We support the Embedded Metadata Manifesto


Respecting and Protecting Embedded Photo Metadata should be a priority

The relationship between the tech industry and content creators off all stripes has long been strained when it comes to the issue of protecting copyright.  Whether it’s asking Google to do a better job excluding search results that lead to pirated content, or demanding that Facebook  take action against ongoing “freebooting” of videos, conflicts over copyright continue to fester.

Given that Silicon Valley’s best and brightest seem adept at developing new ways of sharing (and appropriating) content to generate billions in profit, one has to ask–why not apply some of that technical wizardry to better tackle digital content theft?

There have been some examples of technology being used to effectively thwart theft– YouTube’s Content ID System being perhaps the most obvious example.  While certainly far from perfect (that’s a whole other story) YouTube’s CMS system does provide rights holders with a technological tool to safeguard their video and/or audio on YouTube.

IPTC social media photo metadata test results

Click image to go to IPTC
Social Media Sites Photo Metadata Test Results

Moving to other forms of online sharing, the picture is not quite so encouraging.  Take a look at various social media sites for example.  Sharing photos is a popular and growing, trend worldwide.  Fine, if the photo you want to share is your own–but what about all those photos that are copied and posted without permission?

While it’s impossible to prevent–there are ways social media companies could do a better job ensuring that the copyright information (embedded as metadata) is protected upon upload.  This embedded information not only provides credit to the originator of the work and other relevant details about the photograph, but also provides the creator with a means of tracking its use online.

The International Press Telecommunications Council (IPTC), an association of more than 50 international news organizations,  works to “simplify” global information distribution. Its mission is to develop and promote  efficient technical standards to improve the management and exchange of information between content providers, intermediaries and consumers. 

Social media sites are doing poor job preserving copyright metadata embedded in photos

Earlier this month the IPTC recently released a study which examined whether popular social media sites retain a photograph’s embedded metadata upon upload.  The study mirrored one done in 2013 and the results are not promising.

Only one social media site, Behance, received favorable results for retaining and displaying embedded data. A few systems retained embedded metadata but failed to use it when displaying metadata on the web site. Ten sites removed at least some metadata when images were downloaded to a desktop environment.

Michael Steidl, Managing Director of IPTC, commented on the results:

If users provide captions, dates, a copyright notice and the creator within their images, that data shouldn’t be removed when sharing them on social media websites without their knowledge…The quality assurance of these sites might not be aware that their software strips metadata inadvertently.

Is it really inadvertent? After all, Silicon Valley develops technology that can do just about anything…but somehow, using technology to preserve metadata is beyond its capabilities? Somehow I doubt it.

David Riecks, a photographer and metadata consultant worked on the test for the IPTC.  He offers a kinder, gentler response:

Because many of the social media sites are essentially free, users become the product, and not necessarily the customers…Users are often not aware of these practices. There should be a sweet spot between these social sites preserving all metadata and removing it all. I’d like to see more engineers working together to find solutions.

Time for Tech to take metadata protection seriously

The tech industry certainly has the wherewithal to implement metadata protection into its user’s social media workflow.  So why doesn’t it?  Probably because, as a sector that’s long flouted copyright in the name of innovation, leaving a trail of bread crumbs that identifies the actual creator isn’t in its best interests.  Silicon Valley’s free pass allowing it to ignore creators’ rights should have expired long ago.  Copyright and innovation need not be mutually exclusive concepts in our burgeoning digital eco-system.

While preserving metadata is a somewhat geeky concept, the topic should be as much a concern to creators as is piracy.  If the tech industry is serious about pledges to protect copyright, it must be held accountable on this front.

The IPTC has developed an industry standard for embedded metadata and summarizes the data’s value this way:

In the online world there can be many copies of a single image or video file, and with millions of images or videos on the internet, metadata is essential for identification and copyright protection. We should ensure this metadata travels with the content as a digital label, and remains with it over its lifetime.

The metadata associated with an image or video can provide information about:

  • Copyright and other rights associated with the image
  • Contact information of copyright holders and licensors
  • Image content
  • Artworks, buildings and people portrayed in the image
  • Search terms (keywords)
  • Technical details of the photography
    Rights restrictions for use of the image
  • Rights granted under a licence to use

Metadata adds business value to the artistic value of any media content. Preserving it will help maintain the value of your business.

In 2011 an IPTC working group developed guidelines, the  Embedded Metadata Manifestowhich describe best practices for embedding and preserving metadata in digital media files. From its website: 

Photographers, film makers, videographers, illustrators, publishers, advertisers, designers, art directors, picture editors, librarians and curators all share the same problem: struggling to track rapidly expanding collections of digital media assets such as photos and video/film clips.

With that in mind we propose five guiding principles as our “Embedded Metadata Manifesto”:

  1. Metadata is essential to describe, identify and track digital media and should be applied to all media items which are exchanged as files or by other means such as data streams.
  2. Media file formats should provide the means to embed metadata in ways that can be read and handled by different software systems.
  3. Metadata fields, their semantics (including labels on the user interface) and values, should not be changed across metadata formats.
  4. Copyright management information metadata must never be removed from the files.
  5. Other metadata should only be removed from files by agreement with their copyright holders.

Preserving metadata for public domain images valuable too

NY Public Library Digital CollectionThe preservation of a photograph’s embedded metadata is also valuable for cataloging imagery available in  the public domain.  It was exciting news when the NY Public Library recently announced that more than 180,000 digital, high-resolution images would be made available for public use, downloadable via its digital collections site.  In order to fully appreciate the collection, its worth understanding the great amount of effort that put into preparing the images for release. Librarians spent years digitizing various works and cataloging the images (using metadata).

Each image’s embedded metadata will not only link to the library’s catalog, but provide future generations an invaluable link to the history of each item.  William Fenton explained the workflow in an article for PC Magazine, NYPL Digitized 187K Images, But That’s Not the Whole Story:

Digitization begins, but by no means ends, with scanning items. An atlas might travel from the maps division to the digital imaging unit, where photographers capture the highest-quality electronic representation. Then staff catalog, process, and physically relocate the item. The metadata services unit helps connect that data to the digital asset and to ensure the connections to the original cataloging record remain intact. Concurrently, the copyright and information policy group evaluates the atlas and attaches copyright information using something called a rights statement.

All that information—the digital asset, metadata, and copyright—travels to the applications development team, which creates the infrastructure that enables data to flow into an open-source repository called Fedora. That information is represented in the library’s Archives portal as well as the Digital Collections platform.

In a digital world increasingly overwhelmed by digital content, the need to preserve an image’s roots should be more valuable, not less so. Whether copyrighted, or in the public domain, more care needs to be taken to preserve embedded metadata in digital images so that the those who create them–and those who use them–can understand (and appreciate) where it all began.  Metadata provides a crucial roadmap to this end. Just because it’s often hidden from view, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist.