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On the PLUS side

25 July 2011 - Tony Sleep

The PLUS Registry sounds as exciting as a phonebook, but promises the largest evolutionary step for the imaging industry since the internet arrived. EPUK moderator Tony Sleep explains.

Nonplussed by PLUS?

The PLUS Registry recently launched a public beta, and is now inviting photographers to sign up.

Was that a yawn?

This is the baby face of potentially the largest cooperative in history. Do we have any choice?

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.

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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.

The VCI, before its time and good for creators, but will PLUS intention to be essential for image users make it any more successful?

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.

PLUS licensing is in use at many agencies. Here you can try out an online licence generator.

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

Currently at Phase 2….

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”.

• Download a PDF of On the PLUS side by Tony Sleep

©Tony Sleep 2011

Want to contact the EPUK Website editor? editor@epuk.org


Any chance of getting this as a downloadable pdf or similar? This is a very interesting piece, but at the same time very complex subject that deserves our time and effort. Just how much is it going to cost us to have our own identity at Plus? If we decide that Digimarc and co. are too expensive to maintain then what happens to our PLUS identity?


Pete J

Comment 1: Pete Jenkins, 25 July 2011, 07:45 pm

How much it will cost depends on ineffable sums at the moment. Add up development costs and operating costs and divide by the number of paying members. The 3 unknowns will only become clearer as it happens. Sedlik won’t be drawn into forecasts or assumptions, as he knows it will set expectations.

PLUS seem to have applied the same determination to avoid becoming hostage to fortune, where corporate partners are concerned.

Of course they will be backing PLUS out of commercial interest, but I imagine they see potential for generating revenue outside PLUS itself. IE Adobe, via software products that support it (CS5 already does, up to a point, with expanded PLUS abilities via plugins available from PLUS & IPTC); Picscout & Digimarc through new opportunities for selling to companies wanting to interdict infringement & track assets.

They, like us, are being asked to invest in their future by supporting PLUS – and they, like us, will only do so out of self-interest.

Comment 2: Tony Sleep, 26 July 2011, 12:55 am

Pete asks
“If we decide that Digimarc and co. are too expensive to maintain then what happens to our PLUS identity?”

The ID is permanent. If you die or just stop paying it remains in the register for anyone to look up.

It’s all explained in Tony’s article.

Comment 3: David Hoffman, 26 July 2011, 09:34 am

Yes, I have read the article, and it is very good, but there remain a few unclear areas. Easily explained no doubt, and I am sure I can be re-assured. If Digimarc (for example) are working through PLUS, then are they going to allow other suppliers providing a similar service to use the same identities as supplied through PLUS? Knowing that my PLUS identity remains viable – on PLUS is fine, but if I have to re identify all my work again and again, because I change supplier then that is not good. I need the reassurance that I have a unique identity that follows me around. Is that the case with this new PLUS identity? I see nothing written either by Tony or PLUS that answers my question at this time.

It will only be considered a trivial point by some, but it is an important one – to me if no one else.

I am paying for my identity – presumable part in least the reason for the subscription, although there will be many other services also on offer.

Is my unique identity truly only mine whilst I subscribe to PLUS? Will I be able to continue to use it to identify my images if I make the decision not to subscribe, but use a different service?

PLUS is exciting, and a very positive move, and as many will know I have been an active supporter for many years – and still am.

I have asked my questions of Jeff Sedlik the PLUS CEO, and I know I will get a reply when he returns from holiday in a few days. I will post here and share his response when I receive it. :-)

Comment 4: Pete Jenkins, 26 July 2011, 12:05 pm

A very interesting article which left me in a more optimistic mood. But I am a little confused about how PLUS fits in with VCI. I understand that there is a historical link between PLUS and VCI. The article above states,’… VCI served as a conceptual stepping-stone to PLUS, and Sedlik acknowledges the debt to VCI’s creator Mike Laye, also a PLUS volunteer.” Does this mean (as implied) that Mike Laye is still actively involved in this concept? I have registered with PLUS but have not ‘upgraded’ to get an ‘identity’. I currently have a VCI identity (which was a no-cost option) and am not sure how this will fit in with PLUS – if at all.

Comment 5: Martin Cameron, 26 July 2011, 12:08 pm

PLUS will honour VCI IDs. The VCI concept was brilliant and timely but it was poorly implemented. Among other things the watermarking software was a failure and both necessary and more expensive than PLUS proposes. VCI has rusted for >10 years and appears to have nothing to offer now but some legacy IDs and a great deal of outdated contact info.

Comment 6: David Hoffman, 26 July 2011, 12:26 pm

The VCI and others are supportive of the PLUS initiative but need answers to our concerns before our representative organisations can encourage PLUS membership. Our concerns can be read by clicking on my name at the bottom.

Comment 7: Gwen Thomas, 26 July 2011, 12:39 pm

Hi Gwen, thank you for posting here and linking to the VCI “Open Document”.

Mike Laye has said that he will not take part in this public discussion and is only engaging with a narrow list of his own supporters so I am hoping that you will be able to shed some light on a puzzle that I have.

The VCI site claims that it is supported by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), the Association of Illustrators (AOI) and by the
Design and Artists Copyright Society (DACS).

DACS say that they have no record of any support for or dealing with VCI and “are investigating”. The AOI said “It’s news to me” and that the VCI wasn’t even on their database. I can find nobody at the NUJ who has discussed VCI or who has seen any reference to “support” other than Andrew Wiard – who is closely associated with VCI and who is a strong advocate for it. As the only VCI supporter contributing to this discussion can you suggest how this is consistent with the support that VCI claims on its website?

Mike Laye has also made several references to his consultations with the “VCI Committee”. Can you say who this consists of? There has been a worrying silence on that question.

Comment 8: David Hoffman, 26 July 2011, 02:20 pm

@Pete J,
I think you’re falling into the trap of thinking the PLUS ID = your identity. If you think that way, it generates concerns that in some way PLUS owns your identity, and restricts your options in the future. But it’s a misunderstanding. It’s just a number that is assigned to you within the PLUS universe. A cloakroom ticket. It only has meaning within the PLUS universe, defined by the data you keep there – your contact details, your registered images and licenses.

All these entities are just individual digital objects. All these objects each have unique ID’s. They are linked together by the relationships between them.

Clients will also have ID’s, agencies will have ID’s, EPUK has an ID, anyone who has any role within the PLUS universe has an ID as an object reference.

There is nothing to stop you using a different cloakroom to store stuff, but you won’t find a PLUS ticket (ID) refers to it.

That is what the Handle system is – a means of creating unique, permanent references that can be arranged, rearranged, changed, without breaking the relationships. New relationships can be created, obsolete ones removed – eg you move all your registered images to a new agent, change one ID.

Handle has been in use for years in academic and scientific contexts for tracking research papers and documentation that evolves over time, in complex situations involving many people. Now PLUS has implemented Handle for photography-related objects, and created standards to enable other registries to do likewise. It’s wrong to think of PLUS as just a registry, it’s a nexus and standards body for developments nobody has yet thought of. Think of it as more like W3C than a website.

Handle is similar to the DNS system, where you don’t have to know where information is stored in order to access it. IE when you click www.epuk.org you don’t have to know which server hosts the site, or which DNS to ask, the global DNS system does all that for you and you get the page in your browser.

Handle does the same for web objects, and any PLUS ID is a Unique Reference Identifier (URI) instead of a URL. You don’t need to know where the information is.

With DNS, there is only one DNS that holds the authoritative information for any given domain – usually your hosting company’s DNS. But DNS is a delegated system; in order for the system as a whole to work, changes are propagated, so the system knows where to look. Handle is different, it is a “flat” system rather than a hierarchy. The first two digits of a code tell Handle which registry contains the ID, so where to look to retrieve the info.

So all PLUS ID’s point to data or relationships defined at PLUS. However there is no lock in, because other Handle-based PLUS-standards-based registries that may emerge will issue ID’s that conform. Because they do, it will be possible to define relationships between objects at different registries. That is just another relationship between Handle objects. It’s like the Chinese say, pull one blade of grass and up comes the whole field – and it doesn’t matter which blade of grass you pull on.

As for registries that aren’t based on Handle, they’re currently of extremely limited value because Handle is the only game in town for object references, in the same way that DNS is the only game in town for domains and URL’s.

This is a level of technical detail I didn’t want to get into, but the salient point is that PLUS is implemented using a system that is designed to encompass many registries serving different purposes. It is only within that global system of interwoven mutable relationships that an ID has meaning, and the meaning is specific to that system in the exact same way that a URL is meaningful to the DNS system, or a cloakroom ticket is easier than hunting through a rack to find your coat.

For people who just want to be found rather than register images, licenses, define relationships with agents, clients etc, a free PLUS a/c does all that is necessary, and doesn’t incur the same level of costs. Even for people who have ID’s, name searches will be common and invaluable, simply because that’s how the world knows each of us, through our names in metadata and bylines.

Comment 9: Tony Sleep, 26 July 2011, 02:36 pm

Whilst I don’t like public disputes David, I have to put the record straight.
Mike Laye actually said “Re the EPUK article: I’m trying hard to avoid getting involved in detailed discussions. As I do keep saying, the VCI -as an already existing registry and not any kind of representative organisation – is not really an appropriate body to do this. Our ‘open document’ was designed to express our views and concerns about the PLUS registry, as we saw it in beta form. It is up to others to decide whether or not they find the views useful or interesting – and then for them to discuss with PLUS whether or not they can recommend the system to their members in its present form” not as you stated – “Mike Laye has said that he will not take part in this public discussion and is only engaging with a narrow list of his own supporters so…”
The VCI site was set up by the organisations as you stated – that was many years ago and key players have since moved on. However, in 2006 the NUJ, AOI, AOP, Pyramide Europe and Mike Laye met with Jeff to discuss VCI involvement with PLUS – the representatives at that meeting are still in situ at their respective organisations, so I’m not sure who you have spoken to. I have a PLUS/VCI joint statement written by Jeff after this meeting if you would like a copy.
VCI still has people signing up, however they have been discouraged recently in the hope that PLUS would emerge as the better solution.
For the record – Mike’s conversations and emails have been with his fellow directors of the VCI – Andrew Wiard for the NUJ and Gwen Thomas for the AOP together with Martin Beckett for Pyramide Europe and Kingsley Marten for the AOP (not directors but interested parties).

Comment 10: Gwen Thomas, 26 July 2011, 04:58 pm

OK. Why would PLUS not wish to make an essential component open source?

Comment 11: Peter Dean, 26 July 2011, 06:08 pm

Try as I might I cannot find a list of PLUS’ corporate partners. Are Google or any other search engines members or partners? Facebook? Twitter? Twitpic?

I’d appreciate a link to a list of partners, if there is one, please. Thank you.

Comment 12: Paul Ellis, 26 July 2011, 07:20 pm

Dear Gwen

Perhaps you can tell us how many photographers and illustrators have VCI codes?

Also how many are actively using the codes?

In goodness knows how many years VCI has made almost no progress. Even some of the early adopters have yet to use their codes ten or more years later.

Its a great idea but if PLUS gets the idea up and running good luck to them.


Comment 13: Bob Croxford, 26 July 2011, 07:32 pm

Hi Tony,

Thanks for taking the time to respond. However, I am not under the misapprehension that “PLUS ID = your identity”. I clearly have not made my concern clear, for which I apologise.

I understand most if not all of what you have said, but sadly it does not address my actual concern which is simple.

I put my PLUS id on all my work, in the same way that Andrew says he has put his VCI id on all his work – the id being a simple code.

By working with PLUS as I understand it (and my understanding may well be flawed) my Plus ID will be digitally attached to each of my images presumably courtesy of Digimarc, and I will pay an amount for this service. So at any time my image can be identified to me via the indelible digital ID.

If god forbid I were to tire of Digimarc (or whoever is providing this service)would I be able to continue using the same digital ID with the new provider (should I choose one), or will I have to take up a new id with my new provider?

My worry then is that I will have to ‘re-badge’ as it were all my images, not just the future ones with my new id.

So does the PLUS provided Digital ID travel with me to wherever I choose to go, or can it only be truly utilised with those providing services through PLUS?

Am I buying into the PLUS brand in the same way that I have bought into Canon, unable to shift to another camera maker because the cost of the change would be too costly?

Does that make more sense?

Paul Ellis. I found this on the PLUS website http://www.useplus.com/aboutplus/support.asp which I think has that list of corporate members.

Dave Hoffman. I can assure you that the NUJ supports the VCI, and its support is current and active. This issue is being discussed by the Unions Freelance Industrial Council and was brought to the table by the Freelance Organiser John Toner.

Pete J

Comment 14: Pete Jenkins, 26 July 2011, 07:38 pm

I would much rather we get away from what appears to be a pointless squabble over whether VCI is good or bad, current or defunct, as this takes us away from the actual issue at hand which is PLUS.

Potentially we have a wonderful opportunity here, and we must not get sidetracked by non-issues.

If questions have been raised, then let us look at answering them, and stop bickering – please.

Pete J

Comment 15: Pete Jenkins, 26 July 2011, 07:42 pm

@Peter Dean
“Open source” supposes that there is a hidden derivation. There isn’t a source, nothing is hidden.

It’s like demanding open source of the alphabet, which is just a standard set of squiggles that conveys nothing until you arrange things into relationships like words or novels. The value of the alphabet is that it is a standard that we all accept because it’s jolly useful.

There is nothing to stop anyone else inventing other alphabets, and they have.

So the format of an ID number is, as I mentioned in the article, in a disclosed format RR-XX-XXX, where RR indicates which registry contains the data, and XX-XXX points to a specific data record. This format is what was agreed upon after consultation with ID experts, and, I believe, VCI was party to the agreement. Which makes the kerfuffle now even more perplexing.

In other words, the number format is a disclosed, public standard for data objects – just as website URL’s are www.domain.tld/resource path

There is nothing to stop some other registry scheme using a wildly different format, just as there is nothing to stop someone using a web address of WTF123567OHMYGOD.nigel – it just won’t be usable by the DNS system built to standards that require www.domain.tld

If someone makes a registry that uses a different standard than PLUS, PLUS cannot guarantee forward compatibility with something someone might do. It’s entirely out their hands. PLUS ID’s won’t work as phone numbers or as ATM pins, for the same reason – different standards are in play there.

Comment 16: Tony Sleep, 26 July 2011, 08:26 pm

Just an admin note for anyone who posts a comment, bookmarks the page, then later uses the bookmark to return to comments and thinks they have been closed. They haven’t! It’s just a quirk of the system that the URL you bookmarked shows the page you get after submitting a comment. Use http://www.epuk.org/Opinion/985/on-the-plus-side?pg=5 to get back here and all is well.

Comment 17: Tony Sleep, 26 July 2011, 10:48 pm

K Pete, let’s try again:)

“I put my PLUS id on all my work, in the same way that Andrew says he has put his VCI id on all his work – the id being a simple code.”

You can use an ID in bylines, in metadata, embedded as a visible or invisible watermark, on contracts, letterheads, invoices, websites – anywhere it might be useful. You aren’t obliged to do any of it, just what you feel useful and effective. It is just an alias for and pointer to your contact info at PLUS, that you’d use in exactly the same way that you now use your name. And whether someone looks you up by name or ID, they’d be able to find you.

One difference between ID and your name is that an ID code is unique. Names might take more searching for at PLUS, eg the Tony Sleep who lives in West London is me, rather than the namesake who lives in the Midlands. But if someone wants to find you, they should be able to.

The essential aspect of ID’s is that they capable of incorporation into URL’s as Handle URI’s, in XML etc. and in those formats are machine-readable, capable of being dealt with programmatically and processed into new relationships with other objects (ID’s) at the PLUS registry. These could be clients, agents, license agreements etc.

If you see that level of PLUS use as useful and valuable, you need an ID and will need to pay toward the costs of providing that much more complex environment.

“By working with PLUS as I understand it (and my understanding may well be flawed) my Plus ID will be digitally attached to each of my images presumably courtesy of Digimarc, and I will pay an amount for this service. So at any time my image can be identified to me via the indelible digital ID”.

There’s no obligation to use Digimarc to embed PLUS codes. You can rely on metadata or on PLUS image matching (supplied by Picscout). If you prefer to use some other steganographic method, you are free to do so; the only significance of Digimarc is that lots of image users are able to read it c/o Photoshop, and PLUS will be able to recognise Digimarc embedded codes as part of image matching. But it’s optional. PLUS should be able to match with any image it knows about (ie is registered) without Digimarc or metadata containing codes, names or anything at all, just from the naked image itself.

“If god forbid I were to tire of Digimarc (or whoever is providing this service)would I be able to continue using the same digital ID with the new provider (should I choose one), or will I have to take up a new id with my new provider?”

Your PLUS ID is perpetual once created, it remains valid for as long as you ensure your info is valid at PLUS. Obviously if you stop paying the costs you aren’t going to be able to register new images nor licenses at PLUS, but your personal ID can continue to be used in IPTC and bylines until and after you drop dead.

“My worry then is that I will have to ‘re-badge’ as it were all my images, not just the future ones with my new id”.

Since the PLUS record remains active indefinitely, no this is not necessary at all. Even if you stop paying or die, PLUS continues to point to your last-updated contact details, or those of your heirs if you recorded them.

“So does the PLUS provided Digital ID travel with me to wherever I choose to go, or can it only be truly utilised with those providing services through PLUS?”

It doesn’t need to travel since it remains effective indefinitely. You never stop being 00-AA-123 at PLUS. Remember than an ID is just an object, and like any object it is capable of relationships with other objects that conform to PLUS standards. If you begin using some other registry than PLUS, so long as it uses PLUS standards, your new ID and old ID will be aliases for the same underlying data, ie different paths to the same thing, you. I don’t know how this will be implemented, whether two ID’s at different registries will be linked, or whether one will become a pointer to the other. The latter would seem tidier.

That PLUS intends to support VCI Creator codes illustrates that compatibility is a choice of the registry you move TO, not away FROM. Those asking for forward compatibility with systems yet to be invented are baying at the moon. There is no such concept in IT nor nature, evolution just doesn’t work like that. All you can do is try not to build in obsolescence and inflexibility : fitness for survival. That is a good part of why PLUS has taken so long.

“Am I buying into the PLUS brand in the same way that I have bought into Canon, unable to shift to another camera maker because the cost of the change would be too costly?”

The point of PLUS standards is that all conforming registries will use the same standards. If that makes them the Canon system, where is the Nikon system, or Leica system? They don’t exist except as hypothetical constructs. PLUS is one of a kind and likely to remain so.

One of the cunning aspects of PLUS is that its cooperative model simply distributes costs between coop members, ie users, us. It is a non-profit model. That makes it extremely difficult for some commercial operator to set up a competitor, because they will be obliged to add profit margin to costs and charge accordingly, which is a business proposition that invites failure and ruin. The reason is quite simple, diverse competing registries using altogether different standards will be incapable of interoperating, and turn the whole registry concept into a futile shambles. Exactly as we need just one DNS system for resolving web objects, we need one registry system for resolving photographic data objects.

This is a recipe for dominance for functional reasons, but without the customary exploitation since PLUS costs us only what it costs to run. And PLUS doesn’t intend to be the only registry, only that other registries use its standards and ensure interoperation. Those other registries will likely be commercial, with compelling additional or specialist features unavailable at PLUS, or more likely they will be in-house subsidiaries of large companies who don’t want to outsource their asset management.

An awful lot of PLUS ideas strike me as “offers you cannot refuse”. Not because you don’t have any choice, and not because your racehorse might suffer sudden height loss, but because, actually, it’d be daft to do it any other way.

Comment 18: Tony Sleep, 27 July 2011, 02:09 am

Thanks Tony for your explanation and for answering my question – much appreciated.

Now where is the PLUS link that takes me to where all this manna from heaven is laid out for all to see? :-)

Comment 19: Pete Jenkins, 27 July 2011, 08:25 am


Just seen this.

It is an audio description of the PLUS idea.

Now, what I would like is this written down as a pdf :-)

Pete J

Comment 20: Pete Jenkins, 27 July 2011, 09:28 am

Bob, please don’t fall into the trap that it’s the VCI v PLUS. It’s not, we have been working with PLUS since 2006 on developing their code.

Comment 21: Gwen Thomas, 27 July 2011, 12:06 pm

OK Here is the online link I have been looking for:


I see no reason not to sign up for the online Beta testing. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. If during the testing we find glitches and difficulties then all the better as these can then be addressed and fixed.

Pete J

Comment 22: Pete Jenkins, 27 July 2011, 12:10 pm

@ Pete J –

You say: “ http://plus.useplus.org/PLUSnews/2/PLUS_Registry.htm

I see no reason not to sign up for the online Beta “

- Where it tells you:

“ By registering with PLUS, each rights holder obtains a “PLUS-ID” uniquely identifying that individual or company throughout the global marketplace.”

Actually, no you don’t. Now what you get after registering is a prompt to “upgrade”:

Upgrade to Supporting Membership (and get a PLUS Member ID)
The PLUS Registry operates on a non-profit co-op model, funded by optional contributions from users like you, who upgrade to Supporting Membership to receive a unique PLUS Member ID and to access enhanced features such as registration of images and licenses. More about Supporting Membership.”

And if you then pay, after discount, $75 you finally get your PLUS ID. No payment – no ID.

Comment 23: Andrew Wiard, 27 July 2011, 04:45 pm

We do not need to discuss in detail how the technology works, handles, nexus’s and all the rest, however important that is. The question here is  not how we use the technology to exercise our rights, but our right to use the technology. Whether or not numbers are dumb is irrelevant here. We most certainly are not. We are talking about rights. Clearly PLUS has the rights in its own technology and systems, which we must pay for if we choose to use PLUS to exercise ours. 

But the VCI has always insisted that we creators must have the right to our own creator ID ( even if we receive that from PLUS as a PLUS ID ). We have insisted that this ID should be to a format that is an open standard ( and I’m more than willing to accept the way PLUS had upgraded the standard to which the VCI introduced them ).

This may be not be a problem. It shouldn’t be. However when registries and IDs were first developed the two main software companies ( then ) fought a bitter patent war in the States that left us in no doubt about how important open standards would be to creators in the future.

One of those companies now provides services to PLUS. So we have every right to seek to ensure that whatever the past, our creator IDs today will definitely be ours, and conform to an open universal standard, whether pointing to a registry of contact details inside  PLUS, or outside ( such as the VCI ), whether connecting to the range of services provided by PLUS, or alternative service providers.

PLUS will have protected its own intellectual property rights. Rightly so.  We do not know how far they extend. The VCI has a number of questions at the heart of which is the necessary assurance that the PLUS ID ( = creator ID ) format is not protected by patent or in any other way that prevents its unrestricted use by the creator. These are essential questions. They require a clear answer. It may very well be exactly the answer we want to hear. But we do need to hear it.

Comment 24: Andrew Wiard, 27 July 2011, 04:58 pm


From an email exchange between myself and Jeff Sedlik on 18 July.
Does that clear things up?

Comment 25: Tony Sleep, 27 July 2011, 07:02 pm

@Andrew Wiard
Gwen mentioned above that you are a director of VCI Ltd. Is that the case? Your legal obligation to do your best for that company would appear to be a serious conflict. Have I missed your declaration of interest?

Comment 26: David Hoffman, 28 July 2011, 10:03 am

Andrew Wiard,

Your supposedly disinterested and principled posts above would carry a lot more weight if you had disclosed that you are a Company Director of VCI Ltd, which you have been attempting to promote over PLUS.

Oh no, wait, they wouldn’t, because then people would have understood where your real interests lie.

Comment 27: Jeremy Nicholl, 28 July 2011, 06:26 pm


This bickering over PLUS v VCI is unhelpful and unnecessary, and I thought it was something we were going to leave behind?

I have huge respect for both VCI and PLUS and the people involved with both organisations.

To even suggest that Andrew Wiard is not principled is plain daft, as it would be if anyone were to suggest the same thing of Jeff Sedlik.

Both men deserve respect, their records speak for themselves.

Let us by all means ask pertinent, relevant, questions, but can we please leave the name calling and childish behavior away from these public discussions?

Thanking you in advance

Pete J

Comment 28: Pete Jenkins, 28 July 2011, 07:38 pm

It was certainly my hope and intention that the article would generate a discussion about PLUS rather than anything else.

The question of charging is one I explored a lot with Jeff Sedlik, not especially out of conviction, but because I can see it choking takeup among photographers who really can’t afford gambles.

The inescapable fact that PLUS is a coop means it must divide its costs between its paying members. That means “free” accounts add to those costs, and those who pay end up supporting those who do not.

Free accounts are a drag on PLUS: there is no loss-leader deal available in a non-profit co-op, no way to upsell and get back revenue elsewhere. There is no selling, no elsewhere.

The clamour for “free” now reminds me of all those “clients” who demand free photos in the belief that someone else will pay. There is no vast corporate stash behind PLUS, it is just ourselves.

Unless photographers make an individual decision to participate in this collective self-help experiment and pay, it isn’t going to happen. That means the whole photography ecosystem continues to rot as it is now. Everybody just has to make up their own minds.

Comment 29: Tony Sleep, 29 July 2011, 02:27 am

Maybe we can move the discussion forward if we begin to examine what the benefits of PLUS could be? If all image data is in one secure placed and accessible by anyone you want to see it then a great deal could be achieved. Picture researchers “agencies” (whatever they are) photographers self marketing all come together in a single global market where rights can be viewed to “manage” our IP. Overnight it becomes more desirable to manage things rather than just sell for the cheapest rate. Once the global community can see it makes profitable sense to manage rather than discount it changes the game not back to where we were but to a much better place. If PLUS can do that then why argue? I understand why some have concerns but i should imagine many who may have been interested in what PLUS could do are lost in the bickering and can’t see why this is important. Can PLUS deliver this? Or not?
Pete Dean

Comment 30: Peter Dean, 29 July 2011, 08:08 am


Exactly. PLUS is about rehabilitating a broken market where predation and bad behaviour have become expedient and normal.

Simply rendering photographers findable is one element in that bigger picture. To change the way the image business as a whole operates, you (we, that is) have to offer all participants better ways of doing things that they’d be mad to refuse. Hence the attention paid to the needs of image buyers, users and sellers. Only if they change their behaviour will creators benefit. And the only thing that will persuade anyone into the PLUSiverse is self-interest, us included.

We have to stop thinking of PLUS as all about defending photographers’ rights. It can’t be. We have been fighting that battle for 15 years and losing. It doesn’t work, we’re outnumbered self-interested individuals competing against each other. With rare exceptions, we are easy to divide and rule.

Rather than persist with a model where it’s easiest to grab or steal creators’ rights, PLUS redefines the model to one where rights are absolutely central, persistent, easy to trade, track, and enforce.

There are many reasons why PLUS might fail. Personally I don’t want to be one of them.

Comment 31: Tony Sleep, 29 July 2011, 02:09 pm

I’ve made an attempt at a Really Simple and short explanation of PLUS from a photographer’s point of view at

Comment 32: David Hoffman, 4 August 2011, 10:15 am

your_ip_is_blacklisted_by sbl.spamhaus.org

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