On the WorldWideWeb, it’s possible to include images and other multimedia files from one server into HTML pages on another server. Because images and multimedia can be orders of magnitude larger than HTML or other text files, and because some service providers limit disk space or network bandwidth usage, some Web users try to find, um… let’s call it creative ways to store media files for their Web sites on other servers.

This process is called, perhaps uncharitably, bandwidth theft. For Web-based communities that allow open contributions of multimedia files (e.g., some wikis), it can be a serious problem. The main problem is that someone posts an image to the wiki, and then embeds that image in another Web page – out of context for the wiki. The wiki web server provides the image, which incurs a bandwidth cost, without getting any of the benefits of having someone read the wiki’s pages.

Some possible solutions:



Is this really such a “black & white” issue that you think the term “theft” applies?

Consider, for example, FlickR - which provides a free service, that must consume very large amounts of badwidth, indeed.

  • They state that they do this for ‘free’ because it attracts eyeballs to the advertising that is assumed to be paying for the resources that are consumed.
    • Interestingly, though, they also actively encourage Blogs to use the images directly, which obviously has the effect of stripping off the ads. At the very least this strikes me as being somewhat ‘self-defeating’ on their part, but…

I have, however, “jumped right into this lake”, without feeling at all like I am engaging in ‘theft’. And I don’t think I’m just rationalizing my use of their bandwidth as not being theft. Instead, I feel that they are providing a service consistent with their assumptions about their business model(s) and they simply don’t care (or can’t micro-manage) the relatively small amount of resource that I am taking advantage of. Who knows, maybe their motives are simply another instance of…

  • “He gives free samples, for he knows full well
  • that today’s bright, young faces, are tomorrow’s clientel/”
    • – (I’ve been told this is from a Bob Dylan song, regarding a drug dealer, but these are certainly not areas in which I am competent.)

Inclusion of images from outside sources in your web pages has also an additional effect that is not always so obvious: the outside source gets to know exactly who visits your page, when and what page it is (this information is all contained in the http headers of your request and can be easily mined from the web server logs). This is rather small and irrelevant piece of information alone, but when you have it of millions of pages, it becomes valuable statistical data: useful for detecting trends, deciding where to put what advertisements, deciding whether a certain product of service has a chance of success and when it is best time to deploy it, etc. This also applies to all “free” webstat services. Not to mention there is still an “advertisement” in the URL of the image, so when people copy the address to show the image to their friends via irc, instant messaging or e-mail, they also copy the advertisement of the service.

I would limit the term “theft” to storing such images without the owner’s permission – this is obviously not so for services like flickr or imageshack.

The question is, why don’t they use those services? There may be various reasons: the images may be against the service’s rules, eg. contain adultery, the services might delete the images after some time (but so can wikis), the services might require registering and jumping through hoops, while wikis are simple and straightforward, etc.


EditNearLinks: BillBoard FlickR WorldWideWeb


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