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January 7, 2010

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?