If you read my previous posting about the CEPIC Conference, where I was asked to deliver a speech on metadata 24 hours before having to give it, I threatened to post as much of it as I could remember on this blog. Well, here it is:
“Many of you may not have heard of fotoLibra. This is the first CEPIC conference we’ve attended. So to give you a little background, fotoLibra is 10 years old, we have 750,000 Rights-Managed and Royalty-Free images, 90% RM, 10% RF, of which 500,000 are unique to us. Despite our small size and our relative newness, we rank fourth among general rights-managed picture libraries in the UK in the number of website visitors we get.
Unlike the majority of people who start picture libraries, I’m not a photographer; I am just a man who takes photographs. I come from a book publishing background, and by inclination I’m an historian.
Of course six months after I became a picture librarian I knew it all, I knew everything, and I turned up at a BAPLA metadata meeting with the solution to everyone’s problems: DOIs — Digital Object Identifiers. DOIs are widely used in academic publishing, and the concept is hard to fault. One persistent identifier, one long number, would be embedded in the digital object so it could not be stripped out, like versions of Adobe Photoshop strip out embedded IPTC metadata, like Facebook and Twitter routinely strip metadata.
The joy was that the DOI wasn’t in itself the metadata, it was merely a pointer to where the metadata was stored. And this data could be enhanced and extended, so rights information could be added or revised and the DOI would always direct you to the latest data.
A friend of mine, Rob Wilson, was in charge of DOIs at HMSO, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. He gave me 50,000 of them to get started with. He explained to me in great detail what they did and what they were all about, but I’ve never been able to understand a word Rob says.
After he left HMSO, the allocation of DOIs was taken over by another company. A bright-eyed (presumably) and bushy-tailed sales exec got in touch to say they would now be supplying fotoLibra with DOIs from now on. “The great news,” he enthused, “is that from now they’ll only cost you a dollar a year.”
That’s $1 per image. For 750,000 images. Every year. Persistently. For ever.
We no longer use DOIs.
Rob is now for the Application Developer for the PLUS Coalition.* Like the DOI, the PLUS identifier is a persistent embeddable string which refers to an external metadata source. To me it looks like the way forward for stock agencies and picture libraries.
A little anecdote about Rob: we were in South Wales and he had a meeting to go to, so he dropped me off at his parents’ house for an hour. They were a charming, elderly couple, and they made me tea and gave me a bun. After about ten minutes, Rob’s father leaned forward and asked me, “How long have you known Rob?”
“Oh, about ten years,” I answered.
“Tell me,” he said, “have you ever understood a word that he says?”
What was always of prime importance to me, wearing my historian’s hat, was the writing on the back of the photograph. How else do you know what’s in the picture, what it’s all about? That’s how I describe metadata to people who still don’t know the word; like a distinguished presenter I heard on BBC Radio 4′s Broadcasting House programme the other Sunday. He had only just come across the word metadata, and he was busily poo-poohing it. Clearly we have a long way to go in educating people.
I’m a member of a Facebook group (I hate it that Facebook knows I’m a fat git who likes rugby) on architectural follies. Some excellent photographs are posted to the group, and the other day I felt moved to ask if the people who uploaded them knew that Facebook stripped off the metadata and made them, by default, orphan works. I wrote:
“I hate to come across as Mr Kill-Joy, but I hope you know that Facebook deliberately strips all the metadata from images that are uploaded to it, rendering them as Orphan Works. In the UK, let alone the rest of the world, this effectively means that anyone will be free to use your images without any credit or payment. OK, this is a broad-brushed description, but it summarises the situation.”
In other words, under the blatantly unfair legislation the UK government has just passed, other people could freely use them. One replied:
“I’d rather share the photos than worry about the meagre profits potentially to be derived from them. (And as someone who writes on an unrelated subject, I’d say the biggest problem in this general field is people — and institutions — aggressively claiming rights to images that they don’t actually have any legal right of control over).”
Another responded: “My photos are not large enough / high enough resolution to be of interest to professional libraries (including fotoLibra) or photo editors so I put them up in the knowledge someone may “borrow” them in future and that’s fine it if spreads the knowledge and appreciation of follies. At the same time I know they are not professional standard enough to meet a photo editors’ requirements. Others may wish to take note though …”
Well, they don’t have to hide them away if some persistent identifier can let it be known that they hold the copyright. (And quality is relative — better to have one lo-res image of me shaking hands with Churchill and de Gaulle than none at all.) This is where Creative Commons is so powerful, over and above its original function — it introduces the concept of copyright, ownership and credit to people who are not necessarily bothered about remuneration.
There is in Britain a wonderful website called Geograph.org. Its simple plan is to create a photographic record of every grid square on the Ordnance Survey map. They’re doing the same thing for Germany. There are a few parts of Wales and the highlands of Scotland which remain uncovered, but in general wherever you go in the country there’ll be a photograph — perhaps several — of it on Geograph.
All the photographs are uploaded by members of the public. Some are iffy, some are just staggeringly beautiful — and they are all ‘licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence.’
This is wonderful. The majority of people happily uploading their images to websites have no idea of the importance of rights, or the role that metadata plays. Geograph is educating people in the importance and relevance of metadata and rights.
So how does fotoLibra manage rights? Well, for us it really is a frictionless process, because we do it manually. We are still in the unhappy situation of being on first name terms with most of our customers, and we deal with them as individuals. Not for us the tiresome process of clearing rights on 15,000 images for MegaCorp, Inc., no no! A quarter page for Merionethshire Life and we’re well away.
It would be great to have experience in all aspects of the process, from being a photographer trying to sell his work and coming to the realisation that pressing the shutter is just the start of a very long workflow; from the agents like us presenting the work to buyers; to life as a picture buyer trying to get the right pictures together, with all the data and the clearances they need.
My Radio 4 man sneered at the construct ‘metadata’. He felt it was an unnecessary overcomplication. Metadata has been defined as ‘data about data’. I agree with him that it is human nature to complicate things as far as possible. On the motorways, ‘Your International Partner In Logistics Solutions’ actually just means ‘I’m A Truck’. Remember Occam’s Razor, and let’s keep it simple.
As Richard Bamford of Extensis pointed out in his speech earlier today, a lot of our confusion is down to left- and right-brain processes. Photographers tend to be visually orientated and words, metadata and organisation are less important to them.
fotoLibra is here to help.”
*Jeff Sedlik, the co-founder, President and CEO of the PLUS Coalition, was giving the speech after me. He began by saying, “I’d just like to point out that Rob Wilson, who was mentioned by the previous speaker, is indeed our Application Developer. And, for the record, we’ve never understood a word he says either.”