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  This page was last updated on November 23, 1998, and reflects the information available at that time. While it's possible the circumstances have changed since the publication of this page, the techniques described are still valid.

What is AltaVista's Photo Finder?

On October 13, 1998, the same day the Senate passed the Digital Millennium Act to protect content creators on the Internet, Alta Vista launched a new "service" called Photo Finder (click the "images" tab)

Upon entering a word or phrase, this search engine will return dozens if not hundreds of images of that item found on the World Wide Web. The pages it returns feature thumbnails of all the images, and links to their source. Originally, the pages contained no copyright information or disclaimer whatsoever, either general, or specific to any image. Due to the uproar their launch created, Alta Vista has since added the following disclaimer:

"Anyone who would like to use any of the artwork, photographs, or images found through or linked to by AV Photo Finder should contact the owner of the images and ask for the appropriate permission or authorization."

It should be noted that this disclaimer currently appears only on the opening page, where the search word is first entered. On the returned pages that actually contain the copyrighted images of others, there is no notice of any kind.

It's a shame AltaVista did not see any reason to follow the above advice themselves before they placed the copyrighted images of others on their servers. They claim it is illegal to reproduce their copyrighted logo and other intellectual property without their permission, but they apparently see no need to respect the intellectual property of others.

Despite the fact that searches have returned the trademarked logo of CNN, copyrighted images of Disney, Inc., and Star Trek graphics (all properties that their owners have zealously defended on the Internet), AltaVista has stated they have no intention of suspending this "service," regardless of the freely offered opinions of lawyers specializing in intellectual property rights that their use of 3rd party images in this way represents a breach of copyright law.

How does it appear to work?

Most web authors make use of the ALT attribute of the <IMG> tag to provide a short accurate text description of the graphic's content, for the benefit of those surfing the web with image loading turned off. AltaVista uses the robot "vscooter" (as opposed to their text robot, scooter) to index this ALT text, and the image it describes. It would appear some weight is also given to text nearby the image on the page. I do not know if the actual file name matters. This robot was developed in conjunction with the company Virage, who list some info in their press release.

They currently claim to have over ten million images in their database.

What can I do to prevent the indexing of my site's graphics?

If you are a content creator who is concerned about protecting your copyrighted works, I'd advise complaining directly to AltaVista via e-mail. Of course, I did this the day after their launch, and have yet to hear a word from them. I'm hoping this is because they've been inundated with a pile of complaints. Please add to it.

AltaVista does provide a couple of ways to opt out of their indexing. In my opinion, the onus should not be on those whose rights are infringed to take action, it should be on AltaVista to obey the law. Despite that fact, we must use whatever methods we can. They offer two:

  • Robots Exclusion .txt
    This solution will only work for those who have their own domain. If you have a robots.txt file in the root of your domain, all robots that come to your site to index it will read this file first, and follow its directives. If you're not familiar with this, you should probably read the Robots Exclusion Protocol. If you already have a robots.txt file, add one blank line after your current declarations, then add the following two lines, followed by a carriage return (hit "Enter"):

    User-agent: vscooter
    Disallow: /

    If you do not have a robots.txt file, open a plain text editor, like Notepad, create the above two lines, end the file with a carriage return, save it as "robots.txt", and load it into the root directory of your site (the same one with your "home" page). This will cause "vscooter" to go away without indexing your images, but will allow AltaVista's normal text robot, "scooter", to index your site as it always has.

  • <META> tags
    Robots can be also be excluded on a page by page basis using a <META> tag. Unlike the robots.txt file, this solution will work whether or not you have your own domain. For example, adding the <META> tag below within the <HEAD> of your document will prevent a robot from adding a page to its index and links on the page will not be followed:

    <META NAME="robots" CONTENT="noindex, nofollow">

    You can find more details on <META> tag robot exclusion on this page, which points out that only a few robots support this tag, and the above example will affect all of them. However, AltaVista's robots do support this <META> exclusion, and their image robot supports two additional options not included in the standard:

    • NOIMAGEINDEX prevents that page from appearing in the AltaVista Image Search index but the page can still show up in the main AltaVista index.

    • NOIMAGECLICK prevents the use of links directly to the images. Instead, there will only be a link to the web page.

    My advice would be to place the following <META> tag in the <HEAD> of any document linked from an outside source, as well as the index page ("home" page) of your site, and the index page of each of your sub-directories:

    <META NAME="robots" CONTENT="noimageindex">

    Note, the content is not case sensitive. This should prevent their image robot from indexing your site, although there is no reason you couldn't put it on each page you have.

What if my site has already been indexed?

You can certainly still apply the above solutions, and hope their robot re-indexes your site in the near future. But in the meantime, your images have already been saved, resized, and recompressed by AltaVista for display on search returns. They claim that they will remove your images from the database only if you place an appropriate robots.txt in your site, and/or proper <META> exclusion tags, and then submit your site's URL at http://image.altavista.com/remove.html. This page is not very clear to me, but I believe this submission triggers a new visit by their spider at some later date, who will then find your new exclusions. One would assume they would then remove existing images from that site that were previously indexed. But these are just my beliefs and assumptions, as AltaVista is far from clear in the few words they offer on this subject.

You can still try to prevent the link from the AltaVista thumbnail to the full sized graphic on your server, but even then, your options are limited. If you do not have your own domain, I'm unaware of any option other than changing the file names of all indexed images so that AltaVista's link to them returns a "404 - File Not Found" error, but this is obviously a pain if you have a lot of images.

If you do have a domain, ask your web host about the possibility of using a .htaccess file with a <Limit GET> section to deny referrals from specific domains. Depending on the software your server runs, this may or may not be effective, so you must contact your web host for details. Another option is to purchase a commercial CGI script that limits referrals from specified domains, if your account supports the use of custom CGI scripts.

These are the options of which I'm aware, but if you have any other ideas, or comments about this page, please e-mail reid@photodude.com.

What changes have been made since this page went online in mid-October?

This page was placed online on October 17, 1998, and that same day I implemented the robots.txt and <META> exclusions on my site. At that time approximately 50 of my graphics had been indexed. On November 2, I found that all of my images had been removed from their database. I'd like to think it was due to the measures detailed above, but I have been unable to find any trace of anything calling itself "vscooter" making a single server request in the previous three weeks.

During the second and third weeks of November, "vscooter" made two visits to my site. Each time it requested my robots.txt file, read the exclusion, and went away, as advertised.

AV Photo Finder has made a few slight modifications, as all thumbnail images now link to the web page on which they appear, rather than the free standing image as once was the case. But there's a text link to the image alone that offers the view the thumbnail once did. They've also added more prominent links on their home page to previously existing pages that explain how you can have your site added to their index, and the steps you must take if you'd like to be excluded.

However, a spokesperson stated (see the first article linked below), "The thumbnails are not the issue (they are an acceptable 'citation')," so they clearly plan to continue displaying copyrighted works, and will do so until the content creator takes active steps to stop them from doing so. Interestingly, if you click on the word copyright at the bottom of the home page of AV Photo Finder, it takes you to a page that says, "No logo, graphic, sound or image from this website may be copied or retransmitted unless expressly permitted by Compaq." They seem to understand how the law protects them, so it's hard to for me to see why they can't extend that understanding to others.

Links to other web pages about this issue:

AltaVista Photo Finder Has Artists Concerned

Copyright Battle Looms For AltaVista

Compaq Accused Of Copyright Infringement

Photographer Claims AltaVista Breaches His Copyright & Trademark

AltaVista Disclaimer Not Enough For Copyright - Kelly

Lpce : bloquer vscooter (in French)

The URL of this page is http://www.photodude.com/av.htm


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