Do Search Engines Expedite the Theft of Digital Images?


Mar 11, 2001
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September 6, 2001
Do Search Engines Expedite the Theft of Digital Images?


In the last few years search engines have started to scan the Web not only for text but for pictures too. Today, with a few keywords, anyone on the Web can gain access to a trove of images, from cartoons and graphics to personal photographs and celebrity shots. So if you are one of the few Americans who have not yet passed judgment on Jennifer Lopez's risqué dress from the 2000 Grammy Awards, you now have your chance.

But to make such gawking possible, search engines are taking a controversial step. Their technology, which uses Web searching tools called spiders, now makes copies of every image they come across, whether the search engines have permission to do so or not. Those images, many of which are reduced to thumbnail size, are then displayed in the search engine's results listings, again without explicit approval from the artists who created the images in the first place.

Leslie A. Kelly, a photographer in Huntington Beach, Calif., who maintains Web sites featuring his work, calls this blatant theft. To prove his point, he filed a lawsuit two years ago accusing, one of the earliest image- search engines, of copyright infringement.

"They take the work of artists, photographers and others and then use them for their own commercial benefit," Mr. Kelly said.

A federal judge ruled in's favor in late 1999. On Monday in Pasadena, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit will hear oral arguments in an appeal of that decision. Mr. Kelly — and several artists' associations that have sided with him — want the court to consider the harm that may come to them if search engines are allowed to copy and distribute their work without permission.

Think Napster, they say. The search engines, they argue, are enabling computer users to pilfer online art, since they can use the search sites to view and download images without setting foot on the artists' sites. The search engine essentially becomes a "clip-art service," Mr. Kelly says, that gives artists no credit and cheats them of revenue.

Search companies and Internet-based artists are watching closely. So are lawyers, since the dispute is yet another twist in the debate over how copyright laws should be applied on the Internet.

The case even has relevance for anyone who has copied an image from a Web site through no more effort than a right-mouse click.

Many people assume that anything on the Web is free for the taking. Not so, according to copyright experts. Almost any creative work that is posted on the Web is protected by copyright, even if it has not been registered with the copyright office. The exceptions are works for which copyrights have expired (like "Huckleberry Finn" or turn-of-the-century recordings) and works declared to be in the public domain by their creators.

But just because something is copyrighted does not mean it cannot be lawfully copied. So the real question is, are there images — or any other works for that matter — that can be legally copied without asking permission?

The answer, it turns out, varies depending on what the copy will be used for and who is doing the copying. Here is where the concept of "fair use" comes in, which holds that unauthorized copying is permissible if it is for educational use, for scholarship or to provide commentary.

Most lawyers, for example, agree that an individual is allowed to copy and post a photograph on a Web site if it accompanies a critical review of the photograph. But people who post unauthorized images on their Web sites simply to add splash, or even use them as wallpaper on their computer desktops, may be violating the law, even though it is unlikely that a company will go to the effort to sue them over such an infraction.

The issue becomes muddled, however, when a company, like a search engine, is indirectly making money from the copies it makes.

In the case, the result may hinge on how the court considers at least two tricky issues. The first is whether search engines are, in subtle ways, inviting people to copy images. Most artists do not want people copying images from their sites — they want visitors who have an interest in hiring them for their services. Search engines, they say, expose their sites to people who are merely interested in finding a picture to copy and paste. When search engines display images without permission and out of context, they argue, they are paving the way for infringement.

At the very least, the artists say, a search engine should link people directly from a thumbnail image to the artist's Web page and should not provide any further versions of the image. (While does link searchers to Web sites, it also opens a window that displays a stand-alone copy of the full-size image, which the company says is designed to help searchers who might not find the image on a site that involves tedious searching or scrolling.)

The second issue centers on the nature of thumbnail images themselves. Does their reduced size exempt them from charges of a copyright infraction? Even in a smaller size, "I don't know how you can deny that this is a copy," said Jorge Contreras, vice chairman of the Internet law group at Hale & Dorr, an international law firm. "The gray area is whether it is O.K. to make that copy. And it is a good question."

Representatives of image-search engines argue that the copying is more than O.K. — it is vital to the health of the Internet as it becomes an ever larger source of visual information. Searchers may include parents who want to show their children what a lemur looks like or golfers who want to see a photograph of a course before visiting. Search-engine companies argue that if search results were limited to descriptions of and links to online images — but not the images themselves — their search sites would be cumbersome and far less useful.

"This is not just about finding a picture," said Michael Lyons, the founder of "This is getting information visually."

Supporting are representatives of several other search engines, including AltaVista, the first company to enable Web-wide image searching, and Google, which initiated a beta-test of image technology this summer. Those companies and others provide links from thumbnail images to the sites that include them.


Well-known member
May 22, 2001
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Do you think one of these days they'll start after IE and Netscape too. The first thing your PC does is download the pic to cache. Also with a simple right mouse button click the image is yours....

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