It might be about to get a lot harder to share the images and photos you find on the internet.
This week, the organisation that sets technical standards for the JPEG format that creates digital photos, has been considering introducing “DRM” — Digital Rights Management software that prevents people from copying or freely distributing any given file.
The vast majority of images you see on the web are created in the .JPEG or .JPG format. The move could potentially stop you from posting any photo on Facebook that you didn’t create yourself, or otherwise get permission for.
That is anathema to the sharing culture that has become the basis of the internet over the last decade, and digital rights groups up are now up in arms.
Right now, there’s nothing preventing anyone from making as many copies of any given file as they want. It might not be legal to republish a photographer’s images on your website, but there’s nothing technically stopping you from doing so.
But software does exist to stop the unlimited reproduction of files. It’s called DRM, short for “Digital Rights Management.” It’s most commonly found in music files: If you’ve ever run up against an error message saying you’re not authorised to play a certain audio file, that’s DRM. It also exists in some video games.
Images could be next.
The Joint Photographics Expert Group (JPEG) Committee, the group behind JPEG, says it is aiming to “develop a standard for realising secure image information sharing, capable of ensuring privacy, maintaining data integrity, and protecting intellectual property rights.” This week, the committee met in Brussels to discuss exactly this.
If it were implemented, and widely adopted, it could mean you’re unable to copy a photo you find on a news website, or download an image a friend posted to Facebook, or share a meme incorporating a popular artwork to Tumblr. It’d be a drastic upheaval to the sharing culture the internet has.
It’s also intended to improve users’ privacy: The committee says the “proliferation of use of digital images gave also rise to a number of conflicts in terms of non-intended release of privacy information, e.g. metadata associated to a published picture that still contained geographical information that allowed to identify persons that have given anonymous interviews to journalists, or pictures posted on social media only intended for a limited audience that went public.”
As such, DRM could prevent people without the appropriate permissions from being able to access and view certain images.
So what’s the problem?
DRM is a highly divisive issue. Sure, it can help protect intellectual property rights. But its problems arguably outweigh its benefits. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an American digital rights group, is strongly opposed to DRM, and presented to the JPEG Committee this week. It made a number of arguments against the inclusion of DRM in images, including:
- DRM doesn’t account for “copyright limitations.” It’s legal to quote or reuse parts of copyrighted works for a number of reasons, including critique and satire. It’s difficult to see how automated DRM would be able to handle this.
- DRM “allows anti-competitive conduct like region coding.” A copyright owner might choose to only allow access to an image in certain countries.
- Mistakes could be made. “Even archives often (wrongly) claim copyright-like rights in public domain images,” the EFF said in a presentation. If one of these mistakes involved DRM, it could wrongly restrict people’s access to public domain images.
- DRM often requires “anti-circumvention laws” to be effective. These could criminalise security researchers trying to find vulnerabilities — and because JPEGs are so widely used, this means exploitable flaws could proliferate across the internet unchecked.
There’s no definite timeline yet.
JPEG Committee convener Dr. Touradj Ebrahimi told the BBC that any changes would be opt-in. The DRM wouldn’t be in your images unless you wanted to. “One thing that’s important to note is that this is not something we’re imposing … We are just saying, ‘Let people have a choice.’ Those who are perfectly happy with today’s situation and want to have security-free image sharing [will still be able to].”
He also said that there are “no concrete plans to change the JPEG format yet, but hopes to seek technological solutions once the specifics of the new proposals have been decided,” the BBC reports.
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