Auto-Detect Copyright Infringements: Putting Imatag to the Test

Auto-Detect Copyright Infringements: Putting Imatag to the Test

Late last year, Imatag announced a new means for photographers and image-makers to protect their work: their service allows customers to embed an invisible watermark which is then tracked on the web, alerting the copyright owner each time that the image is published online. I put their service to the test.

The method of watermarking is definitely quite robust, and you can test it yourself either by using Imatag's web demo or by creating an account and uploading some images. There is a limit to what an image can undergo but, as Imatag states, it is resistant to most common changes applied to stolen photos such as resizing, cropping and changes to color and contrast.

Much of the discussion around the time of this announcement focused on how the watermark is contained within the image. However, I was more interested in finding out how the rest of the process worked so I created an account, uploaded a selection of images, published them and waited to see the results.

A screengrab of my personal Imatag library

The information in my watermarked images is contained in a public registry which can be queried by image or by text. Imatag's web crawlers scour the web using this information, reporting back when they find a match. Rather than the instantaneity offered by services such as TinEye, the results can take a while to come in, but with the obvious advantage that the searching process is completely automated.

To test the service, I uploaded a small number of photographs to Imatag, made them publicly viewable in my Imatag portfolio, and downloaded the images again complete with their invisible watermark. I then published them as part of an article on my blog on January 23rd. You can see the article here — a fairly typical post on a Wordpress blog on a shared hosting service in the UK. I then received an email notification from Imatag on March 6th informing me that it had found nine images similar to mine. Upon logging to Imatag, I was informed that were a total of "39 results (1 certified) among 789,548,384 crawled pages and 107,457,287 images."

Screengrab from Imatag's analytics page

Unfortunately, Imatag cannot currently search Facebook or Instagram and the company is working on a solution, but it did pick up images that I posted on Instagram which were then automatically published on Tumblr.

By far the biggest hurdle in protecting images through Imatag is workflow; like many photographers, I export images at various sizes and resolutions from Lightroom. At present, I would have to upload and then download high res images to Imatag before resizing for use elsewhere — far from ideal. To address this issue, Imatag has just started developing a Lightroom plugin to make workflow more manageable.

During our correspondence, Imatag mentioned the incident involving photographer Elia Locardi and Canon Italia. As you will recall, Canon Italia was instructed by a court to remove a composite image that used one of Locardi's photographs. Had Locardi's image contained an Imatag watermark, he would have had incontrovertible proof that his copyright had been breached.

As well as detecting illegal use of images, this use of a public registry raises some interesting possibilities for the future, such as changes to how stock libraries are used. Imatag is currently working on an image search engine which will return results that include copyright and licensing information. Potentially, a public registry could connect licensers and photographers without the need for a middleman to facilitate the sale. During his conversation with photographer Zack Arias, Unsplash founder Mikael Cho (skip to 32:44) mentions the potential to embed an image with information that would allow buyers to connect with an image-maker, something that Arias assumes would be through a decentralized registry — aka, a blockchain. However, as both Cho and Imatag will tell you, a blockchain is not the best means of facilitating this system, which makes you wonder whether Kodak is barking up the wrong tree (or perhaps continually throwing its name behind random pieces of tech in the hope that one of them explodes).

Imatag certainly seems to be staking a claim as a more viable alternative to Digimarc, and is keen to point out the advantages it holds over the likes of blockchain services such as Ascribe. In addition, Imatag doubles as a portfolio and a cloud storage service, and the Lightroom plugin would bring a lot of value. If it can add Instagram and Facebook crawling, even better.

Andy Day's picture

Andy Day is a British photographer and writer living in France. He began photographing parkour in 2003 and has been doing weird things in the city and elsewhere ever since. He's addicted to climbing and owns a fairly useless dog. He has an MA in Sociology & Photography which often makes him ponder what all of this really means.

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Sounds interesting but would it really have worked in the Elia Locardi / Canon situation? The tracking would have transcended compositing a part of one picture into a completely "new" file? I'd love to know the details behind that.

It'd be a better test to use an image of a popular/frequently photographed subject or location like Times Square.

The problem with EXIF in this regard is that there are tools available that will take a batch of images and edit the EXIF data in seconds.

I think what Anders is suggesting that someone could copy your image, and put their name and contact info into the EXIF data in your image; people who found their copy online would contact them, not you.

Ah - sorry, I should have clarified this better. Yes, exactly - it would be very easy to make images appear to be your own by simply editing the EXIF-data.

My guess is that Imatag will detect existing invisible tags and refuse to alter or replace them, making forgery more difficult.

Yes, apologies - this is pure (and very brief) speculation on my part. The changes in digital tech open up all sorts of possibilities. Unsplash is definitely working on this. Whether that's a good thing or not remains to be seen.

Until you change peoples minds about how images are used/owned you can provide all the info in the world and they'll still use your image without permission. The fact that people will post an image and not credit or (unknown photographer - which is always a great one, especially when you see its a famous Avedon, etc)

I'd be interested if they included Facebook or Instagram.