For a photographer who makes a living from licensed copies of our work, it’s frustrating to see how easily images can be downloaded from websites, shared on social media, or otherwise used without permission or compensation. Worse, to fraudulently use someone’s personal likeness and photos to create a false identity. I myself have been the victim of image theft several times; most recently I discovered that one of my commercially available images appeared on more than a dozen websites and was even published on a book cover… despite never selling a single license of that photo.
Image theft has always been a concern, but the rapid spread of technology has made image stealing very easy – as simple as copying and pasting. To prove my point, I just stole the Getty Images website while writing this article. (You don’t have to call the police…I stole my own work.) Getty has taken copy protection measures, and hovering your mouse pointer over the image will bring up a larger version with a large watermark on it. I liked the unwatermarked version better, so I just pressed the “Print Screen” button on my computer and pasted a screenshot into my graphics program (oh… a word processor would work just as well). I cropped to the area I wanted and in total maybe 60 seconds… voila! Free content. It probably would have taken even less time if I had used my iPhone.
For a generation that grew up on Facebook and Twitter, image theft isn’t a crime in their minds, or done with malicious intent…it’s just a normal part of everyday life to share and re-share content. The only way to really prevent our work from being shared dead is to never post it online. But that’s not a realistic option in today’s internet-enabled, phone-crazy society. So let’s assume a worst-case scenario: you posted your precious photos on the Internet and an anonymous person maliciously grabbed a copy and used it without your permission. What can you do about it?
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
In the United States, you are the copyright owner of a photographic image from the moment you press the shutter button. This is good news because federal copyright laws protect our works from image theft as soon as we create them. There are some exceptions to this rule, such as when a “work for hire” arrangement is in effect and a client pays the photographer for the copyright on images. In that regard, there should be no legal gray area as the photographer and client would have a formal agreement that would say the same.
The bad news is that copyright automatically granted by federal law doesn’t include all the bells and whistles, just the rights to protect our works and control their use. It also does not allow compensation – the right to demand financial compensation. In order to sue a copyright infringer and request money in the settlement, the image must also be registered with the Library of Congress. There is a modest fee and paperwork to be submitted along with copies of the copyrighted image(s)…well worth the investment.
It is important to note that copyright also imposes some restrictions on copyright holders. Fair Use laws exist that allow our images to be used and reproduced without permission for the benefit of the masses. Typically, Fair Use falls under the categories of news reporting, education, and other non-commercial use. For example, a college professor can legally pull an image from a website to use in a classroom presentation. But that same image, copied from the website and published in a textbook for sale at the campus bookstore, is now a matter of copyright infringement.
A common misconception I often encounter, especially among the models I work with, is that the subject of a photo also grants that person the copyright in some way. In fact, the person in an image does not provide any copyright unless you have a formal contract that states otherwise. However, you still have legal rights regarding matters such as defamation, if the photos are used to intentionally misrepresent you or damage your reputation.
Don’t expect Facebook or Twitter to act on your behalf if someone steals your images and puts them there. Their Terms of Service Agreements (those long-winded texts that we all agree with when creating our user accounts) contain words designed to protect their companies from liability due to copyright or intellectual property infringement. I’d take it a step further and suggest that major social media actually encourage image theft and copyright violations, under the guise of sharing and re-sharing content. Anything that brings users back to post, watch, like and comment more means millions more hits on their pages and millions of dollars in revenue from all the blatant ads they host there.
Where social media sites work on your behalf is in cases of identity theft. It is estimated that there are about 80 million fake user profiles on Facebook alone – many of these are used by marketing companies or ‘bot’ software to spam us with ads or to increase fan base. But some try fraudulently to pretend to be someone they are not. Unfortunately, in the modeling industry, it is quite common for a model’s images to be stolen to create a fake online profile. The reasons vary: maybe it’s a fan fishing for private photos of the model. Or a disgruntled person who tries to slander another. I’ve also seen my model photography stolen and used on erotic escort websites; I can imagine some customers will be surprised if the girl who shows up at their door isn’t the beautiful model they picked online. More ominously, fake profiles have been used to collect real contact information from models such as phone numbers, addresses, passwords and more.
As with all legal matters, if you have specific concerns, it is best to seek advice from a professional legal counsel. There are lawyers who specialize in copyright issues, or identify theft. If you find a fake online profile with your name and identity, contact the hosting site or service immediately. Most sites like Facebook have a page in their help system where users can report a fake profile or identify theft.
PROTECTING YOUR IMAGES
It’s virtually impossible to really protect your photos once they’re posted online. Using only small versions of low-resolution images can be a deterrent, but only for those who like to steal high-quality images. Years ago, website programmers developed “scripts” to prevent viewers from right-clicking and pasting an image from a website. But that’s easily circumvented by such low-tech techniques as the Print Screen method I mentioned earlier. Digital Rights Management and image tracking applications were created to enable copyright holders to track how and where their images are used online. But again, these methods are pretty easy to beat.
To date, the cheapest and best option to prevent theft still seems to include large watermarks on images. Yes, a semi-transparent logo on a photo makes our work a bit ugly. But it also seems to be a turn-off for many potential image copiers. And it acts as a big red flag, letting website viewers know that someone is using an image without permission. It is not a foolproof method; In my work, many aspiring models just don’t seem to care if they post an image of themselves with the words “Proof Copy” on it. And watermarks can sometimes be easily removed in Photoshop. I personally had one of my images stolen, the watermark removed and the altered image used on printed flyers promoting one of Chicago’s largest annual parades. The case has been resolved privately and I will not be revealing any names.
FIND YOUR IMAGES ONLINE
It used to be nearly impossible to keep track of how and where our photos were misused. But now new technologies have made searching for images online as easy as right-clicking or copying and pasting. Called “reverse searches,” companies like Tineye.com scour the web, cataloging the millions of images they come across on websites. When a user uploads their image to Tineye, or references a web link to an image, the service checks its database and spits back any matches it finds. It’s free, it’s a pretty slick technology, and Tineye can look beyond the basics of straight-forward image tuning. It can also find examples where text and design elements have been added to the source image, such as in a book cover layout.
Google has also gotten into the reverse search image game, and with excellent results. On a PC, all I have to do is right-click on an image I see in my browser and then select “Search Google for this image” from the options that appear. I’ve noticed that Google often returns more image matches than Tineye. But every search engine finds different sets of results and I use both search tools all the time.
It’s a good idea to do an occasional “vanity search” for everyone in their own name. You might be surprised what you find online. Look not only on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites, but also on Google itself. Don’t just stop with your name as you call yourself, try variations like your full legal name, last name (comma), first name, name in quotes, and so on. Different search engines produce different results, so repeat your search on Yahoo, Bing, etc.
Nothing exists in a vacuum. As photographers, if we don’t show our work to the public, we’re not promoting ourselves. The truth is that sometimes we just need to get our images out there, hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.
Visit the US Copyright Office website at for more info and registration.