Playboy Takes Middle Road to Protecting Copyright

By: Steve Outing

Internet users are stealing copyright images from publishers' Web sites. Some instances are benign, such as an individual downloading a copyrighted photo or piece of art onto their PCs for personal use. Other people, less innocently, are reposting or inappropriately referencing others' images on their own Web sites -- some for fun, some for (their) profit. What's a cyber-savvy publisher to do?

As I explained in my last column, there now exist ways for Web site publishers to protect their content by using server software to prevent Internet users from downloading copies of images and storing them on their PCs, or publishing them on their own Web pages. New server applications allow a Webmaster to tightly control specific elements of content on a site, yet allow Web surfers to freely view the copyrighted content.

For some publishers, that's going too far, and a less draconian solution for protecting copyrighted images published on the Internet is necessary.

Playboy's problem

The publisher that probably experiences the most severe problem with digital theft of its images is Playboy, which has one of the most popular sites on the World Wide Web. Playboy's photographs of nude women are downloaded by thousands of people, who use them as screen savers or simply as part of their own digital collection of erotic photos. More significantly, many people download and copy Playboy photos and place them on their own Web pages; others embed links to photos on Playboy's Web pages and insert them into their own layouts; others post them to Usenet newsgroups.

Playboy vice president of new media Eileen Kent says she's been exploring options for controlling the more severe abuses of Playboy's copyright. She's looked at solutions from Maximized Software (discussed in my previous column), which prevent all viewing of images except by a Web browser connected to your site, but she rejects them as inappropriate. "That would irritate my users beyond belief," she says. "It would alienate them something terrible."

The Playboy fan who downloads a centerfold image onto his home computer is not a concern. The person who wants to put it on his own Web site or sell the image is the one to go after.

Kent believes that "digital watermarking" is the appropriate solution for her Web site. She's looking at systems like DigiMarc, which embeds copyright information in the digital image itself. The information, in the form of text that can contain the name of the copyright holder, photographer, date, etc., cannot be seen when viewing the image on a computer screen. But using a piece of decoder software, the information is easily readable. In the case of DigiMarc, Adobe and Corel have incorporated the watermarking technology into their latest version of Photoshop and Corel Draw, respectively.

Playboy's new media staff constantly monitors the Internet, looking for Web sites and newsgroups that are featuring purloined Playboy images. With its photos all containing digital watermarks, the company will have concrete proof of theft when it finds Playboy photos on other Web sites, or posted to newsgroups on the Internet.

Kent says that misuse of Playboy's images is a "huge" and constant problem. Playboy is one of the most aggressive companies in the publishing industry about protecting its copyright. Typically, when Playboy images are found placed on a personal Web site, a letter is sent to the offender asking them to stop and explaining why what they are doing is wrong. Commercial sites that are infringing Playboy's copyright are threatened with being taken to court. Kent says a few cases are in the works currently, and some will probably end up going to trial.

Interestingly, Kent has not opted to take the technical solutions approach of blocking access from Internet domains that are known to illegally copy or improperly reference Playboy images.

Education, education, education

The key, she believes, is simple education about the need for protecting creative works in the digital world. Many of the "infringers" of Playboy's works are college students; they seem to think that nothing is wrong with copying a photograph and adding it to their personal Web pages.

"They don't have any concept about why this is wrong, and they're given no direction by their universities," Kent says. "A lot of kids are at risk because they aren't educated as to what their obligations are" in terms of copyright laws.

The college market is big for Playboy, so Kent must be mindful of that. "We try not to alienate our fans," yet still must educate them. "At the same time, you don't want to let your fans hurt you."

Legal tool

Digital watermarking is a compromise solution, somewhere in between ignoring the fact that Internet users are stealing copyrighted images and using the more severe techniques of disallowing everyone, including private users, from copying images from a Web site. A publisher will still need to have legal resources to fight copyright infringers, but watermarking technology gives the lawyers a tool to win the cases that the publisher deems important enough to pursue.

Contact: Eileen Kent,

Farewell, PoliticsNow

PoliticsNow, the premier U.S. political Web site, said "So Long..." to its readers yesterday. The joint service of the Washington Post Co., Newsweek, ABC-TV News, and the National Journal called it quits, reportedly because the partners decided to focus their political coverage on their respective individual online ventures.

The spin put on the closure by the partners is that the fast-changing nature of the Web caused the change in strategy. When the site launched last year, much was made of the desirability of competing online political sites to leverage their combined strengths and lessen competition for the audience of wired political junkies. Obviously, no strategy is safe for long in the volatile Internet publishing environment.

PoliticsNow was headed by former Associated Press political editor Evans Witt, who had assembled a staff of 20 and a half dozen contributing editors. It was based, of course, in Washington, D.C.

CBS courts Internet affiliates

An article in the Hollywood Reporter says that the CBS television network is considering expanding its Internet presence to CBS affiliates around the U.S. The national service would feature the CBS brand name and offer to TV affiliates updated national and international news and "original entertainment programming," to be added to local TV Web sites' local news, traffic, weather and sports. CBS affiliates not currently on the Web would get assistance from CBS in building their sites. The approach is similar to that offered by Warner Brothers' CityWeb project, another Internet local TV affiliate venture.

This is another sign of the television industry gearing up to compete with newspapers and other media on the level playing field of the World Wide Web.

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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