Social Media Policies Should Not Determine Orphaned Works

Orphaned Works + Social Media = Bad News

Some social media sites are effectively separating you from your creative works.

The IPTC has released its findings from a research project that aimed to discover which social media sites stripped away embedded metadata from uploaded images. Before I get into why this is such an important topic, let me offer a brief primer for those still wondering what I’m talking about.

Metadata values, such as copyright notices, author or artists names, and other such information can be embedded into files so that no matter where the file goes, so goes the metadata. This is important because once an image leaves the hands of its rightful owner, it can be difficult for others to determine who that owner is, for the purposes of licensing, credits, use restrictions, etc. When proper metadata has been embedded into an image (or other work), the owner has made a good faith attempt at claiming copyright and also communicating that copyright. This is in everyone’s best interests because copyright violations serve no one.

The problem comes from a “perfect storm” of having no metadata inside an image and having governments decide through so-called “orphaned works” legislation that if the rightful owner of a work cannot be determined through some reasonable manner (that I’ve yet to see described), the work is effectively up for grabs to whomever would like to use it. In other words, it holds no copyright. This makes sense for works that are, say, 50 or more years old. But there’s no reason today that legitimately copyrighted materials should be subjected to the same treatment.

And whether you agree or not with that premise, imagine the surprise of millions of social media contributors the world over when they find that works they shared via social media (but never meant to give away ownership of) have now effectively entered the public domain because—whoops!—Facebook, Twitter or some other site stripped away the embedded copyright notice. This is the basis for the IPTC’s report. This practice is happening today and if it doesn’t stop, copyright owners are going to stop sharing their works, or risk losing ownership over those works.

What’s next? A call to return to downloading/stealing music and movies because, you know, someone stripped away the embedded metadata and credits so you have absolutely no idea to whom the works belong? Perhaps these legislators have found that it takes too long to gussy up their PowerPoints with pretty images they can use legally. “Hey Senator: Do we have any idea who owns this image?” “Nope, we sure don’t.” “Perfect. That’s all I needed to hear.”

Not being one to buy into too many conspiracy theories, I’m not suggesting that anyone is trying to get away with something here. I think it’s more likely that software engineers don’t lunch with legislators, so neither saw this freight train coming. Nonetheless, here comes the train.

What can you do to help?
I don’t see any coordinated calls to action associated with this report, so I can’t really say what we’re supposed to do. I would say, though, that a good first step is to share across your social networks the content you find related to this topic. After all, we know that social media is, perhaps, the one place legislators and social media developers might actually find one another.



  1. David:

    Nice overview on the subject. Perhaps it wasn’t obvious enough, but this survey was done by the IPTC as part of a larger project. You may have missed that the results were posted to the “Embedded Metadata Manifesto” website which has a five point manifesto, of which point four is “Copyright management information metadata must never be removed from the files.”

    As you point out, many of the users of social media are not even aware if their chosen network preserves or “strips” the ownership information. So the primary objective of this survey is to make people aware of this practice.

    Once they are aware, there are several paths they could take. They could use the information to check and see if their choice of social media network does protect their work. If if does, great. If it doesn’t they can either choose another that does, or make their current choice aware that they are not happy with what is being done and attempt to get to make the appropriate changes to their service. For those networks which provide a “free” service only, there may be no incentive (unless droves of their users leave — like the Instagram incident this spring). For those using services that do charge a fee, there may be more skin in the game.

    My hope is that this will open a conversation with the owners of these various social media networks about why they are removing this information; as the results really don’t serve any useful purpose.

    Thanks for helping to spread the word.


  2. Or they could update the Millennium Digital Act to mandate that metadata not be stripped out. If host companies, search engines and social media sites were held responsible, it would be done within a week. Also, search engine sites have made it even easier to grab an image without the user ever going to the actual website and on one search enging “May be subject to copyright” is barely noticeably. Also also think that there has been an active lobbying effort by search engines to get an Orpan Works bill passed based on my participation opposing tje Shawn Bentley Orphan Works Act of 2008. I also think that artists should have a way of locking the metadata.

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