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Embed CC licenses into JPGs?

Jeff Goldenson at Harvard Law Library’s Digital Lab (Disclosure: I’ve just started consulting there) has been thinking about the benefits and pitfalls of embedding metadata into JPG images. That happens already, and some of it can be quite useful, although some can be a little creepy.

He and I were talking and began to wonder if there’d be utility in embedding Creative Commons license info into JPGs. So, let’s say you post a snapshot and you want to make it available under a Creative Commons license that allows people to reuse it so long as they attribute it to you and agree to let others reuse it under the same license. That information — including your preferred attribution and a link to the page you want it linked to — would be hidden within the JPG file.

Why bother? Because it would mean that the license info travels with the image. Otherwise, the chain of licenses and attributions can too easily be lost as B republishes a snap posted by A, and C republishes B, etc. The game of License Gossip just about ensures the chain of license info will not be unbroken.

At least as important, if this metadata were inserted in a standardized form, applications could begin using it, making the CC license both more useful and more visible, thus encouraging more people to use it. For example, someone could write a Firefox extension that would insert under any CC’ed image a line such as: “Share this image. Just be sure to include this attribution: (cc) [name] [license],” etc.

For this idea to have any effect, someone (Creative Commons?) would have to promulgate the standardized format for the embedded info, someone would have to write a metadata editor/inserter, and apps would have to add features take advantage of it. It’d help, for example, if Flickr were to let us set a preference for embedding the metadata into any photo we post there under a CC license.

Down sides? Well, the idea is unlikely to take off. And I suppose there’s a chance that the Big Content industry would start to insert their copyright info using the same mechanism, and thus would have something like a “broadcast flag” with which they could try to beat up browser makers and others who make create apps that display images: “Whenever your app displays images with copyright metadata, we insist you turn off the Copy entry on the context menu.” (IANAL, but I believe such a demand would have no legal basis, but since when does that have anything to do with it?)

Care to punch holes in this idea? Point to people who have already done it?

5 Responses to “Embed CC licenses into JPGs?”

  1. The JPEG format makes it very easy to put plaintext information into the header of a file as a comment – there’s a comment field that can be an arbitrary length: . You coiuld encode information as hex, or just send it in plaintext, which would mean a knowledgeable user could simply open an image with a text editor and look for CC in the header, if she chose.

    I built a little piece of alpha software some years back that rewrote images served by an apache webserver to include data in the comments field of JPEGs. My theory was that webservers could volunteer to propogate the addresses of open proxy servers. Knowledgeable users would open JPEG files and look for fresh, unblocked proxies (they’d have the timestamp the site was last tested and found to be open as well as the IP). My theory was that it would be a great way of propogating these addresses while allowing a user to deny she knew anything about them, since no special software would be involved to detect them. (Turns out that most repressive regimes don’t really care that you’re using circumvention software – it’s probably not a problem worth solving this way…)

    I agree – for it to be useful, you’d need it supported by flickr and other tools. But it’s the sort of thing that’s very easy to support within existing formats – perhaps we should ask CC to push Flickr and some other key early adopters to pick it up?

  2. For what it’s worth, as I was reading over this, I had the thought of dogs (pets) roaming. With .jpgs out there in the wild, it’s like we let them outside without their collars.

    More practically speaking, seems the opportunity lies in changing “a knowledgeable user could” to “your grandma could” add or access metadata in header. So beyond general web acceptance, a dead-simple authoring tool/practice needs to exist unobtrusively in people’s workflow.

  3. is what you’re discussing, more or less (though I agree it is terribly described on that page.)

  4. There’s also liblicense that the Creative Commons has created as a software tool for embedding license information in file formats, but, as I understand it, it’s still relatively new and has yet to be adopted widely.

    Aside from embedding the metadata, you’d need more programs to support reading that metadata too, which could take a while considering the types of applications people use for photos… (e.g. not holding my breath for iPhoto).

    Still, I think it’s the right direction.

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