Concern Raised At JPEG Copyright Clampdown

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Proposals to make JPEG pictures harder to copy, prompts objection from digital rights group EFF

A battle is looming between digital right campaigners and the Joint Photographic Expert Group (JPEG), which oversees the JPEG image format.

Earlier this week the Joint Photographic Expert Group met in Brussels, to discuss the future of the ubiquitous file format. During this meeting, the group reportedly discussed the possibility of adding Digital Rights Management (DRM) to the JPEG format.


The Joint Photographic Experts Group essentially wants more controls over how image data in .jpg files is accessed, in order to protect copyright and safeguard the privacy of people in images.

It is concerned that JPEG files are often redistributed without relevant rights information attached, which means they can be easily be copied or published again without permission.

The group first mooted the idea in September and feels that the change is needed because 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.”

“Currently, these concerns are not well addressed and an inhibiting factor in the further proliferation of digital content distribution,” said the group. “Hence, the JPEG Privacy and Security initiative seeks for solutions that can provide a degree of trust while sharing image content and metadata, and simultaneous also allowing the signalling of the associated policies.”

EFF Objection

But the digital right group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has opposed the proposal, and urged the group not to implement DRM in JPEG files in a presentation to the group in Brussels. It said placing restrictions of JPEG files could stifle creativity and that people would still find a way around DRM, like they do with DRM protected DVDs and Blu-Rays for example.

© mtkang - FotoliaThe EFF presentation included the following quote from security expert Bruce Schneier. “Digital files cannot be made uncopyable, any more than water can be made not wet,” Schneier was quoted in the presentation.

“Imagine if you had the same problem with any image that you found online – that your computer wouldn’t let you make a copy of Gene Wilder when making a image macro, or would stop you from reposting photos from an online catalogue to your Pinterest account, or would prevent an artist from using a digital photograph as the basis for a new artwork,” said the EFF in a blog posting. “That’s essentially what the JPEG Committee is discussing today in Brussels.

It pointed out that the professional version of the JPEG format, JPEG 2000, already has a DRM extension called JPSEC. But this is limited to the specialised applications such as medical imaging, broadcast and cinema image workflows, and archival material.

It said that the JPEG Privacy and Security group is considering essentially backporting DRM to legacy JPEG images, which would have a much broader impact on the open Web.

The EFF presentation reportedly explained why cryptographers don’t believe that DRM works, and pointed out how DRM can infringe on the user’s legal rights over a copyright work (such as fair use and quotation).

“This doesn’t mean that there is no place for cryptography in JPEG images,” said the EFF. “There are cases where it could be useful to have a system that allows the optional signing and encryption of JPEG metadata. For example, consider the use case of an image which contains personal information about the individual pictured – it might be useful to have that individual digitally sign the identifying metadata, and/or to encrypt it against access by unauthorised users.”

It pointed out that currently social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter automatically strip off image metadata in an attempt to preserve user privacy. However in doing so they also strip off information about authorship and licensing. This, says the EFF, has created the pressure for a DRM system that could prevent image metadata from being removed.

The EFF believes a better solution would be for platforms to give users more control over how much of their metadata is revealed when they upload an image, rather than always stripping it all out.

It also encouraged the JPEG committee to continue work on an open standards based Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) architecture for JPEG images.

“However, we warn against any attempt to use the file format itself to enforce the privacy or security restrictions that its metadata describes, by locking up the image or limiting the operations that can be performed on it,” said the EFF.

Copyright in the online world remains a highly contentious issue.

Last year the Premier League cracked down on web users who shared clips of goals scored in the competition on Twitter, Facebook and Vine, claiming it infringes on the league’s intellectual property and does damage to its broadcast partners.

In June last year, the European Court of Justice affirmed that temporary copies of content made by web browsers do not require a licence

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