Image Theft and How to Prevent It
Addressing the Perils of Publishing Photography Online
Image theft, whether accidental or deliberate, is a major problem for photographers who publish their photos online. There is still a common misconception that photos found on Google’s Image Search are free to use. Others incorrectly believe that they can freely use images found online if they provide a credit.
Of course, there are also those who blatantly steal images because they know they’ll get away with it. As a photographer, publishing your images online can therefore be a difficult decision.
Promoting the very best of your portfolio is fundamental if you are trying to gain new business through your website. However, publishing images online brings with it the risk that they may be stolen.
I’ve previously touched upon the issues of image theft and plagiarism, but I thought it would be useful to explore some of the ways photographers could try to reduce this risk.
The first step is arguably to educate those who don’t mean to steal but do so accidentally. They do so because they are unaware that they shouldn’t copy images from your website. Possibly an obvious point, but you should have a copyright notice on every page on your website. It should state that all images are subject to copyright and must not be used without your consent.
However, I’d also recommend adding a dedicated copyright policy page which outlines your copyright and licensing terms. You could state detailed terms, but a simple heartfelt message could be enough to educate accidental offenders.
"Please don’t copy images from my website. If you do you’re breaking copyright law and making it harder for me to earn a living. I spend a lot of time and effort producing my photography. If you are interested in using my photos please get in touch and we can discuss licensing options".
This obviously won’t stop deliberate theft, but it should hopefully reduce accidental theft.
Stopping Google from indexing your images
A copyright notice on your website won’t prevent those who steal via Google Image Search. Instead, you could take measures to block google from indexing your images entirely. This is certainly a popular option, but does reduce your potential exposure to genuine customers. If you already track your website traffic via Google Analytics you should investigate the possible impact this may have on your business.
For those who are a little more tech savvy, it is possible to post only lower-resolution watermarked images to Google Image Search. This is done by configuring Image Sitemaps and restricting the Google’s Image Bot to the applicable images.
Watermarking photos is a popular option and is something I’ve mentioned previously. On the one hand, the photos will have no commercial value to anyone stealing them, which considerably reduces their appeal to a would-be thief. But the downside of this is that they may also look less appealing to a prospective customer. Some watermarks look far uglier than others, but ultimately if you’re trying to showcase your offering to prospective clients you should certainly think about whether the watermarks are doing more harm than good.
Rather than watermarking images, some photographers opt to only publish low resolution photos online. This limits the possible uses should they be stolen, without compromising the sale-ability of the higher resolution versions. Whilst this is perfectly acceptable to some, it presents two obvious drawbacks.
The first is that this doesn’t prevent theft, it just limits the damage caused by theft. The second is that low resolution images do not look good, particularly on retina devices and mobile phones. With screen resolutions increasing, this will probably not be a viable option in the near future. It compromises the fact that you are publishing your images to showcase them, not to hide them away.
This means there is essentially no image file present to be saved and download by a thief. It’s still very early days, but one company, Smart Frame, have already made progress with HTML5 Canvas image encryption. There will likely be further developments in this area as HTML5 advances.
Many photographer websites, particularly older websites, have had right-click functionality disabled. The idea here is that without the ability to right click the user cannot select and save any photos.
Unfortunately, this logic is complete nonsense because a savvy user can easily disable the feature, images can be downloaded via other means and it often irritates users who use the right-click functionality for other reasons, such as bookmarking the website or opening a link in a new tab. I don’t really have anything good to say about this "solution" other than it may hinder the less-savvy user. Frankly it is not a security feature by any means.
If someone does use one of your photos without consent you should know how you intend to deal with it. In some cases you may decide that pursuing the offender is not worth the time or money. But if you did want to pursue image theft you’d be well within your right to do so.
If you can identify the offender then a cease and desist letter may be enough to get them to take the photo down, or you could invoice them for using the photo. If they are not contactable, you can initiate a DMCA take-down which requires the website hosting company to remove the infringing content. You could also consult a lawyer specialising in copyright or litigation as they are usually willing to offer a free consultation and can advise you of your legal options.
I’m sure this list isn’t definitive so please comment below and let us know if you’ve used other techniques to stop image theft.