Jamie's Blog

Ruby developer. CTO. Swimmer. Always trying to write more

Licensing Software (and lessons for Professional Photographers)

Many moons ago, I used to hang out on The Business of Software forum and one question kept coming up again and again: “How can I stop pirates stealing my software?”. Software has a long history of using licence codes, dongles, licensing servers, online registration, phoning-home activation, obfuscation and many other security techniques to ensure only those people who had paid for the software could actually use it. There’s an entire industry built up to soothe the fears of software authors and protect their applications from pirates. Likewise, there’s an underground industry methodically and efficiently defeating those security methods. It’s an ever-escalating war and the pirates will always be ahead (it’s a conflict fundamentally skewed towards the pirates who can make “class breaks” in security technologies).

But the responses that the worried software authors received were typically not what you’d expect. They were generally much more pragmatic in nature:

  • “Why are you worrying about illegal users when you haven’t yet got legitimate users?” It’s a waste of your time to fight an imaginary threat when you could instead be marketing your product and building your business.It’s a form of procrastination quite common to programmers because we like deep technical challenges. Unfortunately, the time spent implementing (and maintaining, and supporting, and updating) software license systems never pays itself back. It’s far more profitable to spend that time marketing to potential users.
  • “Software licensing schemes inevitably inconvenience your real users”. This is familiar to anyone who has had to search for a long-forgotten licence code. Indeed, I encountered it this weekend when trying to revive a 5-year-old backup:
I’d been a long-time user of TrueImage and I figured that this backup file was made by TrueImage 10. So, I installed TrueImage 10 and it prompted me for the licence code. Ok, I dug that out of my 1Password wallet. Then the installer wanted the previous licence code because I’d upgraded from TrueImage 8. Ok… after much searching of Gmail and email archives I found it. The backup wouldn’t restore so maybe it was a TrueImage 8 archive? I tried installing TrueImage 8, typed in the licence code and—yep, you guessed it—it needed the licence code for TrueImage 6 which I’d upgraded from. Sigh… more searching. I gave up after a few minutes and spent 30secs Googling for a TrueImage 6 licence code and used that. As a long-valued and generally happy customer of Acronis I felt hugely frustrated that I couldn’t easily use the software I’d paid for. If I’d used a pirated version of the software all that licensing junk would have been disabled — a much more pleasant user experience.
  • “Making your customers feel untrusted is not a good business strategy”. A simple licence code might be expected but the more invasive (and therefore complete) your software protection is, the more your legitimate customer has a negative feeling from your business. “Why doesn’t this company trust me?”, is not something you want your most ardent fans to be thinking!
  • “Your real customers are not pirates, and the pirates are not your customers”. This was a persistent theme and I think it shows a pragmatic approach to business. It refocuses the debate from theory to practical, from whining about broken laws to concentrating on profitable business decisions. A user of pirated software is not lost revenue — they didn’t intend to pay you anyway!  So, instead of focusing on the people who don’t value your software, concentrate on delighting those that do.

How does this apply to Photographers?

Well, let me first state two things: Photographers own the copyright to their images; and they have a right to make a living from them. But I get increasingly frustrated by photographers who obsess over trivial copyright infringements instead of, you know, actually making money. I really don’t want to see the photography industry take the same path as the tv, movie and music industries have done (The Oatmeal has a pretty good overview of the problems). For one thing, those industries have much bigger wallets than the photography industry… and they are still losing.

Are professional photographers worrying about theoretical threats from IP infringements instead of focusing on providing real value to their true customers? Are they inconveniencing and disrespecting their genuine market? Are they confusing pirates with their real market (and vice versa)? I’d say yes, on all three counts.

The current furore is about Pinterest, which is a social networking site that allows users to compile visual bookmarks of their favourite things. It does this by clipping an image from the bookmarked page to which the user can add a comment. When the user (or one of their friends) clicks-through, they will get to the original page. Some photographers are going absolutely ballistic that Pinterest is storing a copy of their photos. Sorry, let me rephrase that so you can understand the absurdity of it:

Some photographers are going batshit-crazy because their fans want to favourite their images and share them with friends.
This is the point where technical transgressions of copyright laws need to be ignored in the name of pragmatic business decisions.

Why would you discourage your most ardent fans? I’m not a big user of Pinterest but I could see myself using it to “pin” my favourite images which I’d look back through for inspiration on techniques or location. A bride searching for a wedding photographer might “pin” numerous photos while she works out which one she’d like to shoot her wedding. And she’s sharing those images with her friends, and it all links back to your site. What’s not to love about that? Pinterest now lets you add a meta tag to your site to prevent users from pinning images on your site. I hope you have a really really good business reason for implementing that.

Your fans probably aren’t your customers anyway (but they might become one). I enjoy taking landscape photos myself so I also spend a lot of time looking at the  work of others for enlightenment, inspiration, motivation and just to practice “reading” photographs. Consequently, I could see myself pinning (or infringing!) lots of photos but a landscape photographer will have a tough time selling me one of his prints (I have enough of my own). But, offer me workshops/ebooks/seminars? Now you’re talking! I think it’s very important to define your products and your customers and focus on them. Relax your grip on the big red IP infringement button and start focusing on delighting your genuine customers.

Where is the lost revenue to the photographer? Having said all that, there are times when it makes business sense to prevent copyright theft and to chase after infringements. If a company has used your image without permission in an advert? That’s lost revenue. Invoice them and start up the lawyers! If a kid has reposted your image on Tumblr? That’s not lost revenue, even if he has advertising on the site. Stand down the lawyers. Send him an email or comment thanking him for his enthusiasm and asking that he credits you and links to your sales/gallery page. That’s a smart business decision. The photographer should be in the business of photography, not strict IP enforcement. Found another photographer passing off your images as his own? I expect you to fire off a cease-and-desist to the bastard, and his service provider, and starting warming up those lawyers again!

If there’s one thing I wish could make photographers understand, it’s this: Copying happens. There is no if’s, but’s or maybe’s. It happens. And it will always happen. To prevent copying is to completely change the nature of the Internet and you really really don’t want that. The Internet presents photographers with much greater opportunities than it takes away. So, there are really just two options: accept that what you put on the Internet will be copied (usually without malice); or you can take all your images offline. The latter path is a sure-fire way to a change of career. A sensible precaution is not to put full-res images online (but be sensible and don’t feed your fans minuscule thumbnails).

Watermarking is another popular way to mitigate against copying. A small signature, name or web address placed discretely in the edge of the frame (or, ideally, on a border) lets anyone who sees a copied image know exactly where it came from. It’s advertising and it makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, like the escalation in software licensing, some photographers fear that their subtle watermark could be cropped out and so engage in bizarre behaviour: after spending considerable time and mental energy composing and processing their photos to perfection, they emblazon a giant distracting watermark across the middle of the image or an eye-bleeding repeating texture across the whole thing.

I really hope they objectively considered the business impact of ugly-fying their work like that.
In short, I want professional photographers to survive by focusing on their business instead of fretting away time, money and energy on to-the-letter-of-the-law IP enforcement.