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.
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."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.