A ray of legal light thrown onto metadata stripping

12 January 2017

Region: Headquarters



Towards the end of last year, an interesting legal case emerged in Germany in which a photographer successfully took action against Facebook for removing metadata from posted images.

This so-called metadata stripping is a hot topic amongst professional photographers and was specifically mentioned by the RPS and others during a recent meeting with the UK Intellectual Property Office. Basically, we would like it to stop.

You probably know that when a digital photograph is taken, the camera records a set of data along with the image. This is the metadata, or part of it, that should remain with the image. It's the digital equivalent of the notes some of us used to write on the back of a print. Metadata can not only record the aperture and exposure time but also copyright and contact information about the photographer. This rights data is the reason why many professionals are angry when their metadata is removed, either on upload to a social media site or even during the ingest process for some online publications.

This isn't a clear-cut subject however. A fully-populated set of metadata contains some information that the photographer may not want to disseminate. For example, there is an issue with social media that sometimes it may not be wise to include the location metadata from GPS in the camera. Do you want your followers to know exactly where you live, for example?

On the other hand, as a photographer you have a legal right to be acknowledged as the author of the photograph, although in UK law you have to assert, or claim, that right. A printed author can easily include a sentence to do that, and can place their name in bold at the top of the document, but what does a photographer do? While I don't believe the notion of metadata as a claim of authorship has been tested in court, it is in practice the only way to do so, short of putting your name visibly in the image.

A pro or semi-pro camera will probably have a menu setting where you can enter a copyright/authorship message, but an 'amateur' camera is unlikely to. I think this feature should be included in every camera.

The German case doesn't set a useful precedent; mainly because the law it involves is a specific German one to protect "information provided by photographers in order to pursue their copyrights", but as this piece in PetaPixel  pointed out, when Facebook implement technical changes to remedy the breach, they are unlikely to do it only for Germany. And other organisations will take note.

For more on metadata, there's an article I wrote for the Journal in 2012.

And, by the way, The RPS image ingest system does preserve the metadata.

Andy Finney represents the Society on the British Copyright Council