Meet Stipple – An Attribution Tool For Images

- - The Future

I’ve followed Paul Melcher’s Thoughts of a Bohemian blog for many years, because he had an insiders perspective of the stock photography industry and was a harsh critic of the old guard not keeping up with the digital age (similar to my own blogging on magazines back in the early days of APE). So, when I found out about his position at Stipple as the VP of image licensing I took the opportunity to ask him a few questions about the industry and this new company that looks to be very promising for photographers.

APE: Paul, give me a little background on yourself. I know you have been involved in the photography industry and particularly with stock for many years now?

Paul: Photography is in my DNA. As the son of a photographer who later became director of Magnum, I grew up surrounded by great photography and extremely talented photographers. After getting a degree in Economics and desperately trying to deny my calling by becoming a crime story journalist, I realized that images, more than text, was where I should be. My big break was when a French agency with an office in New York called upon me to manage their US office. I moved from Paris, France to Manhattan and quickly embraced the chance to redefine the way images were licensed in the US. From there, I worked at LGI, introducing the first digital news desk and making some of the first fully digital sales. The idea that an image could be taken on the West coast and sold to Newsweek on the East coast within hours was a revelation to me. I was hooked. Before, with Fed Ex or airplane cargos, it was at least a day. LGI was purchased by Corbis in the early 90′s and my hope was that with Bill Gates’ money and Microsoft’s technological knowledge, we could build the first fully digital photo agency. I was quickly disappointed and left after two painful years. It is not before 2000, with the creation of ImageDirect, the first fully 100% digital photo agency, that I could realize my dreams. At the time, magazines still wanted prints made from digital files. We simply said no. We offered CD’s or transmission but no prints. While we might have lost some sales, we were saving so much time and money by avoiding the analog pitfalls that it didn’t matter. After a year, magazines got used to it and after 3 years, Getty Images bought our company.

I then worked at various places, heading the North American bureau of Gamma Press, was VP of sales for DigitalRailroad, as well as stints at Rex Features and Abaca Press. I also consulted for various high tech companies looking to apply their advance research to the photographic world. 18 months ago, when approached by founder Rey Flemings to work at Stipple, I jumped on the chance to be part of what I see as the next revolution in photography. As you know, I also write my blog ( when I have the time ) “Thoughts of a Bohemian” and have two weekly columns in “Le Journal de La photographie”

APE: Stipple looks to me like it solves a very important problem for photographers and image buyers. Talk to me about stipple and how you see photographers using it?

Paul: Stipple solves the age old question everyone who has ever taken a picture has been asking : where are my photographs published and how many people are seeing them ? Today, when an image is published online, it is quickly replicated, blogged, re bloged, pinned, twitted, Tumblred, Facebooked. Even Google, with it’s formidable search engine, cannot keep track of the 250 million new images posted and the 150,000 new urls created each day.

With it’s free and persistent attribution tool, Stipple allows image creators to keep control of their images, wherever they might be. If this wasn’t enough, Stipple also offers powerful storytelling tools via interactive and discreet media tags. Appearing only on mouse-over, those tags can be of embedded videos, music, links, maps, wikipedia entries, Facebook, twitter updates or simple text. They offer photographers the ability to add information directly in the image. Finally Stipple introduces a new way to generate revenue that embraces and takes full advantage of the image sharing culture.

In other words, not only can photographer use Stipple to claim their images and follow their usage, but also use it as a formidable storytelling tool that enhances the way viewers experience their image. It’s the intelligent image.

APE: You’ve been a pretty harsh critic of the stock industry over on Thoughts of a Bohemian. Can you give me a very general “state of the industry” for stock?

Paul: First let me say that you are only a harsh critic of the things or people you love. The photo agency world used to be a place where photographers could freely and strongly practice their trade because they had agents that worked with them to not only create the images but sell them at the highest rates. When two experts connected, the photographer and the agent, it quickly became an incredibly productive symbiosis . Since the arrival of the corporates in the late 90′s, Getty and Corbis, this balanced environment has been destroyed and replaced by number crunchers and surveyors.

Today, everyone is trying to replicate Getty but it is not working. Getty’s model only works for Getty. Not even Corbis has been successful at replicating it, even after throwing millions, if not a billion, at the problem. The stock photo industry today is in survival mode, trying to protect their ‘sales territory’ while trying to find ways to save money. Exactly the opposite of what they should be doing. Let’s face it, the world of image licensing is exploding, or imploding, and will never be the same. Yet those poorly run companies react as this was a passing storm and all they have to do is hold on for a while. They are, and will be, more and more agencies closing in the near future with photographers suffering the most damage from it.

APE: Now what does the future hold? Obviously there’s a lot of photography out there and you’ve got a tool that can be used for licensing. Do you see potential there?

Paul: Yes, a lot. It is always in times of great turmoil that great ideas emerge. Old and antiquated ways of licensing images, like RM and RF, are completely unfit to our world. You do not pay for potatoes based on what you intend to do with them, so why should you for photographs ? Because of this old world licensing model, images are now being stolen and re used at rates never seen before . Even mainstream publishers put your properly licensed images on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest without paying you an extra dime because, well, there is just no licensing model for such usage.

Instead of going against the flow, Stipple allows photographers to embrace it. If people are going to use your photographs without your authorization, why not take advantage of it ? Your image, published a thousand times, becomes valuable real estate from which you can easily profit. With an e-commerce tag, it instantly starts generating revenue, wherever it is. No more need to spend hours tracking where your images are, sending endless take down notices, alienating potential new clients with threats. In fact, with Stipple, the more people use your images, the better it is. And with its live analytics tool, you can, at any time, see where they are published and what traffic they generate.

APE: Anything else we should know about Stipple?

Paul: Yes. It is a great marketing tool. You can immediately see what type of images are the most popular and bring you the most traffic. You can than recalibrate you work accordingly by having a better sense of the public’s reaction to your work. You can also find out what type of images work where and better understand your market.

For photojournalists, it is also a great story telling tool : instead of lengthy captions, you can add information directly in the image, allowing inquisitive viewers to immediately get more information on specific parts of your photographs.
Stipple also works great for wedding photographers, who can add videos, locations, invites, but also more information on who made that beautiful cake or those flower arrangement.

Finally, last but certainly not least, Stipple is also perfect to proactively combat orphan works. Because the photographers ID is persistent and travels with the image, it allows for anyone to trace an image back to its owner with just one click.

I could go on and on about Stipple. The best is for photographers to experience it themselves, since it is free and currently in public beta. Anyone is welcome to sign up for an invitation ( they come quickly) at www.stipple.com.

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There Are 37 Comments On This Article.

  1. While the abilities to track, etc., are wonderful, how to actually monetize the uses is not addressed. So what if your work has a reach of 100K people–if you aren’t getting paid, you only learn just how much your work gets exploited. They need to explain how this “e-commerce tag” will actually generate income for the photographer. If they are saying “it will enable users to go to the photographer’s website” or similar, well, that’s not going to help the photographer much. End-users aren’t most (commercial & editorial) photographers’ buyers.

    • Leslie,
      The interview format is not really adequate for me to enter specifics. If you email me, we can schedule some time so I can show you how it works.
      Best

      • Um… how hard is it that you can’t just write something here about the basic functionality that will permit monetization? Honestly, I don’t have the time to set up something not to mention actually learn about the system (I’m a copyright lawyer mostly these days), but if you are going to mention some way to monetize in an interview like here, I think you should elaborate a bit. There is nothing on your site about it that I could find either.

        • Leslie,
          Not sure what to reply . All I can suggest is that you engage with Stipple before you make an opinion. If you do not have the time, there is not much I can do.

    • Victor,

      No, you do not need to schedule time with me. I was just trying to be helpful with Leslie Burns.

      There are a few ways you can monetize an image using Stipple:
      - You can create a tag that links back to a photo book you are selling
      - You can create an e commerce tag with an affiliate tag to the store where you can purchase items in your images.
      - Your image can be selected as part of an advertising campaign for wich you will receive revenue based on the traffic it generates.

      Hope that helps. If you need more info, I am more than happy to send you an invite and/or schedule some time.

      Again, just trying to be helpful, even if it appears odd.

  2. First let me say that these kinds of tags are a great idea… but can you please explain how this would work? I just downloaded the jellyfish image (dragged it to my desktop) and uploaded it to a blog. Obviously none of the javascript copied over, and the image ID also didn’t copy over – so all the attribution was lost. No one reposting images is going to do us the favor of also reposting the script and its tags…

    I also think the tracking idea is a good one – almost like a Google Alert but for images. But to further what Leslie says – once the image is out in the wild, it is never worth the effort to chase it down over and over and ask for attribution or usage. It would be interesting to have a kind of analytics for what images are the most popular… but again this is only useful after the fact.

    Also – for published images. What magazine’s digital department is going to allow the photographers to add their own code to images, and allow that code to also work in places that the images are posted (ie magazine’s FB page)? It is a nice idea, but magazines hardly ever give even a simple photo credit on the the social networks…

    Last question, for Rob – is it possible to incorporate this kind of script into DesignX images? It seems like an intensive process to add the script to every image on your site (especially since there are so many different kinds of sites).

    Overall it is a fantastic idea – hope that you guys can make it work! Otherwise we’re going to have to go old school: watermarks =P

    • Mason,

      Couple of great questions here.
      Reposting:
      Stipple tags appear in three ways.
      1) Site where the image is uploaded has the Stipple tag installed
      2) the image is shared via the embed code
      3) the viewer has the extension installed

      Why would a site bother installing the code, you might ask. Because not only they can use the image legally, but also make revenue on the image. We currently have more than 4,000 publishers using the Stipple code and it’s growing daily.

      Not sure about your second point. Stipple offers real time analytics on your images. No need to track or ask for attribution, since it is included with your image.

      Magazine digital department: We have been talking to a lot of them as you can imagine and all are very excited about the possibilities offered by Stipple. Not only can display images with additional information, but they can also add any information they like. While they can delete ( only for their site) any tags they do not like, they can never erase the attribution. Furthermore, those images can become another source of revenue for them, making them even more appealing.

      Since the last question is for Rob, I will let him answer.

      thanks for the support and looking forward to you trying it.

    • Agreed… nobody is going to take the time to make sure scripts, embedded code, etc are intact. And it will be a very small percentage of people who will go through the trouble of installing a browser extension. The information needs to be stored in the image file itself and natively travel with the file… nothing external that can get lost along the way. Even then you have to hope that wherever it’s getting reposted isn’t automatically stripping away metadata.”

      Something like this works when it becomes a standard or is such a can’t live without idea that it becomes common to *just about* everyone (Like Facebook; For example, many sites are forgoing their own login procedure and only offering “login via Facebook”).

      But hopefully you have some really smart people figuring this stuff out. Unfortunately I’m not hopeful. But I’m still willing to give it a shot.

      • What I find interesting is, that the images above have no useable information within the metadata. So, if someone were to just copy them off the site and start emailing them to people (for example) there would be NO useable information to know who took the photograph. There is no copyright information, not contact information, nothing.

        Although, I do know the first image was shot with a Nikon D800 with a 70-200 f.28 lens with the focal length set to 155mm with a f8 aperture and a .8 second shutter. Not sure how that helps the photog though.

            • If we have a reference file, that is not a problem since we use fingerprinting to match images with it’s data. Ultimately we hope to add this functionality. With the amount of images uploaded daily, you can imagine it’s not an easy task.

        • I’ve never understood why metadata is routinely stripped from images that are posted online.

          What is the point of even having metadata fields when practically every web/social media site under the sun strips that data upon upload; the only data (as you aptly pointed out, Jeff) that consistently seems to remain is camera data. And if my camera model, lens, focal length, aperture, and shutter speed can all be preserved, why the heck can’t my copyright data, my contact info, or even just my filename be preserved…?

          (I realize my little rant doesn’t have anything to do with Stipple, specifically, but it does engage the point about metadata in general, and what happens to it and why.)

          The company that can come up with a way to lock-in my metadata, so that it remains with the digital photo file no matter where it goes — that company would definitely get my interest (and, very likely, my business).

          • Allen Murabayashi

            Metadata is routinely stripped to reduce the file size. You can easily double or triple a small image by loading it with metadata. Since fast loading is still paramount for performance, products like PhotoShop’s “Save for Web” make it a point to strip everything out to create the smallest possible file size.

      • Jeff,

        Stipple presently has over 4,000 publishers that have installed Stipple on their sites. The browser extension is only a small portion of the distribution strategy. We are also pursuing OEM deals that integrate Stipple at the browser and OS level.

        The fundamental problem is that many major sites and CMS’ do strip away metadata and always have. If they didn’t, this would already be a solved problem. What Stipple is doing is building an index of fingerprinted images and caching the URLs for each of them. Rightsholders can claim their images and bring them under control where our javascript is present.

        Like any service, in its infancy, it’s always easy to dismiss as meaningless, impossible or naive. The question isn’t how few publishers we’ve secured today, but how many we add tomorrow and the day after. How much distribution can Stipple secure through OEM partnerships and how fast can we secure that distribution. For ever site or user that we enable, every photograph we encounter is being indexed and fingerprinted.

  3. My concern is the possibility that photographer IDs will be owned by a third party, i.e. Stipple. So, all you’ve done is to embed their corporate identity into your photographs in exchange for analytics. Maybe there’s a “lawyer letter” that is autogenerated when people don’t pay up, but it’s still based on the idea that viewing an image should cost something. Is the metaphor a museum,–which means people only can view art when they are let in? Or is a completely new metaphor needed, –since the Internet is closer to a persistent open-air market?

  4. It sounds like there is no method here to generate revenue directly from the use of the image, only through sales of ancillary products connected to the image. What does stipple do to address the inherent value of the image itself? Or does it? If I’m not selling books or t-shirts I’m not sure how the image is monetized.

    • Andre,

      You are correct, Stipple generates revenue on the content of the image and not the image itself. If you are not selling books or t shirt yourself, your image can still generate revenue via brand advertising. Let’s use an example:

      Let’s say you have an image of car in a sunset. That image, that you had initially posted on your website to show your work is now posted on thousands of website across the world. BMW ( that’s the brand of the car you have photographed) sees that image and would like to advertise on it by adding an embedded video. Each time someone, somewhere mouses over your image and plays that video, you earn revenue.
      If someone would rather use that image without the tag, then they should contact you ( which is easy thanks to the attribution tool).

    • I’m sorry but that’s just a buzzword hype statement… a “new metaphor”. Come on. You should throw the word “paradigm” somewhere in there.

      And who exactly is paying me when people engage with my images? If someone views one of my images on Tumblr, that’s a person engaging with my images… I’m getting paid for that now?

  5. I think the most obvious answer to the “who’s going to pay me” question is that your client will pay you, like they always have. This is technology that you can bring to them to add value to the images. Or maybe they want to buy more rights so they can let people repost with the where-to-buy information intact.

    There are photographers who could directly monitize images based on their following but it’s a pretty small group.

    For me the most promising part of the technology is that other companies might license it or buy stipple to create a way for attribution and advertising to travel with images.

  6. Its a shame that people in other countries can steal credit cards from US citizens and get away with it. Why? Because if they steal under $5000 it will cost more then that for FBI or CIA to dispatch to another country just to track them down. And do you think officials are going to go through international efforts to track down $500 or so for you? This is why global cyber crime is so popular.

  7. The key problem of unauthorized web use of images is the stripping of metadata done by almost all social media platform.

    What’s more, platforms like Tumblr and Pinterest even allow people to claim authorship by linking to images they have not created.

    Stipple, as an attribution tool, seems to be a step into the right direction.

    The problem is: you have to be proactive, copy over code, to make it work. People who would do this already credit photographers by correct linking and display of their name.

    What we need is a tool that does it all by itself.

    Stipple does not seem to do that. It seems to cater more to online merchants and their partners, who are OK to install the code. Even Stipple itself does not seems to see much value for photographers: the sample cases on their website do not contain a single photographer.

    That said, I subscribed for an invite and will definitely give it a try and see, if I can make at least some inroads in regards to the use of my images.

    What would be the killer feature on Stipple? That the code is part of the image, and if you take it off, the image blurs to nothing.

  8. I think Stipple is a brilliant idea. As a viewer, it makes me want to spend more time viewing a photo — the Tom Cruise Rock of Ages photos for instance. I enjoyed being able to mouse over and see camera icons appear and the mouse over them and see other images for the shoot. You don’t have to scroll down to see more images.

    I too would love to apply this feature to my APhotoFolio websites. I could have one image representing a certain look, and if the viewer liked that approach they could mouse over and see other related images. It would make anyone’s website look tidier and increase the time people spent there.

    The Water Wigs by photographer Tim Tadder on top are fantastic — it was great fun mousing over to see the other photos in the series & also more fun because each mouse over is a surprise. Then you play a game of Concentration trying to remember where your favorite ones were.

    I bookmarked Stipple to my browser toolbar so I can keep track of this new tool, and hopefully implement it in the near future. Kudos to Paul for coming up with this concept and following through. The possibilities are intriguing. Sounds like each week will only make Stipple more viable and widely adopted.

  9. This is a great idea. wonderful. But when I tried to install the extension for Chrome, I got a message that I could only do it through the Chrome store. You might want to work on affiliation with them.

    • This is because of a new security setting in OSX, see:

      System Preferences > Security & Privacy > General – “Allow applications downloaded from

      You need to select “Anywhere” as the option.

  10. Paul,

    Stipple is a great business, I am very interested in learning more and talking with you about how we can work together.

    I have sent you an email with more specifics, looking forward to speaking with you.

  11. This is awesome. Stipple is not perfect but its a step in the right direction. Great way to add affiliate links in my photos for my blog.

    Requested an invite!

    Thanks

  12. I have just installed the Stipple add-on for Safari and requested an invite. I’m not entirely sure how this is going to work but I am curious to give this a go, and I am sure all will become clear as I put it to use.