flickR works against photographers by stripping EXIF data

31 01 2009
Orphan Works, by itadela

Orphan Works, by itadela

For years, ignoring the pleas of its customers, and seemingly unbeknownst to most of us, flickR has been stripping author, license, and other information from the resized versions of every image we upload.

To most of you, this probably sounds like pointless geekery, but it poses a serious copyright problem.  This practice contributes massively to the developing “orphan works” issue and needs to be addressed by flickR, pronto.

Most cameras insert data into images when they are created, and many photographers insert additional data such as copyright information, author information, and so on.  The idea is that this information follows the image as it travels the world, and hopefully helps people (who are curious enough to look) to understand who made it and how.  It also helps honest people who, down the road, discover an image they like and want to find out how – and if – they can legally use it.

When you upload an image to flickR, a server-side script creates versions of the picture in several sizes.  This is awesomely convenient for good user presentation.  But for some reason, flickR has decided to strip all of the metadata out of the resized versions of the image.  Why, why, why does flickR do this? It seems like an effort to reduce image data size and thus Yahoo!’s cost of bandwidth, but the least they could do is keep the author and license information intact, especially for those who pay for “Pro” accounts.

As many of you know, I am an LA photographer and use Flash software called SlideShowPro to power my photography portfolio – a spot where I showcase my best stuff to give a more professional presentation.  But for years I’ve used flickR for everything else; I love it for its community, content, ease of use, and the ability to easily feed my content through social media tools such as FriendFeed.

Yet, I only discovered this today, as my “Push premiere” photos began showing up this weekend on several celebrity sites.  I have no problem at all with their broad distribution – I welcome it, in fact – but it does irk me that I get no photo credit and all the “downstream” copies of those images will be devoid of the very generous Creative Commons license I applied to them (the same license I apply to every image I upload to flickR.)

So, flickR is taking CC-licensed content and, practically speaking, enabling – or certainly lubricating – its release into the public domain, or at least into a state where people (and organizations) can say they “reasonably believed” it to be in the public domain (the weasel language currently being used in defense of the various image-pilfering rackets.)

This practice (policy?) is absolutely not in the best interests of the photographers who use flickR.

By virtue of their resizing scripts, flickR is literally “orphaning the work” and enabling someone down the road to claim they had no way of finding the original creator.  It’s just not cool.  It’s even kinda evil, condemning millions of beautiful photographs to wandering the interwebs, enduring a sad life of eternal amnesic parentlessness.

I am reminded of something I often say about the music business: the music “industry” – rather than suing 12-year-olds and funding groups like the RIAA – ought to focus on making it easy for people to be honest – while making it easy for honest people.  By stripping metadata, flickR is making it harder on both.

flickR should:

1. Stop doing this now and preserve basic metadata in all sizes;

2. Re-process past uploads to embed provided metadata into all image sizes;

3. let their good and faithful customers know that it is fixed.

[And to those who might suggest turning off flickR’s “all sizes” option, this is another problem.  The only place where flickR actually leaves the data alone is in the original uploaded size.  So if you turn off “all sizes,” you actually compound the problem by hiding the only image that still HAS your EXIF data.  Unfortunately this seems like the “least bad” flickR option, along with marking your flickR images “© All Rights Reserved” even when they are not.]

They should have fixed this years ago.  Hrumph.

[Photo: Itadela]

[Edit: For years, James Duncan Davidson has been pushing flickR to fix this, too.]

[UPDATE: flickR GM (and PopTech alum) Kakul Srivastava emailed me about this.  I’ve since been exchanging ideas with her and her team.  They are listening, they are taking this issue seriously, and trying to figure out the best way to fix it.  I’ll update you when I know more.]

14 responses to “flickR works against photographers by stripping EXIF data”
1 02 2009
Håkan Dahlström (02:20:03) :

Good article. I know about the problem but never really thought about it until now.

1 02 2009
carloslorenzo (04:01:19) :

I have a pro account and never stopped to think of this event. Thanks for pointing that out. Anything that can be done to keep the photographer's rights and the technical data behind the image is of course important and worth claiming for.

1 02 2009
Paula (09:12:27) :

This is rather serious, since it is an easy thing to keep the creator exif data. Makes you wonder WHY they find if necessary to strip it, since I can upload tags from my exif data easily…

2 02 2009
jason2008 (17:31:50) :

This will be a serious undertaking for FlickR to embed the original data from all of the the uploads. The data is most likely not filed conveniently, if at all. I have the feeling that FlickR will close before taking this on, but it is something that they must do to protect the works and allow the photo data to remain behind the image.

Another option would be to begin this undertaking with all the Pro account first. The Pro accounts are usually the most serious of photographers but I have seen many serious and excellent photographers with free accounts also.

2 02 2009
jason2008 (17:32:36) :

This will be a serious undertaking for FlickR to embed the original data from all of the the uploads. The data is most likely not filed conveniently, if at all. I have the feeling that FlickR will close before taking this on, but it is something that they must do to protect the works and allow the photo data to remain behind the image.

Another option would be to begin this undertaking with all the Pro account first. The Pro accounts are usually the most serious of photographers but I have seen many serious and excellent photographers with free accounts also.

4 02 2009
Anthony Citrano (16:29:03) :

Jason – the data for the images is there if it was uploaded – it's on the “meta” page of every single one of my uploaded images.

4 02 2009
Unsure about renewing Flickr Pro membership - All Narfed Up (17:04:38) :

[…] Flickr works against photographers by stripping EXIF data (The Cosmic Tap) […]

4 02 2009
jason2008 (20:53:11) :

Oh I misunderstood, I thought you said FlickR removed that data. I see so it's only removed when users download the photo.

Your brother Jay

4 02 2009
Anthony Citrano (21:56:09) :

Haha I didn't know it was you. Yeah, basically, they keep it, but they strip it out when they make the resized images. So if someone downloads the image the metadata is gone. I do think they're going to do something about it.

4 02 2009
jason2008 (23:53:11) :

Oh I misunderstood, I thought you said FlickR removed that data. I see so it's only removed when users download the photo.

Your brother Jay

5 02 2009
Anthony Citrano (00:56:09) :

Ha I didn't know it was you. Yeah, basically, they keep it, but they strip it out of the resized images. So if someone downloads one of the resized versions, the metadata is gone.

13 01 2010
Jeff Johnston (01:05:17) :

Keep up the good work. They should have no basis to strip the data.

25 06 2010
Chris (12:34:38) :

Your concern is understandable, but we all know that without visible (and intrusive) watermarks, it is all too easy for photos to be captured and reused anyway – without EXIF and the help of the print screen button – and many photographers on Flickr don’t want to make the EXIF available to begin with because they wish to protect their technique or not disclose personal information that they program into the comment field for other reasons (such as proving theft of equipment).

27 02 2011
Anonymous (11:38:12) :

Flickr stores exif data in the original size image, which you can download if you have a pro account. In most programs, when you resave an image, exif data is not preserved. This is also true of flickr’s resizing program. The smaller images don’t have exif. Flickr is not making it easier for anyone to “steal” photos. Anyone who wants to remove exif data can do it easily by resaving an image. Exif is not a realistic deterrent to copying an image. In addition, flickr offers a creative commons of photographs that can be used without copyright, which is quite extensive and good. This should work to reduce the demand for images that are copyrighted. Anyways, it will always be possible to copy images, digital or otherwise.

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