The introduction of AltaVista's new Photo Finder service has raised concerns with some photographers and artists that AltaVista is violating their copyright by making copies of their pictures without explicit permission.
Similar concerns have been raised in the past by webmasters concerned that search engines are indexing their textual content without permission. So far, there's never been a legal suit against any of the search engines regarding this. For the most part, webmasters want traffic, so they don't complain about indexing. Additionally, search engines generally say that they are not presenting entire documents, only summaries, and so they don't fall afoul of copyright violations.
Finally, the robots.txt file and the meta robots tag exist as a way for webmasters to explicitly exclude their content. They work as a de facto automatic copyright notice for spiders. My suspicion is that if there ever was a court case, use of these mechanisms as a "tell us no, otherwise it is OK" permission device would be supported. If not, crawler-based services might find their systems shut down, which would have a negative impact on the entire Internet community.
The situation is different in the image search case. Search engines give just a summary of text documents, but AltaVista is actually displaying complete copies of pictures in its image search results, albeit in low-quality thumbnail form.
This leads into a chief concern that the catalog gives the impression that images displayed may be used freely.
"In all honesty, this is my main complaint about Photo Finder: they've made it too easy for folks to steal people's web graphics, and there's already too much of that. In fact, by so freely reproducing the works of others, they appear to endorse this behavior as a company, in effect, leaving their visitors with the impression, "it's OK to put these on your page, too," said photographer Reid Stott, who has posted a page on the issue for fellow artists.
AltaVista's Chief Technical Office Louis Monier said the service is now working to ease concerns.
"As you can imagine, we are not trying to steal anything or encourage piracy. This is a first, so we were expecting some reactions and are taking action to make the Photo Finder useful for everyone. We are adding the proper disclaimers, and instructions for opt-in/opt-out," he said.
AltaVista has already added a notice to the Photo Finder home page, telling searchers they should seek permission to use the images displayed. Stott and others think this should be more strongly worded, and that it should also appear on results pages, in association with the thumbnail images themselves.
AltaVista has also made another change, in the wake of complaints. Previously, users could click on a thumbnail and download the image without ever visiting the host web site. Now, this is no longer possible.
However, if a user goes through the extra step of choosing "About This Image," then clicking on the "Image" link, they can still download an image without visiting the host site. A similar situation occurs if they view results in "verbose" mode. It is a simple step to plug this last hole, so I wouldn't be surprised to see it changed in the future.
Last, but not least, the fact that the images are being used without explicit permission upsets Stott and other artists.
"I believe it could be both a useful and non-controversial resource. If they'd placed the service online with all those Corbis images, and then allowed people to 'opt-in' to the service through a 'submit site' link, you'd never have heard a peep from me," Stott said. "This would have honored the spirit of copyright law by, in effect, asking permission for the use of copyrighted works in advance, by allowing the content creator to make a choice about the use of their work. It may seem a fine distinction, but it goes to the heart of copyright law: you must obtain permission, in advance."
The big problem with this is that many people would fail to explicitly submit their images, just as web authors already fail to properly submit their web sites or make use of meta tags. That would reduce the effectiveness of the current catalog, which ironically, is an ideal way for artists to discover if their images are being used without permission on the web.
Of course, the real benefit is to web searchers, and it is reasonable to assume that those web searchers are looking for images to use in their sites or elsewhere. This leads back to the issue that the service may encourage piracy.
For artists that wish to protect their images, the robots.txt file option is available, as are two new meta robots tag options that AltaVista has introduced specifically for those with image indexing concerns. These are useful for those unable to use a robots.txt file. Both are described on a special page AltaVista has created to help webmasters understand how to opt out of the service.
Unfortunately, there may be a delay between the time the blocks are installed and when AltaVista actually drops the images. Here, the service made another stumble. It has run its image spider over the past few months without publicly identifying what the spider was for. That meant artists had no idea that this was a spider they may have wanted to block, and so they have been included by default.
One unlikely change is removal of the thumbnails. AltaVista considers them acceptable use that doesn't require special permission, just as a summary of a web page might be considered acceptable use.
"The thumbnails are not the issue (they are an acceptable 'citation'). It's the fact that we linked to the picture with no context that displeased a few people: we now give access to the page, so users can see the entire context. And, of course, we respect the robots.txt file and any request to have images removed," Monier said, via email.
Whether a court case results remains to be seen. The onus is left to artists to block the AltaVista spider, just as with web page authors. The difference is that complete works are being presented, and that the artists receive far less gain from this than web authors do. Thus, they may have more desire to pursue an action.
A page within Search Engine Watch that summarizes articles and resources about artists upset with multimedia search services.
AltaVista Photo Finder
AltaVista Photo Finder, and how to keep your images "unfound"
Reid Stott's summary of how to keep your images out of the AltaVista Photo Finder service.
AltaVista Help: Excluding Pages From Photo Finder
Instructions from AltaVista on excluding your pages from Photo Finder with a robots.txt file or the meta robots tag.
Compaq Accused Of Copyright Infringement
Newsbytes, Oct. 27, 1998
At least one artist has sent a formal complaint to AltaVista regarding Photo Finder.
News Robot Leads To Linking, Indexing Dispute
The Search Engine Report, Jan. 9, 1998
Discusses how the robots.txt file may be crucial in any indexing dispute that eventually winds up in court.