73 Visual Creators Index
May 7, 1997
VISUAL CREATORS INDEX
The Association of Photographers in the United Kingdom has established the Visual
Creators' Index (VCI) which is a worldwide system of photographer identifiers.
Once assigned a unique identifier, it is the photographer's forever, much like a social
security number. It can be used to invisibly watermark all of his or her digital
images for the purpose of tracking.
Potential users who find a digital file of the photographer's image, or a printed piece
that was made from a digital file, can use the number to easily locate the
photographer. If the photographer's contact information changes it can be adjusted at
any time in the main database and the identifier still enables the photographer to be
Currently there are two companies -- Digimarc and
Hightower FBI -- that produce software that can be used for this watermarking. The
Digimarc software is a built in plug-in to Photoshop 4. Hightower's software is a
plug-in that can be added to Photoshop 4 and is used heavily in Europe.
It is likely that other companies will offer competitive services in the future.
Currently, Digimarc does not support the VCI number mentioned in this story. Their ID
number is a six digit number with no characters or dashes. Digimarc has indicated that
they might be willing to modify their software to accept such numbers depending on
According to Mike Laye of the Digital Imaging Group of the AoP, "We believe that any
such index to visual creator should be a resource run by and for the benefit of the
creators, on a not-for-profit basis, and as a world-wide standard."
Critical aspects of such an identifier code are:
oe Once a photographer is assigned a number it remains that photographer's forever.
It can never be re-assigned.
oe Anyone, anywhere in the world, who finds an image with a VCI number can easily
locate contact information for its owner.
oe Various national organizations, interest groups or corporations can maintain
separate databases, all linked through an Internet hookup.
oe The basic identifier is a minimum standard. It should be the first thing
encountered in any string of information. (In some cases photographers will want to
embed more details such as an image or project number. It should be remembered that
the shorter strings of identifying characters have a much greater chance of being found
in printed pieces or in small digital files than long strings of information.)
oe If the owner dies, or ceases to be a member of any organization managing the
database, the last information provided remains in the database. (A provision needs to
be made whereby an inactive members of the managing organization can pay a fee to
update their information.)
oe There needs to be one central URL on the net that everyone goes to when they want
oe If an annual fee is required to maintain the database, it needs to be modest.
It is critical to have an international system for assigning photographer identifiers
so two photographers won't come up with the same identifier and so users in one country
can easily find contact information for a photographer or agency in another country.
The format for a basic VCI number is as follows:
This global scheme allows for 6,700,000 visual creators world-wide and is capable of
being extended well into the future.
The first two numbers identify a country (UK is 44) or in the case of the U.S., one of
the several associations that might be managing a database. (PACA, PPA, ASMP, NPPA and
others will probably eventually be managing databases.)
The (AA-00) part of the identifier would identify an individual photographer within
How Tracking Works
VCI is currently being hosted on the by Highwater at
. However, in the near future their URL
will be changed to .
All photographers with the prefix "44" are currently listed at this location.
Different sites with different prefixes will be automatically linked to this site
through the Internet.
As I see it, one problem for many organizations will be the cost of maintaining those
user search engines on-line during the initial years when there are relatively few
requests. As requests increase, users will naturally want to put the search engine on
line to relieve the burden of manual checking, but that may not be practical for
The VCI system can still be very effective if some organizations are on-line and others
want to operate by servicing e-mail requests.
For example, if someone clicks on the prefix for PACA, rather than getting an on-line
database with every agency's photographers, they might get an e-mail form. This form
would ask for the full set of information that the requestor had found using Digimarc,
Highwater FBI, or some other software. It would also ask for the requestors name,
company, address, phone, fax and e-mail address. It might have a line for the degree
of urgency of the request. The e-mail is then sent to the PACA office.
PACA has a list of the block of numbers that have been assigned certain agencies. They
know that EA to EM has been assigned to The Image Works and GR to GZ has been assigned
Sharpshooters. The PACA office sends off an e-mail or fax to the proper agency. They
don't need to maintain a list of photographers. The agency can determine from their
list the photographer and the specific images. The agency then contacts the original
requestor to negotiate.
Some of the larger agencies like TSW, TIB, FPG or The Stock Market might want to have a
direct on-line hookup rather than go through PACA, even though they are members. Many
smaller agencies would probably find the direct on-line impractical.
With e-mail the requestor doesn't get immediate on-line gratification. It may take a
day or so for the agency to get back to them, but in a relatively short period of time
they can locate the image owner and negotiate rights.
Large photographer associations like PPA could easily add a field to their membership
database and assign each member a unique creator code from their block of assigned
numbers. They can print that number on membership renewal forms or other literature
mailed to the members. The cost of this re-programming would be minimal.
Then, initially, all they have to do is handle the e-mails when they come in. They can
send a fax or e-mail to the photographer with the information. As the volume of
requests increase, they can work out a system for charging individuals a small service
fee when their images are requested. This way members who don't mark their images will
not be required to support this service. Photographers who mark their images with the
hope of tracking more uses should be happy to pay a small fee in order to get a chance
to negotiate a sale.
When the volume of traffic becomes large enough they go to the trouble of putting the
database on-line 24 hours a day.