Using surveillance technology to protect copyright online

The BBC reports on a new use for iris scanning technology: online copyright enforcement. Iris scanning and recognition technology is being used for biometric identification, such as the IRIS — Iris Image Recognition Immigration Service used by the UK Home Office for immigration purposes. A picture of the iris is made and used much like taking fingerprints is used for law enforcement today. According to the article, Canon has filed a patent that would embed iris information of the photographer into the digital image file:

The system works by scanning the iris as the eye is put to the viewfinder when the shot is composed.

So this is a combo of digital watermarking technologies and iris recognition hardware and software that produces images that can be linked back to the photographer. Digital watermarks are invisible information hidden within a digital file that can be used to identify information about the digital file. You can use them in online copyright enforcement to track the origin and subsequent usage of content. The iris scanning watermark idea raises some interesting privacy and data protection issues, but those comments are for another blog. In terms of online copyright enforcement, it looks like the main advantage is an easy way to watermark images as they are created so that they can later be tracked.

Watermarks can fall into what is often called “digital rights management” in that it can be used to associate the rights granted with that digital file. A much narrower area of DRM are TPMs — technological protection measures that try to actually restrict what can and can’t be done with a work through the use of “digital locks”. Watermarks are much less invasive in that they can only associate information with a digital file, and don’t involve — on their own — locking what can be done with the file.

Creative Commons licences don’t allow for the use of technical means of restricting the rights granted to users of the work. In section 4a of the unported Attribution license (CC BY 3.0 unported), for example, it states:

You may not impose any effective technological measures on the Work that restrict the ability of a recipient of the Work from You to exercise the rights granted to that recipient under the terms of the License.

However, as I’ve argued elsewhere in an article titled “Can TPMs Create a Commons? Looking at Whether and How TPMs and Creative Commons Licences can Work Together.” [SSRN] [Indicare article], watermarking technologies could fit with use of CC licences:

Watermarking … is the least invasive method and thus most likely to comport both philosophically and legally with the Creative Commons family of licenses. Simply placing some information in the work would not hamper the ability to copy and distribute the work. They would perhaps be most useful for those using the “No Derivative” CC license. Watermarking could allow for users to authenticate the integrity of the content and for content creators to track use. The use information can then be passed on to funding agencies or used internally in order to assess the usefulness of the licenses in encouraging re-use. These watermarks could also help prevent commercial use for organizations using the non-commercial (NC) option.

So from a CC/Flickr perspective, you could take a photo with one of these Canon iris cameras, upload your photos to Flickr and select a CC licence, such as the non-commercial no-derivatives version (CC-BY-NC-ND), and you would have an additional tool to try to enforce your rights if they were used without your permission by a commercial image company.