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Google’s Reverse Image Search

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Earlier this summer Google quietly embedded a powerful new tool in their image works: the reverse search.

The concept is simple. Drag an image into the search bar (as above), and Google will return locations where the same image appears on the web. If you’ve not used the reverse search, try it out!

This technology, forgive my cliché, is a game-changer for everyone involved in content-creation. To wit:

  • Web designers and bloggers can avoid common, overused images by checking the current web distribution of an image. Don’t use the same cow as everyone else for your ground-breaking story on bovine beauty!
  • Those interested in hunting down the creator of an image- for obtaining reprint permission, perhaps, or to investigate a story- can much more easily find the source.
  • Artists and photographers can track who uses their images, and where, providing information about potential markets and unleashing the most significant tool to date for enforcing copyright.

This last point is where reverse search most stands to alter the internet’s image landscape, possibly in non-intuitive ways. Infringers will get caught- are getting caught- much more readily now. However, a barrage of copyright cases will pressure hosting services and social media companies in ways that may force a political reconsideration of copyright law itself. As a photographer, I worry about that.

Facebook has to employ people to remove infringing material. I know this, because I am constantly filling out facebook’s DMCA forms to remove images of mine that are used without attribution or permission. I do the same with blogger and wordpress. And Godaddy, bluehost, and scores of other hosting companies. Multiply my efforts by the tens of thousands of other artists who are trying to make a living from their creations, and that’s an impressive pile of paperwork. Most internet companies did not get into the business to spend time addressing complaints by irate non-clients. The more their costs mount, the greater incentive they have to lobby for copyright reform.

Take this post as a prediction, then. Copyright policies will change in response to reverse search technology. The extent to which emerging laws will continue to protect artist’s livelihoods remains to be seen.

Less important, but more hilarious, is Google’s attempt to guess the subject matter.

For those who aren’t concerned with copyright or content creation, the reverse search can at least provide some cheap laughs.

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is an Illinois-based entomologist who studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books, and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Glendon Mellow 10:34 pm 08/16/2011

    Wow! I had no idea Google was doing reverse searches. I’ve been using local company (Toronto-based) Tineye.com and it’s pretty effective. I’ll have to try this too.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Alex Wild in reply to Alex Wild 10:38 am 08/17/2011

    Google’s search is so effective it’s almost as if Tineye never existed. In my experience, Tineye misses 90% or more of Google’s results- it’s really no contest.

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  3. 3. Sean McCann 6:57 pm 08/17/2011

    How much time must an artist spend with the DMCA takedown notices? I wish google would come up with a way to do automated emails to ISP’s!
    I like the reverse search, but it is a bit of a frustrating experience seeing how many times my images are used without permission for commercial purposes.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Symbiartic.km 9:56 pm 08/22/2011

    I found the google search totally terrible with the one illustration I used as a test. Is it just me?

    Link to this

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