German photographer sues Facebook over image metadata stripping and wins

Nov 23, 2016

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

German photographer sues Facebook over image metadata stripping and wins

Nov 23, 2016

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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It’s long been known that Facebook strips the metadata from photographs and other images that are uploaded. I’ve never seen an official answer from Facebook as to why they do this, but the leading theory seems to be one of privacy. With 136,000 images being uploaded to Facebook every single minute, that’s a lot of potential GPS and other private information. But it does also total up to a lot of potentially wasted storage space, too.

Photographers have moaned against the removal of metadata for a while, but German photographers association, Freelens, and specifically, Freelens executive committee member and Berlin photographer, Rainer Steußloff has challenged this practice in court. The ruling came in a few days ago, and the photographer won. It is now illegal for Facebook to strip metadata in Germany.

What’s the problem with stripping metadata?

One would think that the “protection” argument might be enough to end this case the instant it was raised. But, Facebook are stripping far more than unintended personally identifiable information. Many photographers purposefully place metadata into images in order to assert their ownership, and help prevent Copyright infringement.

EXIF and IPTC data embedded into the Metadata of images also helps to prevent the spread of fake “news” stories, which has been all too common ever since a certain somebody announced they were running for election. With copyright and ownership information buried right within the images themselves, it’s easy to contact the creators to confirm whether a story is legitimate or if an image has been misappropriated.

Such embedded ownership data would allow photographers to (potentially) easily find any breaches online through Facebook to file DMCA takedown notices quickly. Whether an image was misappropriated to push a personal agenda, or a case of simple theft, metadata is an extremely valuable image asset.

So, if privacy truly were the real reason, why not just strip the GPS data and leave everything else intact?

So, what happened?

According to a Freelens press release, Berlin based photographer Rainer Steußloff has successfully sued Facebook in German courts over this. The claim was actually filed a while ago, awaiting Facebook’s response. Facebook seems to have completely ignored the case, and as they had not challenged the suit within six months, they lost the case by default.

Steußloff’s argument was that it violates German Copyright law, specifically, section 95c of the Copyright Act.

Von Rechtsinhabern stammende Informationen für die Rechtewahrnehmung dürfen nicht entfernt oder verändert werden…

Put simply, that translates into to the rights holder’s information may not be removed or altered. Facebook’s stripping of the data violates German law.

In a ruling initially made on February 9th, 2016, the court agreed. As the ruling has been left unchallenged by Facebook, that ruling is now final.

What does this mean?

If you’re not based in Germany, not a lot. At least, not for the moment. This was a German ruling, in German courts, for German law.

For German photographers, it means that it’s now illegal for Facebook to strip the metadata from their images. Facebook face a fine of up to €250,000 each time a German photographer sues them based on section 95c of the German Copyright Act.

As for the rest of the world. Well, while this might not directly apply to us, it does potentially open the door for similar such suits in other countries. It also means that other companies who similarly strip EXIF data area also open to similar such suits.

It’s going to be a tough one to work out.

On the one hand, the privacy argument is a strong one. With the number of kids with mobile phones these days, posting photos and videos shot in school, or while doing things they probably shouldn’t, keeping all the metadata opens up a whole host of scary possibilities. But, peoples rights to assert ownership of their intellectual property must be met.

By the letter of German law, stripping the GPS data alone may even fall foul of 95c. It’s unlikely, however, that many children or parents will be suing Facebook over it, if they chose to go that route.

Of course, it’s also unlikely that most people will even want the GPS data embedded anyway. Before Facebook started stripping everything from images, Facebook messenger also included pretty accurate GPS info. Right down to the house from which you were typing. Anybody you messaged could see this unless you specifically disabled it in the app’s settings.

Many photographers also don’t want to advertise the locations of their homes, where they may have tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment. A lot of location photographers are also very protective of their locations, too. It’s understandable. Locations can easily become destroyed, or see access removed, once a few idiots find out where it is and cause problems. A quick behind the scenes snap from a model or client on a shoot can tell the world where it is.

Stripping the GPS data was also the reason I first jumped onto Instagram. Facebook wasn’t stripping it at the time and Instagram did. With my Instagram set to automatically post any new uploads to Facebook, it allowed me to quickly post photos from my own home, and the homes of family and friends, without specific address information. It was a quick workflow, too, no third party GPS stripping apps, I’d just post the same way I do today.

What do you think? Could this all be taken care of by Facebook’s terms of service, forcing users to agree to have the data stripped when uploading, nullifying the ruling? Or do they not have the right to make that request? Would you like to see similar such rulings in your country? How do you allow photographers to assert their rights without affecting privacy? Let us know in the comments.

[Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung via PetaPixel]

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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17 responses to “German photographer sues Facebook over image metadata stripping and wins”

  1. Gregg Bond Avatar
    Gregg Bond

    I certainly prefer user education over nanny-state any day. That said, how many people actually read those pop-ups about security? I think a good compromise would be to strip the location data only and leave the per-picture tagging system as it is.

    Having said that, EXIF data is so easy to forge/change there needs to be a better way of asserting ownership. The blockchain discussion on here a couple of months ago was one of them.

  2. Thomas Avatar
    Thomas

    This is a nice start and a paradigm to be followed by all of us and our country’s associations. We do not know what the result might be if Facebook did not ignore the case. As photography is getting underestimated day by day i think we must make our best to protect at least our copyright

  3. Jo Mcintosh-Park Avatar
    Jo Mcintosh-Park

    Maybe have it put in your security settings then it’s down to the individual to decide if they what the metadata inplace, I know I would not want to see my work/photos showing up somewhere that I didnt upload to,

    1. Kaouthia Avatar
      Kaouthia

      That’s kinda what I was thinking, too, but it’d be difficult to implement without a one-size-fits-all rule.

      For example, finished images out of Photoshop or LR, I’d want to retain all EXIF data I’d placed in the file, including copyright. Random snaps with my phone while out with friends, I probably wouldn’t want any EXIF data retained (and certainly not GPS).

      1. Jo Mcintosh-Park Avatar
        Jo Mcintosh-Park

        I totally agree with you, I upload to instagram with ease knowing that my photos can’t be saved/pinched, but I like to upload to fb too but started to add copyright as well but now knowing its next to pointless it’s a bit concerning

  4. W Douglas LeBlanc Avatar
    W Douglas LeBlanc

    So now FB is required to keep existing EXIF data? Or is the “meta data” considered a different thing?

    1. John Aldred Avatar
      John Aldred

      Only for Germans. Whether they’ll actually do it or not is another matter.

      Metadata is a kind of all encompassing term for anything included in an image file that isn’t the image itself. So, EXIF data, and IPTC data is part of the metadata.

      In the same way that a knife, a fork and a spoon are part of the all encompassing term of cutlery. :)

  5. Stereo Reverb Avatar
    Stereo Reverb

    Leave it in, but give users the option to strip it if they want (for privacy, and especially if you are a parent wanting safety over your kid’s accounts). That’s fair and logical and makes everyone happy.

    1. Kaouthia Avatar
      Kaouthia

      I think I’d go the other way around. Have the option, absolutely, but I’d have it strip it by default, and not strip with a settings change. With the number of people on Facebook, and the average ability of the human race to delve into Facebook’s privacy settings (or lack thereof), it’s probably safer. :)

  6. Eric Jaakkola Avatar
    Eric Jaakkola

    What’s funny is they strip it to protect your privacy. But they should let you keep it if you want.

  7. frobnicator Avatar
    frobnicator

    It won’t hold. The only reason they “won” is because facebook didn’t show up to court. The terms of service for the site grant Facebook permission to use the IP in various ways, which include resampling the image to Facebook’s preferred sizes and removing metadata. Facebook can go back to the courts, explain their reason for not showing up which can be as simple as missing the letters or forgetting the date. They may pay a small amount of cash in penalty for missing it, but since their ToS cover it, they aren’t violating the law. The law specifically requires that removing the data be done without permission, and since their terms of service state it can happen but the photographer uses it anyway, then they have permission to do it.

  8. UCPhotog Avatar
    UCPhotog

    Facebook is a privately owned entity. It is also not a requirement for us to use Facebook. If we do use Facebook it’s not a requirement that we post photographs. Yes, they should tell us what they are going to do with images, words, information that we post. But if you want full control, then post it on your own site that you pay for and direct people to your site from your Facebook account.

  9. oldclimber Avatar
    oldclimber

    As a peripheral aspect, if one were to ever need to go to court over some rights to photographs, it raises the old film concept of substantiating an original image. If you can produce the contact sheet, negatives/slides, your case is grounded well. Digitally, given the cheap available storage space for camera downloaded images, best practice should be always back up all original downloaded images, and edit/delete only working copies elsewhere in your workflow. If you can go back and show not only the original image, but a series of others from the same place/subject/area that support your presence in a real time working process, not merely one isolated image, the existence or absence of metadata in that image may be rendered moot.

  10. R van den Wijngaart Avatar
    R van den Wijngaart

    Photos just stripped from there GPS data would be fin. I put tags in my photos to be found on the jnternet, so I’d like all other data to be left allone. Would be nice if the rules in Germany would apply in this case for the rest of Europe.

  11. James P Avatar
    James P

    Why inject politics into a photography article? “Fake “news” stories, which has been all too common ever since a certain somebody announced they were running for election.” Really? More like he is a response to the fake news that is the corporate mainstream PC media.

  12. John MacPherson Avatar
    John MacPherson

    I wrote about this in 2013, from a similar, but slightly different perspective: https://www.duckrabbit.info/2013/04/henry-carter-the-divisive-moment/

  13. Shannon_Photos Avatar
    Shannon_Photos

    I use Digimarc to embed an invisible (and trackable) watermark in my photos. I also post a link to the photos that are on my photography site on Facebook, but do not post the actual photos. I hope that will be enough protection.