Image Theft or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Internet

Whenever I teach any of my photography workshops, one of the most asked question is always: “How do I keep people from stealing my images?”. And my short answer is always: “Don’t put them online”. As soon as you put your images online, you open yourself up to image theft, the question you should be asking is: “How will this inevitable image theft impact me as a photographer and how can I minimize that impact?”. This question has a much longer answer and it will really depend on what you intend to achieve out of putting your images online.

The first thing most people want to do is watermark the living hell out of their photos before they upload them anywhere. There’re many drawbacks to this and very few benefits. First of all, it’s tacky and immediately makes your image look worse. Ever since we learned to read, our brains have been trained to pick out words in images. The printed word is just another form of image that we’ve assigned an abstract meaning to, as such our brain immediately picks out words all around us and reads them without any conscious effort or intent. Try *not* reading some text in an image, it’s as impossible as not thinking of a pink elephant. So what does that mean for watermarks? Anytime we see words overlayed on an image our brains are going to keep drawing our eyes to the text so we can read it, making it harder to appreciate the image as a whole. Worse still, if you’re using watermarks to deter image thieves, the text has to be fairly large in order to be successful, obscuring your image even more. In most cases, if your watermark is large enough to deter image thieves, it’s ruining your image; and if it’s small enough not to ruin the image, it can probably be cloned out with a few clicks in Photoshop. There’s only one case where watermarks are appropriate: on proofs you intend to give clients privately. These proofs shouldn’t be for public consumption, they’re not going to show your best side.

If you really must include your name or website on a photo for public viewing, create a border around the photo and put it there, don’t overlay it. This way you can communicate your branding info without messing up the photo. And please, for the love of god, use a readable font. Way too many photographers get font happy, using cursive handwriting fonts or stylized fonts like Papyrus. Unless you’ve got a really good reason for using a weird font, such as to match the rest of your branding, stick with one of the classic, readable font families: Lucida, Helvetica, Times New Roman or something similar. Barely readable cursive overlaid on an image will ruin even the best photo, and the less legible the font, the more your brain will fixate on the text, trying to read it.

Besides ruining the look of your image, using watermarks and branding has another drawback. You now have to keep multiple copies of the same image. Not only can it double the amount of storage space you need to house your library, it eliminates one of the key benefits to any online image sharing websites you might use; it’s another place to back up your images. For instance, my Flickr Pro account lets me upload high-rez copies of all my images that I can restrict access to. So while everyone else only has access to the web-sized versions, I have access to my full size images anywhere in the world. That means I can download and print out full size prints of my photos wherever I am, and even if my PC dies and all my backups somehow get wiped, I have an online archive of all my best shots on Flickr. If I had thrown watermarks on all those shots, both those benefits are eliminated. I would have to Photoshop out the watermarks if I wanted to do anything with my images on Flickr besides share them online. I definitely couldn’t make a print or send it to a photo jury.

Ok, so watermarks are out, so how do I deter people from stealing my images? Well, the easiest way is just to limit the size of the image they can steal. If you keep your images in the 400x600px or smaller range, the most a thief will be able to do is make a decent 4×6 print or share it online somewhere. They won’t be able to submit your photo as their own to any galleries or competitions, because they pretty much all require a full size image at some point, and they can’t make a large print. So worst case scenario, I’ve lost the sale of a 4X6 image which they probably wouldn’t have paid for anyways.

Another way you can deter theft is by making it easier for people to use your image legally. For instance, Flickr has the option to allow people to include your image in their blog posts. By allowing people to easily blog my images (blogs being by far one of the most frequent places images get used without permission) not only can I track where my images are getting used, wherever that image does get used, it will link back to my Flickr account. This way I know I’m getting proper credit for my image through the link back to Flickr; they get a free image to use and I get free traffic sent my way, it’s win-win. Social Media and online image sharing is probably the best way to get your work seen, you may as well stop fighting it and learn to make it work for you.

If you’re still really worried that your images are getting used without your permission, there’re a lot of web sites out now that will help you track down where your images are getting used. TinEye is a good one and Google has their own service that works the same way (although it’s kind of hidden and not very well publicised). If you do a Google image search, you’ll notice a little camera icon on the left of the search box. After clicking the camera you’ll be asked to either upload an image from your hard-drive or specify the URL of an image. Google will now do a web-wide search for that image and is smart enough to pick out derivative works such as cropped or de-saturated versions. The technology’s been around for a while, but it’s only become reasonably effective lately. The main drawback is that you have to do a separate search for each image, which can become very tedious if you’ve got thousands of images you’d like to check. I don’t think it will be long though before someone offers a service that pump your entire Flickr account through a service like this.

Now that you’ve found some of your images are being used without your permission, what can you do about it? In most cases an email sent directly to the perpetrator will be ignored, though I have had some luck doing this. Without someone in your corner to back you up, there’s really no reason for someone to take down one of your images. That’s where things like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act come in handy. The DMCA lets you send a take-down notice directly to the people hosting the website in question, here’s a great link for more information on how to send a DMCA Takedown Notice. This isn’t going to help you recoup any losses from someone using your image but at least it will help you get it taken down. Every photographer dreams of a big pay-day from someone like Coke or McDonalds using one of their images without permission, but realistically that’s like winning the lottery; yes, it happens but the chances it’s going to happen to one your images out of the literally billions and billions of images out there is next to none.

In the end, having your images stolen online is usually more damaging emotionally than monetarily. If sharing images online is part of our business you’re going to have to accept some amount of theft, just like any brick and mortar store has to accept some level of shoplifting; it’s just the cost of doing business. What you have to ask yourself is “Does this specific case of image theft hurt my wallet enough to act on, or does it just offend my sense of ownership”, otherwise you could spend all your time trying to hunt down image thieves and drive yourself crazy in the process. Be smart with what you share and how you share it and pick your battles; your sanity will thank you. When all’s said and done, the advantages of marketing your photos online far outweigh the threat of image theft it entails… so just relax, and learn to love the internet.

  • Darcy Whyte

    I think this concern for stealing images (and ideas in general) is a bit unwarranted. I believe benefits of sharing outweigh the risks by far.

    Wait, I just read the last paragraph and that’s basically what you’re saying. 🙂

    But that sort of worrying can almost guarantee failure in today’s open world.