the only culprits: a French press agency lost a lawsuit over grabbing a photograph off the author’s Twitter account.

To secure themselves against inadvertent copyright violation, users could rely on license filters in their search engine. However, such a sweeping search all over the world wide web can entail an undesirable tradeoff between quantity and quality of images. Specific image stocks that provide clear copyright terms are a much more convenient source of legal high-quality content, but it is still far from perfect. Tedious browsing through dozens of standalone resources can be akin to online shopping in the pre-Amazon era.

The current stock market also leaves buyers vulnerable to fraud as they have no chance to confirm image authenticity, license terms, or transaction history. Agencies like Shutterstock or iStockPhoto are going as far as to cover legal costs for buyers who unknowingly purchase a fraudulent image and get sued by the original owner. But what if there were a way to verify all copyright transactions and trace them back to the author? Fraudulent content listing would then be nipped in the bud.

Although there is no substitute for official copyright registration, a reliable mechanism to track image usage is an empowering tool for any artist who cares to be recognized and rewarded. Turning IPStock into such a tool for content creators is one part of our vision, but we won’t stop there. We also aim to provide publishers and designers with a single platform for safe and fruitful image discovery. Platform disorder and legal threats are hurting content creators and their clients alike – but now we’ve got a plan.

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