Noticing my apparent frustration, the shop owner approached and asked if I was having troubles. I explained the content of the prior paragraph, and she told me something that came as a bit of a surprise. And not a good, positive surprise that would allow me to leave the shop with my prints in hand and a skip in my step, but one of those dumbfounded face-palming surprises that makes me question the collective intelligence of the people chosen to make decisions.
"If the images on the card have been post-processed in any way, the machines will reject them. They've very strict on security now."
|Not an image, apparently.|
I explained that this is of course ridiculous – I post-process most of my photos before printing, and when I shoot RAW I don't even have a choice in the matter. The machines are effectively enforcing my copyright against me.
The lady shrugged her shoulders.
"It's to try and prevent people making infringing prints from pictures they grabbed off the internet. It's frustrating because we're losing customers."
"However, if you use the web interface to order prints, you can pick them up here within a couple of hours. The web interface lets you print anything."
I explained that if I were wishing to make infringing prints from pictures grabbed off the internet, that would certainly be my preferred method as opposed to going to the trouble of putting them onto a disk and using the shop's machine. Again, she shrugged her shoulders and apologised for the inconvenience.
I took my business to a different store under a different chain.
Anyway, this sparked an interesting discussion as to how exactly they're determining that a photo file is original. At first, I thought it might be in the EXIF data – cameras and software such as Photoshop will normally leave their own names in the meta-data to identify themselves as the file creator. However, most images grabbed off the web, or produced by older cameras and many camera phones have no EXIF data, so it can't reasonably be that. It would either be too easy to get round (strip all meta-data on Export etc.), or it would produce far too many false-positives, rejecting all kinds of genuinely original pictures.
Then, an equally curious friend drew my attention to some software that can with reasonable accuracy distinguish post-processed images from originals using a combination of meta-data and a database of compression signatures. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds very clever.
And that's when I realised the real reason they started to reject post-processed images.
Because they can.
It's a danger that's inherent in any kind of system of DRM, that because a data can be electronically protected, it therefore should be. Because the print service is primarily targeted at people printing pictures straight out of their cameras, and they can prevent post-processed images being printed, they therefore should. Doesn't make any sense, but that's the allure of technology.
It reminded me of a conversation I had a few years back with a representative of a movie distribution company over the use of regional coding, which roughly went as follows:
Me: "As you're only releasing this movie (with obvious international appeal) in Japan, have you considered making the DVD region free?"
Rep: "It's not region free though; we're only distributing it in Japan."
Me: "Yeah, but If you make the DVD region free, you can still play it normally in Japan. Additionally if people living overseas want to buy a copy, then they can play it too."
Rep: "But we're not selling it overseas, and have no plans to ever do so."
So they went ahead and region coded it with no clear reason why, ensuring in the process that the majority of the world's population could not enjoy lawfully purchased copies (not without purchasing a chipped or Region 2 DVD player anyhow), and would have to resort instead to pirated copies if they wanted to see the movie.
Japanese social networking site Mixi is also guilty of this same common sense violation. Most Japanese mobile phones support a copyright flag in image file meta-data. Any file containing that flag can be saved and viewed on the phone, but cannot be copied to a flash disk, mailed to other people, uploaded, or retrieved in any way. This enables companies to sell for a dollar or three, tiny images of around QVGA size and less to use as a phone wallpaper or screensaver, or simply just to look at, safe in the knowledge that it can't be shared. It's a similar system to selling a fraction of a popular song as a ring tone for the same, or even more than the full version. Mixi being a social networking site hosts user generated content, but if you attempt to download even your OWN photos to your phone, it adds the copyright flag so it can't be copied again. What is frustrating is that the user who uploaded the picture is not given any choice in the matter – they're not even told. I licence most of my pictures under Creative Commons, and applying a digital lock in this manner violates that license.
But they can do it, and I guess that's all the incentive they need.