Just consider how satisfied you are with your photography work and the accolades that accompany your proudly achieved works… not to mention the compliments that often accompany it. Despite whether you think you’re the only person who actually appreciates the results is you yourself. Consider the amount of work you’ve exercised and the effort put in to achieve those things.

Experimentation with various formats, filters and shooting locations, not to mention limitless hours of post-processing and self-promotion on sites such as Flickr and the other numerous websites you push to keep your photos on.

Now just imagine for a moment that a random person, a thousand kilometers away is sitting somewhere browsing your ever so carefully curated site, plucking one of your prized shots from the page, whisking it away, and just thoughtlessly placing it next to their questionably-acquired text, AND… on top of it all- placing their name for the photo credit!

The sad and hard reality of this scenario is not only can this have happened to you, but it may have already taken place, and you simply just might not know it yet.

There is good news believe it or not amidst the grim reality of such a happening:

there are things you can do to help protect yourself!

The Risk of Doing Business 

In this digital age being artists we come to face a multitude of challenges than the previous ‘traditional’ old-school type photographers such as our forefathers. With such steady advancements in technology, newly found obstacles present themselves to be overcome. And the bottom-line, there is nothing you can do to completely prevent your photos from being taken when you upload them online.

Of course, there are certain tactics you can do to dishearten this from happening, and to subsequently make it that much more difficult for the thief, but ultimately you are at the mercy of the same wonderful technology that allows you to instantly share your photos in the first place.

Why Does This Happen?

Without delving into the inner workings of human nature and psychology, the short and concise answer to the question why do people use photos that don’t belong to them without permission is simply and sadly- because they can! For some people, it it’s far simpler to take another person’s hard work and present it as their own than to do the work themselves. In some situations, however, it’s accidental; it might not be clear that a specific photograph is or is not royalty-free and a public domain image. In others, the user of the photo may have legitimately forgot to give credit for the shot.

There are several methods of lifting photos from websites, including:

  • Right-clicking an image within a browser window and selecting “Save As” or saving the entire HTML page (which also saves any images used on the page)


  • Utilizing various methods to learn the full path of the image on the site, and then linking directly to it


  • Using a smartphone or other digital camera to physically take a picture of the photo, then modifying and using it as their own

When all else fails, the thief in question takes the alternate route of just going with the simple remaining method available, being the screen shot. Irrespective of what protection has been enabled, a screen shot will capture whatever can be actually seen on the screen at that time, and it is impossible to prevent.

This Can’t Be Legal, Right?

Fortunately for us, no, it is not. A copyright is something that is created the moment you click the shutter and take the shot; no further action is required on your part to legally own that photo. You don’t even have to put a copyright notice on the photo itself after it has been uploaded online, although though there are arguments for doing this.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) came into being in 1998, and addresses many of the issues we face in the age of online image use. The act protects lawful owners of digital content and places some of the burden of enforcement on internet service providers (ISP’s) to remove copyrighted material that is being used illegally.

If one or more of your photos are lifted and used elsewhere without your permission, there are a few options available to you:


  • The least invasive option is to simply request that credit be given for your work. This could be a letter or an e-mail explaining to the individual or company that an image they are using is protected by copyright, and that no permission has been given for its use. Since the infringement could have been accidental, you don’t want to accuse the user of theft right out of the gate. Let them know that you don’t mind if they use the image, as long as your name is given as the photographer and owner. You can request that a return link to your site or the image source be provided as well. Keep in mind that any images or content on other sites that link back to your own can help your visibility in the search engines.


  • Prepare a “cease and desist” notice and send it to the person or company. This will provide some legal ground to stand on if the situation escalates in the future. Let the user know that the photo was found on their site or in their material without your permission, and that you would like the photo removed immediately. This can be sent via e-mail as well, although printed requests usually carry more clout than their digital counterparts.


  • Prepare and send a DMCA Takedown Notice. This is an official notification to an ISP that copyrighted material is being hosted on their servers. This request will usually include examples of the illegal use as well as any other information the ISP may find useful to remove the content.


  • Do nothing. After considering your options, you may decide to just let it go. Sometimes the work involved in having a stolen image removed isn’t worth the effort. Also, many laws are different or do not apply internationally, so infringement that occurs in another country might be a lost cause.


Alright, So What Can I Do?

Although we can’t prevent theft completely, there are a few technical tricks we can employ to discourage it. Use watermarks on your photos. Watermarks are bits of text (usually a copyright logo or mark and the owner’s name) that are overlaid on the image, indicating that it is not for use without the owner’s permission. Larger watermarks can cover more of the photo, rendering it unusable to a would-be thief. Using watermarks tends to be a double-edged sword however, since any foreign text on top of a photo will take away from it and prove to be a distraction, even at a small size. Although a watermark can remind a viewer that the photo is not free for the taking, it is not required for the photo to be protected by a copyright, and its use is generally frowned upon.

Gone in a Flash

Image theft is really the scourge of photographers everywhere, and it’s not going away, ever. Not as long as pictures are abundantly available and the average person’s view of them is so casual. So the best thing photographers can do is be proactive with their images and, as a backup plan, know how to spring into action if one of their pictures is ever misappropriated.

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