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Building Accessible Websites homepage > Photo permission Q&A
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Photo permission Q&A
I am writing book on Web
accessibility, Building Accessible Websites, to be published by New Riders in October
I am asking photographers and illustrators to license their work for inclusion in the book as an educational exercise. Here are some questions and answers about the project.
- 2001.05.07, around 4:30
- Updated with news of actually being able to pay honoraria to contributors.
- What’s this book about?
It’s a book called Building Accessible
Websites (see the main page
for the book) that will teach Web programmers and designers to
create Web pages that are accessible to people with disabilities.
I’m writing the book under contract with New Riders
Publishing, who expect to put the book out in October 2001.
- What do you mean, “people with
That really means blind and visually-impaired people. Some other
disability groups (like people who cannot use a keyboard or mouse
easily) run across a few barriers here and there online, but the
big problem is the visual nature of the Web.
- Are you saying that blind people are
Yup – 900,000 of them in the U.S. alone, according to the
only reliable estimate. Blind people are longstanding computer
- How can you run a computer when you can’t see a
Screen readers are the most widely-used
adaptive technology for this purpose. A screen reader
reads out loud all the text, icons, menus, and other information
that computer software (including Web browsers) presents to you.
Modern screen readers do a pretty good job of interpreting the
structure of Web sites, but some things are beyond the ability of
dumb software systems.
Like interpreting graphics. A Web site may post a picture of a
shopping cart, but a screen reader cannot see and interpret that
graphic. Or a photograph or illustration may be displayed, but the
screen reader lacks the eyes and the mind necessary to look at it
and understand it.
- So what do you do in that case?
You turn graphics into words. Wherever you offer a picture,
offer a text equivalent, too. In fact, there are at least three
ways to make graphic images (of all kinds) accessible in HTML, the
underlying coding language in which Web pages are written.
- You must use an
alt text – a few
words summing up the image (e.g., “Shopping cart”) that
will appear if the browser does not or cannot load graphics. Screen
readers can and do read the
alt text. This level of
access is the shortest, least informative, and simplest.
- You can optionally add a
title to the image that
offers a bit more information as to the function of the graphic. In
the shopping-cart example, you could add “Check out the items
you’ve selected.” In many browsers, the
title pops up as a tooltip.
- For images that cannot be summed up with
title alone, you can add a
description). It’s a separate file in which you can take as
much space as you want to describe the image in words.
- I’m going to need an example.
Yes, I thought you would. Here’s an image I used in an
article over at the
NUblog, a Weblog I write on online content. It shows a sample
of a typeface called Walker.
Walker, a font with snap-on serifs
In this example, the
alt text reads
title says “Walker, a
font with snap-on serifs by Matthew Carter”; and the
longdescription (a separate file) says:
shows the imaginary word HAMBURGEFONSTIV, a variant of the word
HAMBURGEFONTS often used for typeface showings, listed eight times
in the Walker typeface. The basic font is like Helvetica, Arial, or
Univers: It is a sansserif font, where the ends of character
strokes are not finished with tiny perpendicular strokes.
However, the image shows that the font lets you add serifs
to any letter, and each showing of the word HAMBURGEFONSTIV adds a
large number of serifs or thicker serifs to various letters, even
letters like O that never take serifs in regular
- It sounds like the problem is well in
Not really. Designers aren’t writers, and programmers
aren’t writers, either, by a long shot. Teaching them to make
Web sites accessible means teaching them to write short, medium,
and long textual equivalents of graphic imagery. We have to teach
nonwriters to write coherent and in many cases evocative
- And I guess that’s where we come
Yes. I plan to include a chapter or appendix in the book
consisting of a large number (fifty?) of images of all types with
prewritten. Readers can use these as learning examples to hone
The plan is to include images encompassing the full gamut of
what we find online, including:
- Installer screens
- Portraits (as of authors)
- Inscrutable little buttons you’re supposed to click
- Product shots
- Clothing: Illustrations
- Clothing: Photographs
- Hard goods, like tractors or tackle boxes
- Book, CD, and video covers
- Org charts
- Symbols used in flowcharts and information architecture (e.g.,
Jesse James Garrett’s canonical “visual vocabulary”)
- Animated GIFs
- Function icons like print/mail
- Operating-system icons, and derivatives, of the Iconfactory/X Icons ilk
- Desktops of operating systems
- QuickTime placeholders (with and without actual image)
- Warning or fabric icons
- Altavista-style secret graphical codes you are expected to read
and type in
- Unix and DOS file listings
- Photo albums
- DHTML menus
- Help screens
- Technical illustrations
- Numerical graphs
- Nature shots
- Shopping carts
- Icons meaning “link external to this site,” as seen
everywhere at Microsoft.com
- Service manuals
- Banner ads!
...and of course editorial photography and illustration.
- And you’re looking for a freebie.
I’m looking for contributions, yes. Whether
they’re unpaid or not remains to be seen.
Specifically, I am asking photographers and illustrators to
license a few images for this
- It can’t be “educational” if
you’re charging people to buy the book. I want a
Every educational book costs money. When was the last time a how-to book or even a school textbook was free? In fact, the only books that
don’t cost money are Dianetics and
The purpose of these adapted images is no less educational
because the book carries a cover price and I’m getting paid
to write it. Among other things, I’m not getting paid any
more or less to include the chapter on adapted imagery, and I do
not earn commission or any kind of marginal income with every image
I use. I am not profiting from the addition of any particular image
or even of a body of images.
Also, I’m doing all the work: I am writing the
book. I came up with this idea. I am writing all the textual
equivalents, which in itself is a massive job. You’re
contributing, but so am I. Yes, obviously the book carries my
byline, but all imagery used in the chapter will be licensed and
fully credited. It’s not as though contributors will be
Further, the aim is clearly educational because the photographs
and illustrations used in the chapter are the subject of
study and do not serve a function of editorial illustration.
If we run a photograph of Elvis Costello, we are doing so for the
photograph’s formal properties and the challenge of
describing them (how do you put Elvis Costello’s
looks into words? what is relevant about this particular
photograph’s embodiment of those looks?) and not because the
book is about Elvis Costello.
- I still want a cut.
As of this writing (May 7, 2001, ), yes, there now is a budget to pay token fees to
contributors for the licensed use of their photos and
illustrations. Call them “honoraria.”
The exact budget has not been worked out yet. It appears I am working with a single dollar figure for cover illustration and everything inside the covers. The honorarium won’t be a lot, and I will impose a flat
rate. More-famous contributors will not be paid more than the less
famous. I don’t know what that flat rate will be: Fifty
bucks? A hundred? It will not be a lot. It will be a token
- What about distribution, royalties, other
You’ll be asked to license your image or images without
royalty or other subsequent payment; with the express purpose of
adapting the image(s) into text, thereby creating a derivative
work; and for publication in my book or any of its subsidiary
forms, like foreign-language translations.
- Well, I’m worried about piracy
A fair concern, but not one we can eliminate. It is quite likely
that the chapter in question will appear in an E-book only and not
in the printed book (or even on the CD-ROM included with the book).
In that likely scenario, all we’d need is a JPEG image, which
you may already be providing on your own site. Whether we use print
or electronic media, someone may go to the trouble to steal your
work. It may be wise to visibly watermark every image with the
creator’s name and copyright details, and I’d be fine
I definitely do not want this chapter posted on the Web. There has to be controlled access.
- So why should I bother?
You are visualists. While blind photographers are not unknown
(there’s an entire movie about one: Proof),
blindness isn’t something that would pop to mind when you
think of your own craft. But making images accessible online is
more than half the battle in making the entire Web accessible.
It’s that important. Simple accessibility, in the form of
alt texts, is easy to accomplish, but levels beyond
that one require actual training.
The fact that creating textual descriptions of your work is the
last thing you thought would ever happen when you became a
photographer or illustrator is reason enough to do it. It shows
that one means of communication can be embodied in another.
Moreover, nobody has ever done anything like this before. It
will be a new contribution to human knowledge. Indeed, while
I’m giving all sorts of new and useful information in my
book, I consider everything but this chapter to be mere mechanics.
Well-written, helpful, authoritative and original mechanics, but
mechanics nonetheless. The lasting gift to the world will be a set
of images with three kinds of prewritten textual equivalents.
It’s there that we’re blazing new ground. And
I want you to help me do it.
- So where do I sign?
Just drop me a line and let me know if
you’re interested. If any changes come up, this page will be updated.