Strategies For Combating Photo Theft on the Internet

By Gary Gray

If you are a photographer and you post your photos on the internet, you may eventually find that somebody has taken your photograph and used it as if it was their own.

I recently ran in to this when a member of a Facebook photography group copied my photo of a Bison, then removed the copyright watermark and offered it for sale as their own photography on Fine Art America. This type of stuff isn’t all that uncommon.

Photography theft is widespread across the internet.  It can’t be stopped, but you can limit the damage to your portfolio by using a few simple tricks and knowing how to get illegal postings addressed.  I’ll share with you my tricks. If you have other methods, I’d love to hear from you. Send me a mail.

The best way to prevent theft on the Internet is to not post your photographs on the internet.

I’m not an attorney, but there are ways to combat this without one. If you’re in for large dollar figures, you’d be best advised to retain a copyright attorney.

If you are like me, I want people to see my work and I believe that photos should be seen by everyone. That doesn’t mean that I want it stolen though.

Things I do to protect my images from unauthorized use.

1.  I watermark all images I post on the Internet.

I’ve seen different types of watermarks in use, some are big and flowery, mine is a simple text blurb in one of the lower corners. Watermarks are easily removed, but it’s your first line of defense against a thief. They are going to have to be serious to edit out the watermark.

2. Limit the image size of your photographs.

I seldom post an image that is larger than 800 pixels on the long side. How big a print can they make from that?  One could stretch it to a low quality 4×6 inch print, but it’s not going to be very useful for much more than that, maybe cell phone cases and small items like that.  Of course, it’s a perfect size to be used for internet display. I’ve actually started reducing the size to many shots to 750 pixels just to give me a little more confidence it won’t be commercially useful.

3.  Frequently do an internet search on yourself and for your photographs.

I’ve found a number of stolen photos by just searching for keywords I’ve used on my own photos.  You’d be surprised how often something turns up.  Same thing with my own name and business, as this info is embedded in all of my image files. Some thieves aren’t smart enough to get that info out of the file before they make use of it and it can show up on internet searches.

4.  Register the copyright of your images with the Library of Congress Copyright Registration Office.

You can submit a batch of images as a group, and once they are registered you have proof of ownership and statutory damages for theft. This is a game changer for big league theft, as you now can recover more than simple damages, you can recover up to $80,000 or more per incident. This protects you from news agencies and others from stealing what may be quite valuable images. Registration can be done online digitally. I make a zip file that contains small copies of my images with all exif data included and upload that file to the copyright office as a group submission. I try to register batches of images at least once a year, more frequently if necessary.  As of October 2017, it cost $55 and can be paid for with a credit card. After registering your images in a few weeks, you’ll get a letter confirming the registration of images. That’s your ticket to legal action that bites.  Here’s the link to the Electronic Copyright Office (ECO)

5.  Clean up your postings.

If you post a lot of images on Facebook or Google or where-ever, periodically go in to your accounts and delete images that are no longer current. Those old posting are hanging around there on the internet and a thief can take one without you ever knowing until it’s too late. By removing your dead wood from the internet, you reduce the targets of opportunity for the thief.

6.  Once you’ve found someone has stolen your image and used it online you should report them. Report them to the entity that hosts the image, Facebook for example, or Google Plus. If they are using the image on a sales site. There is no legal way to sell something you don’t own, and sales sites aren’t allowed to profit from theft either.

7.  See if  you can figure out where the image is hosted and report that usage to the internet host of the web site where the theft was used. Most users have user agreements and terms of service agreements for any type of web hosting service and posting stolen intellectual material is probably a violation of the host sites policies. Again, they’ll want proof, but don’t be afraid to go after the web hosts. Most of them don’t need the hassle and it won’t take them long to get results.

8.  Threatening legal action with cease and desist letters. I always send a cease and desist letter to any thief or web host. If you get a reply, that’s proof they got it. May come in handy if you have to take legal action later on.

9.  For web sites and services who want to give you trouble, I’d find out where their business is physically located and then let them know that you’ve reported them to the local police department for fraud and theft, and throw the state police in to the mix as well. That’s going to hit close to home, because the owner of that web site may think about getting arrested in the parking lot when he leaves work for the day. It adds to the convincing that you’re serious. If need be, call the police and report it. You never know, they may already have a case open on it.

10. Spread the word. Ask your friends to post and get the word out on thieves. Always enforce your copyright.