“If you don’t want your photos stolen, don’t post them on the Internet.”
This is an argument I have heard over and over again, mostly from people who have never had their work borrowed. Which of course is like saying, “I know you were home, but if you didn’t want your belongings stolen, you shouldn’t have left your door unlocked.”
I have never been partial to that argument as there is a whole world of opportunity the Internet has to offer. For every negative word or stolen photo due to posting my photos to social media, I have gotten five fantastic opportunities to further my career or reach people I never would have had the chance to reach.
My career and income is built primarily on the opportunities I have received because I’ve taken to marketing myself on social media. But I can say with the most unfortunate yet utmost certainty and confidence that if you post your photos to the Internet, they are most likely going to be borrowed.
And I prefer the term “borrowed”. I try to think of the good in people and that in most cases, the offender simply didn’t know they were doing wrong. We are in a lack-of-attention-span, everything-is-up-for-grabs Internet generation in which most people believe that if it is on the Internet, it is free to distribute and use.
We are upon a generation that believes that any and all information and media posted is without owner and copyright laws. Which of course, isn’t the case. At least not legally. As such, I believe awareness and understanding is the best way to combat and reduce the instances of copyright infringement. I believe in the saying, “giving credit where credit is due.”
I will always remember my first stolen image. A friend of mine happened to stumble upon someone who had found one of my images, Photoshopped my model out, and Photoshopped themselves into the photo.
I remember feeling so hurt and so angry. I couldn’t believe someone had taken something I had worked so hard on and done something so awful to it.
I played with the idea of never posting my work again. I wanted to quit photography. I was fuming and wanted to find this person and ask them why they thought doing that was okay. I took a few days to think about the situation and cool down enough to find the right words.
I tried to look at it from their perspective. It was just some kid who thought my photo was cool and wanted to be a part of it. They didn’t know they were doing wrong. So instead of sending a message berating this kid and telling them to remove the image immediately or face legal consequences, I sent them a calm message letting them know that it wasn’t the right thing to do and if they could remove my image it would be preferable. Over time I’ve gotten used to it and become more accepting of it.
I’ve had my photos borrowed for book covers without payment.
My self portrait has been used in an art gallery in the Netherlands under another artist’s name.
I have been Photoshopped out of my own photos and replaced with another person. My photos have been used to advertise upcoming parties at clubs, church websites, and other artist’s editing skills.
They’ve been used to sell posters, prints, and albums. And even more recently, my photo has been borrowed to advertise a very popular app in the Itunes store. People have slapped quotes on them and they’ve gone viral on Facebook, Tumblr, and Pinterest with no credit.
In a workshop I founded, we teach a segment on how to protect yourself from image theft. We encourage our students to google reverse search their images and there is always at least one student who finds some of their work re-edited or used without their permission.
It seems irregardless of reach, following, or subject: people are going to take and they are going to use. Regardless of watermarks, disabling downloading, and uploading low resolution, your photos will be borrowed.
Unfortunately in most cases without having your lawyer on hand, the best possible outcome you can hope for is the image to be removed or your credit added. When confronted, especially if you are sending over an invoice for usage, most emails either go ignored or the “borrower” fights tooth and nail over the fact that they didn’t know the image was yours and that there are copyright laws in place.
I’ve been mulling around about this for a few years now and I’ve picked up a few tips on dealing with the issue of copyright infringement. First, know when to pick your battles. At this point, my images have been borrowed so many times if I spent all of my time sending out cease and desist I would no longer have a photography career. I would be working full time policing my work and dealing with copyright infringement cases.
I have over five hundred images that have been borrowed and edited sitting on a folder on my desktop, and those are only the ones that I’ve found. I know this is only the tip of the iceberg and there is a whole world of my borrowed images waiting to make their way back home to me. So I’ve learned to choose my battles very carefully.
When I come across an image being used without payment or permission, I ask myself these questions:
- Is the person making money off of your image? Have they slapped it on a t-shirt, book cover, or are selling prints?
- Are they using your image to promote hate or slander?
- Are they slandering your business?
- Do they have a big social media following?
- Are they using your image to market or promote their business?
- Could going after this person bring a negative outcome to your livelihood?
- Is the infringement located in a country with similar copyright laws?
- Is the monetary value worth the energy of the inevitable battle?
I am more likely to send a cease and desist to someone using my images to make a profit than I am some teenager that found my work on Tumblr, happened to like it, and doesn’t have a good understanding of copyright law. It is not worth the energy to me to get into a battle if the outcome will not benefit me monetarily or further market my business.
I have yet to find a good way to protect my images from theft. I’ve learned that if someone wants your images, they will do what it takes to get it. If you use a watermark, they will crop it out. If you disable downloading of your image, they will take a screen shot. If they want it, they will take it.
However, there are a few good ways to protect yourself IN CASE they are stolen (I can almost guarantee they will be):
Google Reverse Image Search
Learn how to Google Reverse Search your images. This tool is my new best friend. There are quite a few other reverse search engines in place but I’ve found Google to be the best at locating my images.
Know Your Rights
Watermark your images. If they crop out or remove your watermark, it goes to intent. Thus, later they can not say they “didn’t know” the image was yours. Slap it across the image so it makes it really difficult to remove. Make them work.
Or you can make it so small that only you know it’s there and upon asking to prove if the image is yours, you can zoom right in and see your name. Self portraiture and tattoos I’ve found are also really fantastic organic ways of easily proving you are connected to the images because they are undeniable.
Register Your Photos
Register your images with the Library of Congress or any similar resource in your country. I know in the United States the moment you click the shutter button, the image is yours. You own it. You own the copyright. It is not necessary to register.
However, if you register your copyright with the Library of Congress you have a fantastic paper trail, it’s a lot easier to prove the images are yours, and it allows you to sue for a higher rate.
It’s a relatively easy process, though tedious and time-consuming. You can upload your photos online for $35 or send in a disk and the paperwork for $65. I register my photos yearly by collection. I send in disks with low resolution JPGs under the names, “Sarah Ann Loreth Collection of Images 2010” and so forth. A year or so later you will receive a certificate verifying the copyright for those images.
Upload Low Resolutions
Only upload low resolution images to the Internet. That way, when they are borrowed, they are not able to blow them up to larger sizes or it will look horrible and pixellated. Photoshop has a quick and easy “save for Web” feature that allows for ease of saving.
Add Copyright to Metadata
Add your copyright information into the metadata of your photos. On most DSLRs if you go into your menu it allows you to insert your name and copyright information digitally to each photo.
P.S. If you’re curious, you can find 400 or so examples of my images being borrowed in this Facebook album.