Professional photographers have rarely looked kindly on Google. The search engine giant has long been the first port of call for image infringers, and the situation was only made worse by Google’s habit of stripping metadata from images, turning them into orphans.
But over the summer things have changed. In June Google launched Search By Image, and the following month began displaying EXIF data in their image search returns. The latter absolves Google of the orphaning charge, but it’s Search By Image that’s the real game-changer. Google have promoted SBI as a tool for image users to find images they might want to publish, and it could of course be used by such people to track down photo owners so that the image could be properly licensed. But its real value to photographers lies in its ability to track down images that have already been stolen and published on the web.
Previously image searching on Google was a very hit and miss affair. Enter some keywords, and depending what had survived Google’s metadata mangling and any changes by the publisher you might or might not find the published mage: more usually than often not. But with SBI you enter a low-resolution version of the image on Google’s servers and they search the web for matching images: if any are found they appear in the search returns. And since a visual search is more precise and doesn’t rely on matching keywords SBI invariably returns far more results than a keyword search.
Of course SBI isn’t the first reverse image search: TinEye, PicScout and others have been running for several years. But Google’s offering is immensely more powerful simply because they’ve already indexed far more of the web than their rivals. Not that SBI is comprehensive: TinEye for one sometimes finds images that Google doesn’t, so ideally one should use several services when searching for infringements. But all of these searches are time-consuming, and SBI finds so many more images than the competition that if you’re only going to use one reverse image search then SBI has to be it.
All this is very bad news for photo thieves. For years they’ve heisted images with impunity: the chances of being caught were low, and if caught the default defence was “I found it on Google and didn’t know who the owner was”. But that excuse disappears with the now easily viewable metadata, and the chance of being caught has moved from remote to likely, going on inevitable.
Faced with the near-certainty of being caught a smart thief would stop. Unfortunately most image thieves aren’t smart, but dumb and lazy: too lazy to create anything original themselves, and dumb enough to think they can get away with stealing indefinitely. They’re also stuck in the habit of thieving, encouraged by spurious and misleading advice on such nebulous concepts as “fair use”.
So instead of the logical outcome of Google’s changes – contact the photographer for permission or don’t use the image – the actual result is likely to be lots more legal action from photographers. And of course lots more squealing from thieves who get caught.
But that’s their problem. The first reaction of photographers who try SBI is generally fury at learning the previously unknown extent of the theft of their work. That’s hardly surprising, but really we should be pleased to see the tables being turned, albeit slowly.