The Importance of Being Attributed

A few weeks ago, the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 received Royal Assent. Among its rag-bag of measures are some dealing with the vexed issue of orphan works (or hostage works as they should really be called.)

To cut a long story short, one provision allows works to be declared orphans if, after a "diligent search", the owners cannot be found. Money would be paid by the user, and held by an independent body in case the owner turns up at some point. It's a bit cumbrous, but at least it might finally break the logjam that has built up around millions of works that cannot be used because still in copyright, but without any clear owners that might give permission for them to be licensed.

However, there is one particular group who are unhappy about these plans. Photographers fear that their works may be orphaned because crucial information that they contain – the metadata – is sometimes stripped out. They are worried that if their photos are available with little or no metadata, publishers will be able to claim that they couldn't find the creators, and so turn any of those images into orphans.

I've written elsewhere why that's not the case, but here I want to concentrate on the issue of metadata. Even though I think the photographers are wrong about the effects of the new Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act, I do agree with them that metadata is important. And the reason for that is that it provides a way for attribution to be passed along with the photo. In fact, this is true more generally: all digital works could come with metadata that gives details of who created them, and under what licence they are released.

As I wrote in a previous article:

Currently, there is no easy way to embed that kind of metadata, nor to work with it. This makes the creation of tools that allow such metadata to be embedded in files an important task that needs tackling if the online reputational system is to be bolstered.

I produced that piece in support of an idea from Jonas Öberg, who wanted to create just such a system as part of a Shuttleworth Fellowship that he was applying for. Having gained that Fellowship, he is now moving on to implementing the idea, and has turned to Kickstarter to raise some funds to help him do that:

We believe that all creators deserve to get credit for the works they publish. Our goal is to make it easy and automatic to attribute a digital work, for instance when it is used in popular web and blog platforms such as Wordpress and Drupal. We want to do this by persistently associate attribution (and licensing) information with the digital work itself. This will ensure that, even when a work is shared, information of who created it remains.

We want to implement a small number of prototypes of this technology to show what could be done. We want to go beyond existing efforts such as Open Attribute and focus on the persistent link between a work and its creator, ensuring that even if someone forgets to credit a work, the creator can still be identified through this technology.

Unfortunately, many existing web platforms strip information about the creator from images when you upload a work. The first step in our work is therefore to raise awareness of the need for this technology, and to show in practice how easy it would be to credit the creator if this technology was in place! We hope to influence web platform owners, as well as encourage developers and creators to join us in creating technology for the future.

At the time of writing, Öberg's project has received $1,330 of the $25,000 it is seeking. The Kickstarter page spells out how that will be spent, if achieved. Other than writing the piece referred to above, I have no connection with this project, but its aims seem laudable. Certainly, I think that attribution will prove to be key element of many new business models for both artists and companies.

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