We’re used to the convenience of streaming media, but the principle of streaming offers far more for the presentation and protection of images than many of us realize.

Streaming media may be something that many of us rely on every day, but few of us consider just how central it now is to much of our communication and entertainment.

We stream music and podcasts, and enjoy TV shows and films, through streaming services. We watch news through live-streaming services online, and live-streams through YouTube and social media platforms, as well as gamers streaming their battles through platforms such as Twitch.

While much of this takes place at home, recent generations of smart devices and generous data packages have made streaming practical everywhere else too. When we go for a run, we might choose to stream music. When we’re on a train, we may stream a podcast or a film. And when we can’t get phone signal, we can download content for offline enjoyment through these very same services.

Its applications stretch beyond news and recreation. Conferences, meetings and even religious services are streamed for the benefit of those who cannot attend them in person. But when it comes to images, it’s strange to think that we still view and use them in the same way that we did when the internet started to become a part of our lives.

If music, videos and other online content have evolved to the point where streaming is now the normal way to disseminate and enjoy it, why aren’t we doing the same for images?


Why stream at all?

Over the last decade or so, a number of factors have come together to make streaming media as practical as it is today.

Arguably the most important of these are developments in compression, which allow for content to be delivered efficiently without impinging on its quality. This became more of a concern as consumers started to demand high-definition video – that is, video at 720p and 1080p resolutions – and later 4K-quality content.

Our computers, smartphones and tablets have become more powerful too, while domestic internet connections have also become fast enough to make streaming such content practical.

And so we have come to take it for granted; streaming is now a necessity. Whereas once we were content to order a DVD through a service such as Netflix or LoveFilm, and wait a day or two for it to arrive on our doorstep, the appetite for new content, and the ways in which streaming platforms encourage binge-watching, has meant that few of us are likely to be as patient as we used to be, with the slow decline of physical media being a testament to this.

It’s not perfect; occasional buffering serves as a constant reminder of the limitations we still have for videos, although this is perhaps to be expected for the most bandwidth-intensive form of media we stream. Today, few of us would be comfortable with the idea of a world in which we couldn’t look up an artist on Spotify, or lose ourselves in a new Netflix series. And as more of these services take up space in our lives, they quickly become our lives.


The death of piracy?

Streaming has long been viewed as the antidote to piracy, an issue that was heavily focused on in the early years of the internet. Much of this came as a result of highly publicized lawsuits filed against peer-to-peer service Napster, most notably from US heavy metal band Metallica (although Napster was just one of many such services that allowed content to be freely distributed in this way).

Metallica’s case led to a slew of similar suits being filed by others against the service, and ultimately led to the company filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and liquidating its assets. While the outcomes of individual cases differed from one another, the publicity around them reminded people that the content being distributed had value, and that there were serious issues around it being shared in this way.

Streaming hasn’t been the death blow to piracy some believed it would be, although there’s clearly less appetite to pirate content if it’s freely available on a streaming service.

The effect, however, is not the same across different types of media. Most movies, for example, are still subject to a theatrical window, the period in which they are on wide release in cinemas but not available on streaming services or physical media, which opens them up to piracy in the intervening months.

Images don’t have the same kind of journey out into the world, so the risks are different. Most approaches to image theft have, necessarily, worked on the idea of post-theft recovery rather than theft prevention. As these typically involve the owner engaging directly with the thief, they have had mixed success. But whether images are stolen by individual users or malicious bots, these attempts can only succeed if the source file is made available in some way – something that’s addressed by the mechanics of streaming.

Naturally, the lengths that someone will go to in order to steal an individual image are different from just-released movies or albums. If someone is intent on watching a movie that has not yet been released on a streaming service, but they find themselves unable to download it, they are unlikely to settle for another; the only goal is to obtain a copy of that particular movie. But with images, this isn’t the case. While some are unique, and cannot be easily substituted for another, our research indicates that almost four out of five people who try to download an image without the necessary permissions will move on to another if some form of protection is stopping them from doing so.


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Why it makes sense for images

There are a few key reasons why streaming has not been considered as a viable method of delivery for images as it has for video-based content and music. One is simply the popularity of the platforms on which we now choose to share our images, and the way in which their owners have dictated that images may be shared on them. If we’re happy to trade the security of our images for the opportunity to amass a sizable social following on a particular platform, other approaches to publishing images will clearly lose luster.

Another reason is that many photographers don’t consider images to be equal to music and movies. And, in many ways, they aren’t. Images and movies, for example, have gone on different journeys over the last couple of decades. Whereas we have progressed from enjoying movies and TV shows on physical media through to streaming services, images have always been a part of the online experience.

Consumer photography equipment, however, has not traditionally been designed with the online user in mind. The so-called megapixel race, which saw camera manufacturers battling with one another to bring out cameras with higher-resolution sensors, and which arguably still continues, has meant that we’ve long passed the point where digital cameras produce images sufficient in resolution for the average computer display.

A 4K display only requires an image that measures around 8.3MP for it to be filled entirely – and a 5K display doesn’t even require double this – whereas today’s consumer cameras will typically be equipped with 24-32MP sensors. Even most smartphones are capable of producing images that satisfy these dimensions.

So we don’t always need to display images at their highest resolution online – and due to our fear of them being stolen, we’ve been reluctant to do so anyway. Additionally, the light weight of images relative to other media formats has meant that they do not place the same kinds of demands on bandwidth as a high-definition movie does, thus making them less obvious candidates for streaming.

This means, however, that we habitually downsample images before we do anything with them online, discarding the finer details that are cameras are capable of capturing in a bid to make our images more secure once published, rather than allowing people to zoom into images and inspecting these details in a secure way.

Perhaps more of a concern is that, as the size and resolution of displays increase, ourolder, downsampled images fail to have the impact they used to. By streaming images, it’s possible tofactor in the user’s display and only deliver the image at the resolution required by that specific device. And by using an image at its highest possible resolution, it continues to look good as displays become more advanced. The result is that your online images are effectively upgraded in line with display technology without you having to change a thing.


Image-streaming benefits

A major benefit of streaming is that the file is always under the control of whoever is distributing it. As long as the content owner retains this, they can determine not only how it can be consumed and whether a fee should be charged, but also whether any fees come through a subscription model, through advertising, or a separate license of some kind.

This also gives the content provider the power to withdraw it at any time, which is the only practical way to ensure that a licensing agreement with an agreed timeframe is being adhered to.

It also becomes useful when content needs to be pulled for unexpected reasons. A number of popular artists, including Neil Young, Taylor Swift and Jay-Z, have previously removed their entire catalogs from Spotify, their reasons ranging from the economics of streaming and audio quality through to a desire to make that music exclusive to another platform.

More recently, Netflix, BBC iPlayer and other streaming platforms withdrew episodes of Little Britain from their services that were deemed to be racially insensitive. Other movies and TV shows that were removed from streaming services for similar reasons were later reinstated, but with a disclaimer of some sort. This was recently the case with Gone With The Wind, which was temporarily pulled from HBO’s streaming service HBO Max, before it returned with a warning that the movie “denied the horrors of slavery.”

Even if such content isn’t pulled, the principle of streaming allows it to be dynamically amended to suit a new objective. A print-selling photographer, for example, may wish to display a ‘Buy Now’ button over an older image, which links to their online store. Alternatively, they can notify viewers of a newsletter they have just started, or an exhibition they are holding, without needing to seek approval from the owner of the website where such an image may be embedded.


Whose image is it anyway?

Publishers may make a point of giving proper accreditation to images wherever they are used, but images posted directly to social media platforms rarely credit the owner. A streamed image, however, can always includes accreditation, wherever it’s embedded or shared.

And ownership, together with revenue generation, are two other factors that help to split images from other media. Images are, after all, typically created and owned by individuals. They are, more often than not, marketed and published by these same individuals, rather than movie studio or record label. They are not usually enjoyed by a global audience in the same way a new movie or album is, so the risk of them being stolen and shared in the same way is different (the obvious exception to this being an image that, for one reason or another, goes viral).

The vast majority of images stand to generate less revenue – if they generate any at all – than movies or albums. But when you consider just how many images do generate revenue for the photographer or content owner, and how much of a problem image theft continues to be for brands traditionally affected by counterfeiting (which relies on images being stolen from their rightful owners), the idea of publishing them without sufficient protection makes little sense. Like music and movies, these are still valuable, copyrighted works; shouldn’t they be held in the same regard?

Perhaps because streaming is considered by many as a way to enjoy other people’s content and media, rather than a way to publish and protect our own, that we don’t consider how useful this is for images. And maybe for this reason, we overlook the protection that streaming provides over content; if you don’t publish your own content then you’re probably not as aware of how easily it can be stolen.

But photographers, brands and other organizations that have had their images stolen know too well how easily this can happen. For years photographers have resorted to a number of different measures to make their images less accessible, or attractive, to thieves. While these may have some of the desired effect, many photographers will typically only employ one or two of these methods, which still leaves their images open to be stolen in one of many other ways.

Blocking right clicks, for example, does nothing to prevent drag-and-drop actions. Hiding image files from a webpage’s source code doesn’t prevent screenshots. Embedding watermarks into images will not discourage all theft attempts. Any practical and effective solution, therefore, has to take a holistic approach to theft, rather than restrict protection to a handful of obvious techniques.

Image formats may not have evolved in line with the internet, but if we stop to redefine what the online image actually is, we can equip it with the tools that will help both content publishers and online audiences. Photographers, content owners and other authorized distributors must spearhead this so that everyone else can follow, and learn that what cannot be easily taken cannot be taken for good reason. Change of this sort is always gradual, and not entirely painless, but it’s only by showing our images the same respect that we demand from others that we can start to move towards a better default image standard for the future.

The images above are streamed by SmartFrame.


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