This company uses FBI technology to find your pictures

Until last week, Ted VanCleave and Joe Naylor had not seen each other for four years. Yet they have just launched their new business that has been two years in the making.

ImageRights International is applying visual search and image recognition technology to track the use of photographs and illustrations across the Internet, enabling the rights holders to discover and then recover fees on the unlicensed use of their works. Long term friends, Ted lives and works in Tampa while Joe lives in Boston. Over the past two years they have been working on the business while having contact via skype, email and file services. Only when they met at the PACA conference last week they realised it had been that long as they had been on videocalls daily to talk through the business. The technology team is based in LA and Bulgaria so discipline in communication is definitely key to this operation.

Joe Naylor is president and CEO of ImageRights. Joe has a commercial background and was president at Webmessenger, a company that was sold in 2008. Ted VanCleave has 25 years experience in marketing and start-ups and is an award winning artist and fine art photographer. I spoke to Ted VanCleave earlier this week, just prior to the companies’ launch at Photoplus. He is taking responsibility for staying in touch with the photography community that ImageRights wants to serve and will work with external contacts. Both co-founders are fulltime involved in getting the company of the ground and making it successful. ImageRights is financed as most typical start-ups are, partly with the help of friends and family and partly by the sale of Webmessenger. Ted does see potential for an Angel investor to step in and down the line the company may look for private equity.

“As a photographer I kept on finding my images online, I stumbled upon them and started to think what we could do to improve the ability for photographers to find their work more easily”. What they came up with was a customised WebCrawler combined wth image recognition technology that will recognise images even if they are changed or cropped (To about 20%). The crawler selects specific sites that may be likely to infringe or simply use a large amount  of images. News Media. Business sites and blogs are among those being targeted. As ImageRights believes that there is about $900 million worth of unlicensed photography to be found on the web there is certainly potential to try and find that unlicensed work.

At launch the company will pull in a million images into the system every month. Users then upload their photographs and illustrations. Based on comparing the two sets ImageRights provides a weekly report detailing any image matches that it has found on the web. The report provides contact information for the infringing sites, enabling users to follow-up with those persons or companies directly. While at the moment photographers will have to follow up themselves ImageRights is thinking of adding a service to take this on this task for a percentage of the recovered fees. This service could be available within the next 60 days. There are two other improvements that the company is working on. The first is the ability for photographers to tell Imagerights to search particular URL’s (e.g. past infringers) and the ability to let the system know which images are already licensed so they don’t show up in the report.

ImageRights targets the approximately 3 million individual photographers globally. To ensure that this is an affordable service for this group pricing starts at $4,95,- per month for 250 images. From that onward there are several pricepoints, all depending on the number of images in the system. At 10.000 images the fee will be $34,95,- monthly.

So how does this compare to other products in the market? Picscout in particular has been around for some time. ImageRights feels that this is very much a product for photographers. Where Picscout works with the larger agencies and has a minimum of 30.000 images ImageRights can work with very small numbers. This does not mean the company will not work with agencies, at PACA a number of companies have expressed an interest and ImageRights will certainly continue those conversations.

In terms of image recognition technology the company already has a partner, one whose facial recognition technology is used by the FBI and Homeland security. It is also thinking of the future: “One of the options is to layer technologies for the best result”.

So why start a business like this with such a creative background? “I needed a way to protect my own work and nobody did this before or the costs were too high.” Ted is also not doing any commercial work so can keep his own schedule. “Besides, while travelling and working on the business there are still a few hours in the day left to focus on my work, especially since I work in the evenings a lot”. In any case, photography will come in second place for the foreseeable future.

Looking further ahead the company may leverage its technology for other services like visual search. In fact, there’s already a prototype site that combines visual and similar search with keywords. The results have been very strong, or, in Ted’s words; “deadly”. This site would work as an enhancement to a client’s website and integrate these new technologies into existing sites. Imagerights will be offering free 90 day trials to a small number of companies. The data from the trial will be shared with these clients. This should lead to valuable information; like how many searches were done with visual versus keyword sales and how many images were sold as a result of each of these different types of searches?

While the company is based in the US it very much wants to be Global from day one “we’re all photographers and we’re all finding unlicensed work” Joe has been in Europe many times and while it may be easier in the US we intend to focus on Europe as well

ImageRights is launching at the 2009 PhotoPlus Expo and Conference in New York (booth #379) will be live on the first of November. Beyond this the company is planning to keep the momentum by working with photography groups, creating partnerships, attending events (Imagerights will be at CEPIC 2010) and through a limited amount of advertising.

Ted VanCleave realises that change has not always been easy in the industry. He certainly wants to keep an open mind and pull different technologies together to see if Imagerights can build things that its clients are asking for.

Marco | Editor

Editor at large and founder of a bunch of stockphoto businesses