In recent years, with the maturation of the internet and especially of the blogosphere, sites that display photos and other images without concern for usage rights have come under enhanced scrutiny, sometimes resulting in costly lawsuits and always at least anxiety-producing threats of lawsuits. In addition, some site operators, especially as they have gotten more successful, have undergone a change in thinking about the underlying issue: the right of artists not to have their worked exploited without acknowledgment and, where appropriate, payment.
Proper employment of the plug-in will help to reduce or eliminate legal and actual “exposure” quickly, while avoiding a time-consuming, complex, hard-to-reverse, potentially expensive and inefficient database purge, and preserving archives for continued use and post by post restoration. Another application will be for sites whose image archives have been corrupted or lost. WP-RUBI also facilitates the gradual whitelisting of exceptions to image removal/replacement, and the roadmap for future development includes facilitation of a “restoration” workflow.1
Background: “The $8,000 Mistake”
The core of this plug-in was originally implemented at a mid-sized multi-author blog that had been in operation since 2009. The bloggers had never worried about using news photos and whatever other illustrations they happened to find. After all, they were blogging for the love of it, not to make money, and, anyway, everyone else seemed to be doing things that way.
…Neither of which prevented a copyright lawyer from one day demanding thousands of dollars in payment for the use of a single of his client’s images. (It wasn’t even a very impressive or interesting image.)
Potentially facing a steep legal bill even in pursuit of an eventually successful defense, the bloggers decided to “close the barn door” and stop displaying any images whose usage rights were not “safe” – either licensed for uncompensated use (as in the typical “Creative Commons” license), clearly in the public domain (like US government images), or created by the authors themselves.
Yet the admins remained unsure how to handle their seven years of archives containing over 10,000 posts. So, rather than deal with the complications and the apparently huge task of sorting safe from securable from dangerous images, the bloggers simply deleted their image archives up to a recent date, and made plans to repeat the operation on a regular basis.
What they didn’t realize was that they were producing thousands upon thousands of load errors, every day, often second by second: generally two errors per deleted post image, one for the image, one for an image link, every time an affected post was loaded, whether by web “robot” or by random visitor. In addition to harming the site’s search engine ranking, overwhelming the site’s error logs, and providing poor-quality “broken image” displays to anyone coming across a popular old post, this desperate measure also swept up and destroyed safe and securable images: The effect was to make restoration of affected posts difficult where not impossible.
It was only after the Great Image Purge that WP-RUBI’s predecessor – “WP Replace Old Images” – was developed and installed. It was at least able to fix errors and display problems, and allow for some authors to make prized old posts more fit to share.
Many or perhaps most bloggers have operated like that site’s bloggers, and some have discovered – sometimes at significant, site-destroying and life-altering cost – that, as one victim put it, “Current Fair Use image copyright laws say that you’re financially liable for posting copyrighted images.” In short, bloggers may be liable for unlicensed use of images even if:
- It’s accidental.
- The image is removed immediately after receipt of a DMCA (“Digital Millennium Copyright Act”) “takedown notice.”
- The image is re-sized.
- The image is or was licensed to a web developer.
- The image is credited and linked back to the originator.
- The site is not for profit or takes in no money at all.
- The site features a disclaimer regarding ownership and exploitation of images.
- The image is embedded rather than saved on the site’s servers.
- Someone else is or was using it in just the same way.
These warnings, like the title of this section, are derived from a post entitled “The $8,000 Mistake That All Bloggers Should Beware.” Of course, your potential costs, and exposure, may vary by orders of magnitude in either direction from $8,000!
Using WP Replace Unlicensed and Broken Images
WP-RUBI will do nothing until the site administrator has determined which images or types of images to remove and replace. All images that are selected – for instance, images from before a certain publication date – will be replaced by a simple, customizable “image removed” image when the page is displayed: The change is made just-in-time as the post is loaded, altering the page “source” as rendered, but not affecting the database. If at some later time the site operator wishes to restore lost images, or whitelist a post, author, category, time frame, or image type, then the original links and formatting information will still be easily accessible.
The plug-in adds numerous additional choices and other improvements to WP Replace Old Images – including:
- Featured images or thumbnails now also (optionally) removed/replaced
- Inclusions or exclusion from image removal/replacement for individual posts, authors, categories, “after” as well as “before” dates, and image types
- Replacement images provided with “cache-busting” queries
- User can upload own fallback image from Settings page
- Installation routine preserves old settings on upgrade
- Detailed usage notes/tips/documentation
Infringe No More…
WP-RUBI can’t protect you against every copyright-trolling lawyer, aggressive licensor, and agitated creator in the universe, especially if you’ve already been caught out. Even so, if used correctly, it should greatly reduce your exposure. At minimum, using the plug-in would represent a good faith attempt to avoid infringement on anyone’s rights and interests. After you’ve installed WP-RUBI, you can put up a post telling the world what you’ve done and urging others to respect creators’ rights, too.
On that note, however, I’ll quote the disclaimer included in WP-RUBI’s “Readme” file and Settings page:
Proper use of this plug-in will prevent display of all or most unwanted images or broken image links, reducing or eliminating types of actual as well as legal exposure and preventing search engine “crawl” errors from time of implementation forward, but the developer does not and cannot promise to secure a site from all possible legal risk or search ranking disadvantages, especially those resulting from past practices.
WordPressers wishing to reduce or eliminate exposure going forward will need to implement strict image use policies, and may wish to instruct authors and editors on the use of tools like Image Inject or resources like WikiMedia Commons. Of course, there’s also the option of asking for permission from photographers and graphic artists – or making your own images – or, from time to time, even paying for work! (BTW – goes for developers, too.)
- Note, however, that WP-RUBI will not suit sites that generally employ unusual image display methods or aggressive image copy protection, or, more commonly, that are using JetPack’s “Photon” “accelerator.” Unlike other free Content Delivery Networks, Photon does not include cache-purging functionality, and Photon-processed images may remain unaffected by WP-RUBI replacement. To use WP-RUBI, you’ll have to turn the Photon module off, and maybe consider using some other CDN! [↩]