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Is it Time to Embrace Blockchain?

Jain Lemos

Jain Lemos is a New York Times No. 1 bestselling book producer, noted photography publishing expert, author and innovator.

Is It Time to Embrace Blockchain?

May 31, 2018

After reading several articles on how blockchain is going to revolutionize stock photography and eliminate copyright infringement, some authors were confused while others found the technology impracticable for how the industry actually works. Here’s what I found out.

Copyright Protection

It’s critical to remember in discussions surrounding online image tracking and registration that these practices happen independently of safety deposit boxes or paper ledgers. Thinking in analog terms will lead you down the wrong path. So will the notion of believing that in order for the new technology to work, someone needs to stuff all the images in the world into one blockchain register. Copytrack uses the term “global” to mean it works everywhere online; not to imply that their technology is the only one to use (though I’m sure they would love that to be the case).

They explained that copyright protection is not weakened because there are multiple blockchains. The intention is to permanently and irreversibly connect the creator with their images. Blockchains are not utilized to find image infringements, they are designed to solve the problem of proof of ownership. In other words, it’s not the blockchain’s function to determine if any new use is authorized or unauthorized. Copytrack’s enforcement tool does that by finding online uses of an image and then matching it back to the creator to determine if the use is legitimate or if there is need for a resolution.

When Copytrack’s two services are combined, chasing copyright theft is much more efficient. To recap: tracking illegal use of images is an audit using reverse search technology; proof of ownership is handled by the blockchain through a free registry.

“Thinking in analog terms will lead you down the wrong path.”


Stock Photography

Where some people are getting confused is when they conflate these processes with the completely separate elements of stock photography image licensing and license history. Copytrack is not in the business of licensing images or creating some type of rights managed image history archive. Blockchain technology developers are also not in the business of setting prices. These services will be achieved through partnerships and the cooperation of image agencies and collections.

For new images, there are several possibilities that will make it easier to collect licensing data from sources, and Copytrack is exploring solutions. Smart contracts are being discussed that will change the game, and photographers and agents are already producing these types of self-fulfilling contracts. When certain conditions are met, for example, time of use and circulation restrictions, a price is established and payment is automatically made with proprietary tokens which are collected using cryptocurrency (ethereum) wallets. Large publishers and volume buyers will find this a very convenient way of automating image licensing tasks.


Buyers are licensing the majority of images from three agencies: Adobe Stock, Getty Images and Shutterstock. These companies spend millions on marketing and will continue to get the biggest portion of revenues by their sheer volume and recognition in the space, much like any other large players in business today, no matter what the industry. Eventually, they will join or form their own blockchains for the technology and to thwart threats to their methodology. There will always be buyers who want concierge service and this will keep the big three and a few others going using the current lightbox and subscription models for the foreseeable future.

Photographers have always had a choice of selling through one of the giants, through another middle player, or on their own. Regardless of how they choose to sell, what blockchain provides is automation and fewer instances of theft, because the digital file carries the authenticity and permission. In order for their images to be found in the first place, it’s not a matter of training buyers to go somewhere new, but for photographers to embrace this new way of transacting.

When it becomes easier to cut out the middle man by using smart contracts, photographers will change to that system. When creators can receive 80 percent—or more—of the licensing fee, get their money instantly without waiting for royalty statements or checks to clear and gain full control over pricing, how motivated do you think they will be? Haven’t photographers been trying to bring this about for decades?

“Searching for images is not going to work like it did in the past.”



Licensing automation will take time to materialize, but not that long. We could be facing an entirely changed marketplace ten years from now. Transacting with this type of transparency is what we’ve always longed for, and if stock agencies don’t adapt eventually, they will be disappearing.

Try to get your heads wrapped around the fact that searching for images is not going to work like it did in the past, where buyers log in, agency by agency, to view and download images directly. Once the notion of having an “account” with a particular image provider is removed, a whole world of image possibilities opens up. Remember, buyers rarely care who is giving them access to the image, they care if the image will work for their application, how quickly they’ll be able to use it, and if they can afford the license they need.

Furthermore, when generic images are needed to illustrate a topic (which is the definition of stock), authors and publishers will be able to use hashtags in the space where photos should appear and images so tagged in repositories will stream into the article, serving up a different image each time the page is accessed. For the right user experience, editorial controls will need to be developed. But this removes the time and resources needed to search a database to find a suitable visual. Fees, no doubt in minuscule amounts, will flow to the creators if their images are in the blockchain.

Photography communities are already getting the big picture, especially in Europe. CEPIC’s event this week is featuring a panel, including Copytrack’s Marcus Schmitt, that is addressing how blockchain works in our industry. It is possible that old-school picture agencies will become lost in this new era if they don’t embrace the changes, too. In the meantime, find a blockchain register for your images before they get into the marketplace so you’ll be ready to monitor where and how they’re being used.

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