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The Web's Next Layer of Innovation: Q&A With Creative Commons CEO Joi Ito

The Web's Next Layer of Innovation: Q&A With Creative Commons CEO Joi Ito

The Internet is awash in digital images depicting pretty much anything your imagination can conceive. Sometimes a Web site admin or a business might want to take some of the images they find out there and use them their own sites. That means gaining permission from the rights holder, and that's not always easy to do. Smoothing out that process is one more way to help new innovation and creativity blossom.

By Jack M. Germain
01/15/10 5:00 AM PT

Web surfers, whether hardcore business professionals or amateur Web site creators, frequently find images online either through search engines or Web page browsing. However, in most cases, these images are not free to use.

Maybe the photographer who created the image would be open to selling rights for a small fee; perhaps he or she only wants attribution but no pay. In any case, the Internet lacks a standardized method to ensure that intellectual property (IP) owners get the recognition and/or payment they are due.

Tracking down the copyright owner for images found on the Internet is often a time-consuming research effort. For many other consumers of images, it is much easier to simply right-click and save rather than find who owns an image and determine how to buy the rights to use it.

PicScout, a software firm that offers image services to professional photographers, provides several browser inserts and tracking tools, such as ImageExchange and PicScout Image IRC, and a suite of products to enable online image transactions for users and licensers of images.

Internet luminary Joi Ito, CEO of Creative Commons, recently joined PicScout's advisory board to further advance his goal of solving ongoing legal concerns about getting professional photographers attribution and pay for their images. Ito is among the most recognized names in Web technology as cofounder and board member of Digital Garage and the CEO of Japanese-based venture capital firm Neoteny. Creative Commons facilitates common licensing of images for professional photography used on the Internet.

LinuxInsider spoke with Joi Ito to discuss his quest for Internet image licensing and his views about where business on the Web is headed.

LinuxInsider: What led you to become associated with PicScout?

Joi Ito: As the CEO of Creative Commons, we work on providing licenses to help people mark their work. When PicScout launched the latest version of Image IRC, they added a feature in addition to marking the works with copyright notices and licenses for where you can license the works. This newest feature showed when somebody was willing to allow you to use it for non-commercial use.

To me, one of the things about working at Creative Commons is we are always working very hard to try to bring the commercial professional copyright licensing world closer together with the amateur Creative Commons free license world, because I believe there is a great business in the hybrid which would be photographers who are willing to let amateurs use their work for non-commercial use but still want to get paid for professional use. So to me, PicScout was a really good puzzle piece that allows me to pull the commercial world and the amateur world together. I just wanted to help in any way I could.

LI: What are some of the obstacles you had to deal with in pulling together the amateur photographers who have their work posted online versus the commercial ones? Has that been much of a problem within the photography profession?

Ito: Yes, I think that is somewhat of a problem. I think you have everyone from the somewhat controversial Andrew Keen, who wrote The Cult of the Amateur, who said that youth and the amateur photograph online is destroying the profession. I think this is a bit extreme.

And then on the other end of the spectrum you have professional photographers who are finding that it is the amateur photographers who are the ones buying their books and the ones buying their training videos and the ones becoming their fans. And so they find in these amateur photographers the students and the fans that they can teach and who will pay them for that.

So there is kind of a space in between, which is sort of the stock photography photographers, who are not the masters that people would buy the coffee table books of but who try to earn a living taking photographs, that are more professional but maybe slightly closer to the high-quality amateur photos that you find on line.

And maybe the amateur photography online is a downward influence on the business. So it depends on the category. Generally speaking, I think the professional photography industry has been somewhat conservative in its approach to fee licensing and license-free content. Because in addition to the fact that the amateur photography is increasing in volume and quality, I think the business of print media has been declining, and so the revenue from that side has been going down.

And so there is a bunch of business reasons that I think professional photographers view a lot of this amateur photography as the cause for a lot of the economic trouble they've been having. But there are always the enlightened photographers that bridge that. I do, in fact, believe that the overall market is changing in that using free licenses to promote your works while still getting paid for the professional use is a model that would make sense.

But we don't have any companies that serve both those features right now. There currently is a gap being slowly bridged. ...

And also, the other thing is that photographers in general are artists, and a lot of the models and the copyright issues is something that they don't want to experiment.

LI: You mentioned a few minutes ago that the market is largely changing for both the amateur and professional photographer. Is that due to the popularity of the Web and the ease of uploading and downloading images?

Ito: I think there are a bunch of factors. I think the print industry itself and the advertising industry are spending less on everything, and so there is just less money for photographers from commercial sources. I do think that there is more photography available, and also there is more competition because everything is online.

And also, the cost of production has gone down. So the cost of the cameras and the cost of computers to do the photo editing have all gone down. So the number of people who can afford to make high-quality photography is increasing, making it more difficult.

LI: Is there any special technology involved with the licensing to assure photographers that they can afford to use it? Is it a proprietary code or just the honor system where people are going to follow the rules of the license?

Ito: Creative Commons is very separate from PicScout. PicScout uses proprietary technology that does fingerprinting based on the image. You don't embed anything in the image. But by looking at the image it really is a lot like watching a movie where the FBI very quickly goes through a lot of images to identity the one that's yours. Every image creates sort of an abstract fingerprint, and then PicScout can very quickly -- even if it's been modified and turned around and propped -- PicScout can find something that is based on the original image.

LI: How does the tracking system work?

Ito: With the Image IRC product, all of the stock photo images have been fingerprinted in the database. So if you are a photographer who has already submitted a stock image to one of the databases, who submits it to another one, it will alert all of the agencies that this photograph exists already somewhere else, and it could be a stolen one or the same person trying to sell it in a different place. It keeps track of almost all of the major stock photo databases.

The product before this one, Tracker, actually goes and scans all of the commercial Web sites and looks for copyright infringements and sends out a notice letter on behalf of the stock photo agencies and the photographer.

LI: So is the process a carrot or a stick method to ensure compliance with copyrights?

Ito: The original business model was really kind of a stick to go after copyright violators. The new product is kind of the opposite. It just exposes where the image came from and sends you a link where you can proactively go and buy it. It's not a stick but rather a carrot, adding the attribution tags to all the images on the Web.

From the Creative Commons' perspective, that is very useful, because if you upload an image to Flickr you can put a Creative Commons license on it that says, "Go ahead and use it, but just give me attribution."

A lot of times that image winds up somewhere, and it won't have attribution, or it will be used for commercial use. If you have the Image IRC plug-in added to Firefox, when you mouse over the image it will say here is the person's name and here's the Flickr image, and just click on that and you can find the original source.

In all cases, Image IRC is trying to connect the image with the original author. The first business model they had was to actually go out and try to collect money from everybody using your image. Now what it's doing is allowing people who are searching the Web to very easily find out where the images are coming from to proactively pay or give attribution or whatever the photographer wants to do.

LI: So the goal is still ultimately to get the professional photographer his due?

Ito: In the case of the Creative Commons licenses that they're tagging now, many of the photographers will say, "Go ahead and use it; just give me attribution." A lot of times they are not getting any attribution, so it is not necessarily pay.

LI: What drew you to Creative Commons? I know you came in as the second CEO replacing the founding CEO in 2008.

Ito: Creative Commons is a non-profit organization. I've been involved in the Internet for a while now. I was the CEO for the first commercial Internet service provider in Japan. I did one of the first Web companies in Japan and one of the first ad agencies. So I've been gradually working up the Internet layer by layer by layer, helping to establish IP (Internet protocol) on the Internet and helping to create a search business and ad business. With each layer, you have very important open standards that are getting created, whether it's the World Wide Web Consortium and HTML or the Internet Engineering Task Force and TCIPTV.

These layers are the things that have allowed an explosion of innovation that happened above it. As a venture capitalist and an entrepreneur, I've benefited from these layers of openness that happened as the Internet moved forward. I believe that the next layer is this [ecosystem] friction that we have.

I don't invest in many companies because of the risk of litigation and the risk of legal problems these companies may have. Right now, we don't have an interoperable licensing system like we do for the legal layer. Before the Internet you couldn't connect computers together physically. You had to buy some kind of network software. You had to pay some software company to provide the content management system. Everything was proprietary and cost billions of dollars and took decades. Now you can build something like Google for thousands of dollars. What the Internet does is it enables innovation.

For me, now that all the technical layers have become so easy and so low-cost and so interoperable, the next layer that really needs to be worked on is the legal layer. So at Creative Commons I think we are trying to solve a lot of those problems at the legal layer. I think that things like that friction are a part of that ecosystem. Once those problems are solved and a lot of that friction goes away, another explosion of innovation is going to happen on top of that, which I think will be good for society, good for business, and good for venture capitalists, and interesting too. So that's what we are trying to do at Creative Commons.


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