I’m a huge fan of the WordPress platform and I use it for several sites myself. It’s matured greatly in the last few years and is now an incredibly flexible platform for web design and content management. I highly recommend it to photographers all the time due to the relatively low cost of setup and the huge variety of themes out there to style your site. There’s also some great SEO (Search Engine Optimization) benefits to using WordPress and it all just takes a few minutes to set up. If you’re looking for a beginners guide to WordPress for photographers I have put one together here.
I want to preface this post by saying that I still DO recommend WordPress for photographers but there is one thing I have discovered that everyone must hear about!
This past week I uploaded some new photos to a site and happened to right click on one and save the image from the WordPress post back onto my computer. Upon opening the photo I noticed that ALL the metadata from the image was gone, as well as all the EXIF information. I thought this pretty odd since I bake a ton of metatdata and copyright information into all my images when I import them with Photo Mechanic. Even before doing that though, my camera adds basic copyright information internally so I was sure that at one point the information was there. Immediately I checked the original image that I had uploaded to WordPress and sure enough, there was all of my information, complete and intact. Could WordPress really be stripping all of the metadata from the uploaded images? Surely not I thought …………
But I was wrong. It was!
You see when you upload an image to WordPress it creates several copies of the image. You’re probably familiar with the image size options you have when you post your image; Thumbnail, Medium, Large, Full Size. Full size is obviously just your image that you uploaded in the first place, but the other three sizes are distinct files that are created. Most people are aware of this, myself included. What I was not expecting though was that when these re-sized images are created, WordPress is stripping ALL metadata from them. Yep, that means all your copyright information and contact details are GONE!!!
In most cases when you click an image in a WordPress blog post it will be set to open up a larger version of that image. This is how most photographers have things set up and it’s a great way to display images to your readers in a size much larger than that which fits within the bounds of your post. Typically post widths would be something in the range of 640px – 800px in width which is quite small for showing someone how awesome your photography is. If this is how you set things up, and someone clicks an image in a post and it opens the original larger image for viewing, this original WILL still have all of its metadata and exif info intact. The problem is that the image in the post has been stripped of its metadata and anyone could right-click this image and save it. Once that’s done….. who knows where it will end up and this is where things start to get dangerous for photographers.
Why You Should Care
The images that are at risk are the Thumbnail, Medium and Large sized versions of the image created by WordPress. The exact size of these images is determined by your WordPress theme and they are user editable (more on that in a bit). The Thumbnail and Medium sizes tend to be pretty small, but depending on your theme the Large size could be anything up to 1200px in width, potentially even more if you are using full screen themes. What we want to avoid is photos getting out in the wild that could be of potential commercial use to someone. A few years ago you might have thought that only a high resolution TIFF or RAW file could ever be of commercial use to a company, but as content consumption has changed and shifted ever more towards digital mediums, so the necessary sizing of images has decreased. For a magazine ad, people still need very high resolution images for printing at 300DPI, but what about for web banners or even Instagram ads?? These are legitimate advertising mediums now and they require images of only a few hundred pixels in width to be effective. Now in most cases you’d be right to think that if someone wants to steal an image, they are going to use it whether it has copyright metadata or not. The problem is that there is so much misinformation and downright ignorance out there with regards to copyright and commercial usage! I’d wager there’s many people out there who think that if there’s no copyright information in the metadata they are free to use the image. Since I’ve come across enough people in my time that think they can do this even when there is metadata, this seems like a sure bet. 26,000+ photographers signed this petition mistakenly thinking the British orphan works act (more on this later) allowed people to use their images for free when they had no metadata. It’s not true, but the fact that 26,000 photographers, people who should know a thing or two about copyright, thought this to be the case shows just shows how much confusion there is.
There’s no good reason to have the metadata stripped from our images. Quite simply it can only lead to bad things and never good things so we need to take action, avoid this using the methods shown below and warn others.
On more than one occasion I’ve had companies approach me for licensing after finding an image an image on the web that contained my copyright information and contact details. Just last month I was contacted by a magazine who wanted to use an image on the cover and funnily enough they had found my information within the metadata of an image that had been stolen and was being illegally used on the website of a limousine company. Thankfully this magazine did the right thing and contacted me for licensing and also informed me of where they had found the image. In this case the company that was illegally using my image had saved it, complete with full metadata. If they had saved it from my WordPress site though, they likely would have saved the ‘Large’ version which would have been stripped of all my copyright information. This would have lead to a lost sale from the honest magazine that contacted me and also an excuse for the limousine company that they ” didn’t know who the image belonged to”. Not that this would have given any legality to what they did, but their belief in that might have been a contributing factor in the choice to use that image.
Relatively speaking we’re still at the dawn of a digital era but take a second to think about what things will be like in 50+ years time. With so many more images floating around out there, associating your name and copyright information to your work will be ever more important.
Have you ever tried using Google’s reverse image look up tool? It allows you to upload an image to Google and then they search for places around the internet where that image appears. Pick a couple of your most popular images and give it a try, I think you might be quite shocked at how far your photos can spread! From time to time I try this with my photos and more often then not, I find someone who is illegally using one of them. There’s almost always many people posting the images on personal blogs as well and this kind of proliferation of images across the internet is the danger with this flaw in WordPress. Once one image gets outside your site with no metadata embedded, that image is shared and shared again and it’s expansion can be exponential. Before you know it you could have one solitary version of the image, with metadata intact, on your WordPress site as the ‘full-sized’ image, but tens if not hundreds of versions out there with no metadata.
Here’s where things get a little complicated. Firstly because I’m not a lawyer, and secondly because the rules and regulations are different around the world. An ‘orphan’ work is a work to which copyright cannot be determined or a work where the determined copyright holder cannot be contacted. My first reaction when I learned about this WordPress issue was that it could have implications to some peoples work in the future relating to orphan works. In the UK for example the ERR Act empowers the government to license orphan works for “market rate” when the copyright holder cannot be determined after “diligent search”. What a government office employee might determine as a diligent search, is likely quite different from what you and I, as photographers, might determine as diligent. In 2008 Canada also implemented changes to their laws which provide for a similar situation and under Section 77 of the Canadian Copyright Act, the Copyright Board Of Canada may issue a license for an orphaned work after “reasonable efforts to locate the owner of the copyright” have been made. Again, what is constituted as truly reasonable efforts are not (and likely never will be) explicitly stated.
When the laws came into play in the UK a lot of photographers took notice and many of them had the same initial reaction I had about removing metadata from images. In response to growing concerns, the British government issued a document explicitly stating that removal of copyright metadata “does not in itself make a work “orphan”or allow its use under the orphan works scheme”. This is some small comfort but I worry how things will change in the very long term as images without copyright metadata, generated by the millions of WordPress blogs, continue to spread across the internet. People will always continue to crop off watermarks and strip metadata themselves for nefarious purposes, but there’s simply no reason why we should help them with this.
For orphan works in the US I recommend a quick read through the Wikipedia page. Again the 2008 Orphan Works Act suggests much the same thing that I saw in the UK and Canadian bills, but perhaps worryingly leaving the definition of diligent efforts even more vague. These are all relatively new laws around the world and changes are being made, what concerns me most is where they will be in ten or twenty years time.
Why Is WordPress Doing This?
Interestingly in the UK it’s actually a civil infringement to knowingly and without authority strip copyrighted metadata from an image. According to one British government representative “If the infringer communicates the work to the public it may be a criminal offence”. Now of course I’m not saying WordPress themselves are infringing any laws here, they are providing a free platform which we, as photographers, are utilizing. We’re stripping our own metadata here! I just found it interesting that in some places at least, it’s seen as something so important that they should have laws to protect against it, yet WordPress allows us to so easily and unknowingly do this to our own work.
As for why they are doing this I really have to think it’s solely because not enough people have spoken out about it. Perhaps the potential implications haven’t crossed their minds? In bringing this to peoples attention, I hope maybe we can change this.
What Is The Solution?
The best way that you can protect yourself is to upload images to WordPress that are no larger than a size which your theme can display in a post. When it comes to inserting the image into your post, instead of the ‘large’ option being visible in the sizing menu, it will simply say ‘full size’. This image is identical to the one which you uploaded and so it contains all of your copyright metadata. Using this image in your posts and adjusting the sizing of this image to suit your layout will prevent many of the potential problems. Remember that it’s the ‘thumbnail’, ‘medium’ and ‘large’ images that have had their metadata stripped from them. Unfortunately, doing things this way does mean that your blog visitors won’t be able to click the image to see the original larger version since that original version will be no larger than the one they are already viewing in the post.
Here’s how to find out how big the photos can be in your theme:
1. Open up your WordPress dashboard and go to Settings-> Media
2. You’ll see the defined sizes for the three image types for your WordPress theme here. In the example below you can see that WordPress will create ‘large’ images at 800px wide. This means that an image of 800px in width will fit into my themes page or post. If I size my own image to 800px before uploading to WordPress, then I will simply be able to insert the image at ‘full size’. This will circumvent WordPress’ removal of the metadata for the image that’s displayed on the post or page.
There’s some other options out there as well, like uploading your images to a service like Photoshelter or Smugmug and then embedding those images onto your site instead of uploading them to WordPress. You could also set any uploaded images to link to larger versions hosted on one of those services and this would give your readers a way to see the images in a larger format.
Add Your Name To The File Name
Another thing that you can do very easily is make sure that your name is explicitly stated in the image’s file name. When WordPress creates this image size variations it appends a size to the end of the existing file name like myphoto_dancarr.jpg —-> myphoto_dancarr-800px.jpg Including my name in the file name is something that I already do anyway but for those that don’t, it’s a useful habit to get into and it might help someone track you down in the future if they find your image with no metadata.
What About A WordPress Plugin?
I was surprised to find that there was no plugin available to circumvent this whole problem. I feel pretty sure that it must be possible for WordPress to create these size variations without stripping the metadata and more than likely it could be achieved with a bespoke plugin. Would you be interested in such a plugin? If someone were to make one, how much would spend on it? I know a lot of WordPress plugins are free, but realistically it seems unlikely we’ll find someone out there to knock this up in a sustainable way without paying a few dollars. I for one would gladly pay someone for such a plugin, what about you? Please leave a comment below!