Webmasters Criticize PicScout Practices

Posted on 9/27/2007 by Julia Dudnik Stern | Printable Version | Comments (1)

Getty Images, Corbis and a number of other agencies rely on PicScout to monitor online use of their images. In an environment where infringement is rampant, PicScout helps copyright owners identify unauthorized image use and recoup lost revenues. While such objectives are critical to maintaining a successful stock-licensing business, PicScout's monitoring practices are becoming increasingly questioned by Webmasters.

Can it be considered hacking?

Earlier this week, William Faulkner, a U.K.-based IT professional and Webmaster with over 20 years of experience, was reviewing his site's logs and came across what appeared to be dubious activity: An unidentified crawler bot performed a number of site sweeps. All Webmasters are cautious of data-mining and extraction software that scours sites for personal information or email addresses used for unsolicited marketing. Faulkner investigated and documented the incident in his blog.

He discovered the bot belonged to PicScout, which uses this proprietary crawling technology to identify infringing images. Faulkner is in favor of copyright enforcement; he has purchased a number of stock-image licenses, mainly from iStockphoto, and thinks that use of unlicensed images should be stopped. However, he questions how PicScout bot conducts its business.

Along with a number of other Webmasters, Faulkner characterizes the bot's activity as hacking. Unlike transparent search-engine crawlers that index sites' content, the PicScout bot apparently attempts to bypass individual sites' security measures, ignores industry-standard Robots Exclusion Protocols and metatags, uses a very high amount of bandwidth and does not identify itself or its purpose.

PicScout spokesperson Karen Shemesh would not comment on these issues. Instead, she offered: "Photographers, who work very hard to produce and provide such high end imagery, are entitled to monitor their visual assets and stay informed of their usage at all times. One should wonder about anyone who is questioning that right."

How does it affect site owners?

PicScout's crawlers may pose security concerns and have additional cost and technical implications. Granted, an unidentified crawler bot trying to access a secure or excluded area of a Web site does not raise the same civil-rights concerns. These types of practices have yet to be regulated, and it is almost entirely up to individual Webmasters to protect their domains from unwanted intrusion.

Second is the issue of cost. Site owners, particularly those who own high-traffic properties, pay for bandwidth, ensuring their sites can receive all their visitors without crashing or experiencing other technical difficulties. Faulkner's experience with the PicScout bot suggests the technology uses a lot of bandwidth. Apart from consuming someone else's resources, the bot's intrusion can potentially cause technical difficulties. There may not be enough bandwidth available to handle a site's normal operations.

Not everyone agrees with Faulkner.

On another blog, an anonymous photographer wrote, "This type of discussion tends to get philosophical for those who are not making a living from licensing their art, but I think you have really chosen the wrong side of the copyright battle."

The same photographer pointed out that transparent search-engine bots often facilitate copyright infringement, while PicScout educates copyright violators and teaches them a lesson. This point of view is supported by a considerable number of copyright-infringement lawsuits that name Google as a defendant. In contrast, PicScout has helped a number of stock-licensing businesses generate revenue from infringements, with Masterfile offering the most recent example.

What's next?

Faulkner is part of a still-small coalition of Webmasters who advocate a boycott of Getty Images, Corbis, iStockphoto and all other PicScout clients, as well as blocking PicScout's IP address and its bots. The following warning has started to appear on sites: "The use of data-mining/extraction software or bots by any company that is not approved by the site owner is strictly forbidden. In particular, the use of PicScout will be treated as hacking."

Stock-industry veteran Paul Melcher recently offered his perspective on PicScout and its business model. Among other observations, Melcher pointed out that the possibility of mass blocking of the PicScout bot is not to be ignored. "The Web is viral by nature. If these Webmasters become successful in their campaign, soon it will be impossible for PicScout to monitor usage," he predicted.

Copyright © 2007 Julia Dudnik Stern. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz


  • Alan Bailey Posted Sep 28, 2007
    I like PicScout, but Karen Shemesh needs a crash course in PR. Entirely wrong approach.

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