Nonplussed by PLUS?
The PLUS Registry recently launched a public beta, and is now inviting photographers to sign up.
Was that a yawn?
PLUS does not immediately stand out from all those folio sites, SEO chancers, competitions, agencies and directories that claim they’ll change our lives but just make their owners rich.
Just like them, it offers free basic registration, pay if you want extra stuff… Big name logos on show so it can’t really be a scam. So what the hell is the Picture Licensing Universal System anyway?
It turns out the answer is radical and profound. If PLUS gets its way, it will be career and life changing for imaging professionals.
It’s easiest to start with what PLUS is not. It is not a stock library, agency nor marketing device. It is not a company aiming for a Google buyout or IPO, it is constituted to be impervious to either. It is set up never to make a profit but is not a charity. It is not a representative organisation for photographers. What it offers is not even primarily aimed at photographers, but at image users.
There is actually nothing like PLUS anywhere in the world. It is a unique cooperative assembly spanning 32 countries, that brings together the factional interests of the global imaging industry under the bland-sounding mission statement “To simplify and facilitate the communication and management of image rights”.
So it’s some sort of tedious industry talking-shop, figuring out new ways for the big players to grab more pie? Well, no. Participating organisations are obliged to leave that stuff at the door. It’s more like Noah’s ark, working on how to turn the disastrous flood that is Photography 2.0 into an eco-friendly hydroelectric scheme that might sustain us rather than drown us. And it might just work.
A long process of addition
Noah, on this occasion, tasked with bringing together animals that generally try to eat each other, is PLUS CEO Jeff Sedlik. A 49 year old LA-based advertising, editorial and fine-art photographer, ex-APA president, professor and copyright consultant, Sedlik has a strong history of defending photographers’ interests. He gave evidence to Congress and was pivotal in the resistance to successive attempts at passing orphan works Bills in the US. He has also helped UK photographers out in the past with tactical and legal advice, notably regarding the Digital Economy Bill. Sedlik is as unlike your average CEO as PLUS is unlike any corporation.
He welcomes anyone to PLUS participation, but there are house rules : “The collective is ‘industry neutral’ by design, while each participating industry sector is asked to participate constructively and collaboratively in order to ensure that the interests of its constituents are adequately represented within the collective. This necessarily requires setting all political, regional and competitive differences aside, and focusing on achievable results. We are by design independent of regional, industrial, commercial or political bias. We are the creators of the world, uniting with the image users of the world, to create a solution that is designed from the ground up to serve the interests of all users, and thus to serve the interest of each individual user”.
That last sentence sounds like hubris. It seems preposterous, an overreached fantasy, but it is no more than the truth.
The result has become a grand design for a sustainable photographic ecology adapted to the internet age, evolved and refined over a decade of bridge-building and dialogue with thousands of companies, publishers, agencies, industry groups, lawyers, conservators, museums, art buyers, academics, creators and representative organisations from around the world.
Sedlik admits “I am a madman” to have even attempted such a thing, let alone to have persevered for years at herding so many cats into collective effort. The thing is, though, that every facet of the imaging industry knows it is in deep, calamitous trouble. PLUS is the only attempt and opportunity to systemically reinvent an environment that no longer works for anyone. Many companies and organisations have donated resources, expertise and money; thousands of volunteers have helped build momentum. Unlike at the beginning, he says people now come to him asking to participate. That’s how Corbis and Getty became contributors.
The problem is the machine
The fundamental problem PLUS is designed to address is that images almost always become separated from their rights owner. By-lines get left off, metadata is erased, altered and becomes obsolete. Images become anonymous collections of pixels or halftone dots, about which little or nothing is known. The difficulty of tracing the owner is magnified by the prolific copying, legitimate and not, which is endemic on the web.
In a world where images play a ubiquitous role in culture and business, those who make, distribute and use images ought to be able to turn the efficiencies of the web to advantage. Instead of which the proliferation of anonymised images is disruptive, costly grit in the wheels of commerce.
Copyright law requires that users find owners and negotiate permission. If this cannot be done easily, either the image is not used or the buyer is tempted to infringe and hope they don’t get caught. Or they lobby governments to change the law so they can use orphan works without asking the copyright owner.
… so the answer is the machine…
What PLUS is building towards is the means to identify and locate the owners of photographs, just from the image itself. Sedlik gives an example “the designer who sees an image he likes and wants to use, in a 40 year old newspaper, will be able to take a snap with his iPhone and upload it to PLUS. If it has been registered, he’ll know whom to contact in seconds”.
The same holds true for every image on the planet. If PLUS recognises an image, it knows who owns the rights, and much else besides.
Sedlik’s example relies on image recognition. This is not vapourware, it is mature, working technology furnished by PLUS partner Picscout. Integration with the registry is work in progress. Testing is 3-4 months away.
Image recognition is only one of three means of identifying an image and finding its owner. Sedlik considers it the most significant because it is so powerful and easy to use for image users. In addition each image registered with PLUS will possess an Asset ID that can be included in metadata, and also displayed alongside it as a by-line. It can also be encoded into the image itself using PLUS collaborator Digimarc’s new and improved invisible watermarking technology.
This is game changing stuff, but there is much more. PLUS will also register license agreements associated with an image, eventually documents such as model releases too. And of course PLUS will register the creators, rights owners, agents, users, clients, publishers, who have different roles in what happens to that image. The image lays at the heart of this web of dynamic relationships.
This all becomes remotely stored metadata, indelibly associated with the image, and retrievable as needed. Metadata in the Registry cannot rot with age, be tampered with or stripped. It can be updated at will. If you have images registered and you change address, you change one record at PLUS and all the copies out in the world, that you know about and that you don’t, can be traced to you.
This has profound implications. Registered images become orphan proof and deflate the pressure for changes to copyright law. Excuses for infringement, such as being unable to trace the rights owner, become indefensible. Infringement itself becomes immediately verifiable. Passing off and illegitimate selling of work will be instantly apparent. License terms and details are indelible, inarguable. Moreover, those who register and make themselves easy to find gain market advantage. Those who use the system for tracing rights holders gain efficiency, minimise liabilities and cut their costs.
Now we begin to see what Sedlik means when he says “If the goal is to encourage usage of the Registry by image users, the registry must be designed to serve their interests. By serving image users, a Registry ultimately serves the needs of creators, protecting their rights, and increasing their revenue”.
What is getting built here is a planet-size snowball where disparate versions of self-interest compel participation. The publishers, because they save time and money locating the raw material they want to use and managing what they own. The agencies, because they save time and money clearing and managing rights. The photographers, because they want to retain control of their work, be found and paid.
A new internet ecosystem for images is exactly what PLUS is, and it is structured to facilitate good behaviour and impede misbehaviour. This is the opposite of the existing mayhem of the web.
… and standards
The idea of a permanent, public repository for information about who owns copyright in a given image is not new. Most UK photographer organisations lobbied Gowers for a visual-search image registry back in 2005. This was ignored along with everything else they said. In the USA, the Copyright Office has operated a registry since the mid 1970’s. However it is built to serve US legal needs and does nothing to fix a dysfunctional image market.
In 1999 the Visual Creators Index made a first step toward preventing images becoming separated from their owners. VCI issued a unique ID code to each member, and provided a public means to look up the ID and retrieve current contact information. The intention was that an invisibly embedded watermark would ensure the ID travelled with the image and would prevent orphaning. VCI ambitions proved to exceed the capabilities of the technology and, perhaps also of understanding among creators themselves. VCI did not attempt to make itself indispensable to image users. Without irresistible pull for either group it never achieved critical mass. Nevertheless VCI served as a conceptual stepping-stone to PLUS, and Sedlik acknowledges the debt to VCI’s creator Mike Laye, also a PLUS volunteer. “The idea of creator ID numbers that point back to always-valid contact data was a stroke of genius”.
Sedlik’s vision for PLUS extends much further. “My perspective from the outset has been that before a Registry could succeed, standards must be developed not only for identifying rights-holders and images, but also for communicating rights information.” That is the real context of the PLUS licensing standards that were completed in 2008, and are now in use. It was essential groundwork for Sedlik’s new ecology.
There is no compulsion to use the PLUS standards – you will be able to register a license written in pencil on a napkin if you wish – but as a piece of the whole it offers efficiencies that will become hard to ignore as the PLUS Registry nears completion. If registration is arduous, it simply won’t be used. Nobody is going to register tens or hundreds of thousands of photos or associated licenses one at a time by hand, it has to be automated and capable of incorporation into existing workflows. So PLUS will provide an API (Application Programming Interface) to allow the development of third-party software that can interact with PLUS registry and track licensing. DAM systems, billing systems, other registries, will evolve to participate in the PLUS universe.
So far 3rd party software like this plugin for Lightroom has been concerned with embedding PLUS metadata, but applications will evolve to integrate image registration and licence management as the Registry services come on stream..
PLUS progress so far has seemed slow, but Sedlik says that has been due to the extreme care taken to avoid building in obsolescence or becoming a hostage to fortune. For instance, uploaded thumbnails will be securely stored in case they ever need to be re-fingerprinted. The CNRI Handle system for referencing digital objects, on which the registry is based, is mature, robust, can scale to billions of records and survive even http:‘s obsolescence if the web evolves to something else.
PLUS is thinking in the very long term, planning for its users data to be accessible for a century or more. “Most especially due to the involvement of the major museums and libraries, we are taking care to implement a mirrored system that could be operated by another non-profit body or committee authorised by the users in the event that PLUS ceases to exist at any time.”
Sedlik says “PLUS is doggedly and methodically executing a strategic plan carefully designed in 2005 to maximise the Registry’s chances of success.” He admits, with a hint of relief “The most difficult aspect was getting to where we are today.”
The cost of progress
PLUS, because of the scale of its ambition, is a vastly expensive endeavour. Most of its support to date has come from corporates, representative organisations and individual professionals. As PLUS proceeds with development, costs will peak. These costs may eventually extend well into seven figures, and have to be met.
The Registry beta is a step change in PLUS development, extending into the wider community of individual photographers. It is a precursor to the next phase, when users will be invited to begin uploading and registering their millions of images.
The beta is also a worldwide cooperative fundraising exercise. Although it is free to register name, address etc, and that alone will provide a perpetual means of finding the named photographer, PLUS is asking us to invest in the future. For £78 ($125) a sole trader photographer can become a “Supporting Member” for a year. EPUK members and members of other PLUS-affiliated professional bodies receive a £15 discount, so pay £63. Those who see value in the PLUS ecosystem, and opt to share the costs, will gain access to the full feature set as it develops. Some aspects are available now: more extensive identity records allowing business information, agent details etc. They also are assigned a PLUS ID that can be used in metadata, bylines etc. Although this is no more useful than a name for locating an author, a PLUS ID will become essential as the PLUS database infrastructure evolves and Asset ID’s, Licence ID’s and Document ID’s roll out.
In case you were wondering, on death or lapsing of membership fee payment, your PLUS record remains permanently accessible. If you include the details of your heirs, they are contactable.
But everything should be free on the web
PLUS charging for membership has generated a small flurry of criticism in UK, although oddly in no other country. Aside from the idealistic conviction that creators should not have to pay to protect their work, some have supposed that PLUS is charging for PLUS Member IDs, and that perhaps there is something significant about the ID code itself. Says Sedlik “PLUS is not selling IDs. The member IDs are one element in an greater integrated system available to all who share in the cost of the Registry”. ID’s are only uniquely useful if you want to use the rest of what the Registry offers.
There is no basis to suspicions that there is something significant about the ID code itself, some proprietary standard that might lock out other registries. PLUS ID’s are no more meaningful than cloakroom tickets. They do have a format XX-YY-YYY. YY-YYY is the peg number for your data and XX indicates which registry (cloakroom) contains your peg. Sedlik says that PLUS Member IDs are “dumb numbers, with any meaning derived by linkage to data and other IDs. Otherwise you are setting up the ID system for obsolescence from the start”.
Another objection is that charging is bound to impede take-up, where free ID codes could quickly add very many users. This is true but, as any webmaster will tell you, the vast majority of free accounts are soon forgotten about and abandoned. Widespread use of ID codes that point to obsolete records and uncontactable users would poison and devalue the system as a whole. It is probably better that ID’s are only issued to those who value them enough to pay for and maintain them, although Sedlik denies this is deliberate.
Charging is simply unavoidable for the cooperative, says Sedlik. “All users who store data in the registry cause the cooperative to incur expenses for storage, bandwidth, maintenance, backups, failover systems, customer service, design, and development. The costs of the system are reimbursed by the users, in a co-operative funding model, in order to make the entire registry possible.” Those who pay also pay for those who don’t. This clearly cannot work at all if nobody pays.
The good news is that as development costs tail off and operational costs can be divided among a growing population, the annual cost should fall to a small fraction of what it is now. The membership fee will include a significant number of image records, with ‘top-up’ charges proportionate to additional usage, to recover the extra costs. PLUS won’t predict figures. At this early stage the number of paying members, among whom the costs must be divided, is too uncertain.
So although PLUS might look corporate and the membership deal might look to be a classic freemium pitch, reality is different. AOP, NUJ, AOI, DACS, Pyramide and EPUK have all been founding members who have put their hands in their pockets. PLUS is now asking each of us individually to join the cooperative snowball, to sustain it and change our imaging world.
Negatives to PLUS?
PLUS is so unprecedented and so holistic in its approach that it is hard to grasp. There’s understandable uncertainty regarding what PLUS is up to, whose side it is on.
PLUS is determinedly neutral, refusing to side either with users or creators. It is structured to be impervious to control or takeover by any vested interest. It has no views about Royalty Free, about Creative Commons, about microstock pricing. It cannot, for the moment it takes one side against the other it risks its core thesis that only by being useful to everybody can it help anybody.
That is probably the biggest hurdle PLUS now faces. Many photographers will see the neutrality not as an asset but grounds for mistrust. Those who know Jeff Sedlik through experience, know better. But if too many people hang back from supporting PLUS, it may be delayed or not happen at all.
Against that, Sedlik has many large corporates onboard who are committed to using the system because it benefits them to do so. That alone means that photographers will eventually be pulled into PLUS by client and agent requirements. But there is reason enough to get behind it now and push. We are running out of time.
Another issue is that on the internet “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” (anonymously if possible) may now be an unstoppable cultural force, and that copyright itself may be attenuated by governments to win the votes of the free culture lobby. There is continuous probing by those who insist they are entitled to something for nothing: pressure for expansion of fair dealing, for use of orphan works, for extended collective licensing. There is negligible respect or concern for individual creators within Government: it sees only an exploitable commodity that shows no sign of scarcity. Significant weakening of copyright could sideline PLUS as image buyers expand their exploitation of free content. But that is another battle, not a flaw in PLUS itself.
I began my exploration of PLUS with scepticism. A few weeks ago I couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to yet another minor-sounding development. The more questions I asked, the more I discovered a project of audacity and completeness. PLUS is, without exaggeration, revolutionary by design. Whether it will gain acceptance, what the consequences will be, remain in the future. What is certain is that right now professional photography is dying a death of a thousand cuts. Most of us will not survive. PLUS is the best and only chance we have got.
The last words belong to Jeff Sedlik the photographer, whose passion has brought PLUS this far: “It is a photographers’ dream, because it is a photographer’s dream”. “It is for my students and peers, for the future of photography”.
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