Photo permission Q&A

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Updated 2001.05.26

Photo permission Q&A

I am writing book on Web accessibility, Building Accessible Websites, to be published by New Riders in October 2001.

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.

Version history

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 disabilities”?

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 online?

Yup – 900,000 of them in the U.S. alone, according to the only reliable estimate. Blind people are longstanding computer users.

How can you run a computer when you can’t see a monitor?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. For images that cannot be summed up with alt and title alone, you can add a longdesc (long 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 “Walker”; the title says “Walker, a font with snap-on serifs by Matthew Carter”; and the longdescription (a separate file) says:

The image 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 fonts.
It sounds like the problem is well in hand.

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 English.

And I guess that’s where we come in.

Yes. I plan to include a chapter or appendix in the book consisting of a large number (fifty?) of images of all types with alt, title, and longdesc prewritten. Readers can use these as learning examples to hone their chops.

The plan is to include images encompassing the full gamut of what we find online, including:

  1. Installer screens
  2. Webcams
  3. Logos
  4. Maps
  5. Hitcounters
  6. Portraits (as of authors)
  7. Inscrutable little buttons you’re supposed to click
  8. Product shots
    1. Clothing: Illustrations
    2. Clothing: Photographs
    3. Hard goods, like tractors or tackle boxes
    4. Furniture
  9. Book, CD, and video covers
  10. Comps
  11. Org charts
  12. Symbols used in flowcharts and information architecture (e.g., Jesse James Garrett’s canonical “visual vocabulary”)
  13. Animated GIFs
  14. Function icons like print/mail
  15. Operating-system icons, and derivatives, of the Iconfactory/X Icons ilk
  16. Desktops of operating systems
  17. Screenshots
  18. QuickTime placeholders (with and without actual image)
  19. Comix
  20. Warning or fabric icons
  21. Altavista-style secret graphical codes you are expected to read and type in
  22. Unix and DOS file listings
  23. Photo albums
  24. Imagemaps
  25. DHTML menus
  26. Help screens
  27. Technical illustrations
  28. Numerical graphs
  29. Nature shots
  30. Shopping carts
  31. Icons meaning “link external to this site,” as seen everywhere at
  32. Service manuals
  33. 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 educational purpose.

It can’t be “educational” if you’re charging people to buy the book. I want a cut.

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 catalogues.

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 anonymous.

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, late afternoon), 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 payment.

What about distribution, royalties, other rights?

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 here.

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 with that.

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.