As a photographer, you obviously want to spend your time focusing on your passion: capturing great images, being creative, and making art. Unfortunately, in our connected world, photo security is a very real concern. This article is a comprehensive guide on protecting your photos from online image theft.
There are three main primary areas of post-production photography: displaying, selling, and storing. Each of these aspects has weak points that pose a significant risk to your work. This guide covers each of them and provides you with the steps to protect your work from theft, hackers, and corruption.
Table of Contents
Displaying Your Photos
For the vast majority of photographers, displaying work online is one of the most important parts of the pursuit. It allows you to share your work with others, get feedback, and (ideally) find paying jobs.
The downside is that, as soon as your photos are on the net, it’s easy for anyone to take and use them without your knowledge.
There are three different types of theft that you can run into online:
- Those who take your photography but aren’t aware they’re breaking the law.
- Those who knowingly steal but only for personal use.
- Those looking to make some form of gain from deliberately taking your work.
Each of these potential thieves requires a different tactic to outsmart.
Your first level of defense for your photos is the law around protecting intellectual property — in short, copyright.
In its simplest form, just writing a copyright claim on or near your work can be enough to deter a good number of thieves. Those saving pictures from the Internet often aren’t aware they’re doing anything wrong, so explicitly marking your claim to the photo will illuminate the fact that they are committing an offense.
A copyright claim should follow this format:
© or the word copyright or recognizable abbreviation + the year of first publication + something identifying yourself (e.g. name/company/website etc.)
© 2009 PetaPixel
However, if you wish to take an infringement to court—which is by far one of your best defenses against premeditated theft—it’s worth registering your claim with the government.
Registering your claim allows you to pursue a lawsuit and receive greater financial compensation. Compensation that might cover the cost of your average licensing fee, the attorney charges for going to court, and any other damages you can legitimately identify.
Even if you’re reluctant to sue, you can get a cease and desist letter drawn up by most good solicitors. Alongside the probability of scaring the receiver into following the law, they also act as the first written smackdown if you did decide to pursue a lawsuit.
On Your Website
Unfortunately, not everyone is honest, and the anonymity of the Internet often encourages people to take risks. This means that it often takes more than a simple copyright notice to keep your photos safe. Here are a few essential tips to consider when hosting your photos, to reduce the chance of thieves downloading them without your knowledge.
Disable Right Click: If you are displaying your photos on a domain you own, then it’s possible to disable the right-clicking feature, which stops instant ‘Save As’ downloads. Unfortunately, persistent thieves will often find a way around this.
Add a Watermark: Watermarks reduce the overall attractiveness of your photos, making them less desirable for thieves. Even if your image does go walkabout, it will do so with an advertisement of your brand, which will hopefully re-route views back to you. Creating a watermark can be as simple as adding a text layer on Photoshop. Alternatively, there are many free sites that can also aid this process. If you go this route, make sure your mark is central so it’s not easy to crop out.
Low-Resolution Images: Particularly if you’re just displaying small thumbnail images for clients to buy, a good tactic is to upload the image in the lowest possible quality that you can manage without affecting the on-screen aesthetic. Low-quality images are useless for thieves trying to re-sell stolen photos.
Tiling: This is by far the most time-consuming method, but also one of the most effective. If you chop up your photo into tiny pieces, upload them separately, and then re-assemble them online, you will have created so much work for any potential thieves that it’s likely they won’t even bother attempting to steal and reconstruct the whole image.
Embed In CSS: Similarly, it’s actually possible to embed your images into the CSS code of your site. You can then subsequently upload a clear picture to place over the top, so anyone who tries to save that area will just end up with a blank square.
Selling Your Photos
Selling photos to clients is another area where, if not handled correctly, you could find you have lost the rights and control over your work without even realizing you’ve made a mistake. Make a note of these tips, and it will be easy to avoid going wrong when making a sale.
Sometimes you have to grant permission for others to use your photo. If you establish the wrong license, you’re opening yourself up to the potential of your photos being used in a way you never intended, without having a legal leg to stand on.
This is a basic overview of the different types of photography licenses in use. Make sure you chose the correct one when hiring out your photos and services to others.
Creative Commons: If you aren’t worried about making money from your photos but want to ensure they’re attributed, establishing a Creative Commons license is your best option. You can determine where and how users can distribute the work, alter it, share it under a different license, and whether or not they can use it for commercial profit.
Commercial: Commercial licenses cover any photography that has been taken or sold in order to market and promote a specific product or service. This could include being hired to take product-specific images or simply having one of your photos requested to be part of a marketing campaign.
Editorial: Editorial and commercial photography can be difficult to tell apart, as the photos are often hosted in the same place; however, editorial photography is purely for journalistic or educational purposes (i.e. not trying to sell anything).
Retail: Retail photography is the most common first step for an amateur photographer turning professional. These types of licenses include any picture taken for the client’s personal use, which can include wedding, club, portrait, and family photography.
Other licensing discrepancies that are worth noting include:
Exclusive Licenses: This type of license severely restricts the use of the said image by both client and photographer. While it significantly protects your photos from broad use, it also prevents the creator from using the work in other projects.
Non-Exclusive Licenses: This license allows you to distribute and share your photos with whoever you want, not solely the client that has paid for it. It is the most common type used.
Unlimited Licenses: For completely free use by both client and photographer, an unlimited license is the best to pick. However, this is the least likely to provide you with legal backing if your photos are used inappropriately.
Online and Web Security
If you’re considering selling your photos online, the first step is to establish your online distribution channels.
Photographers who already own a domain to showcase their work will commonly add an eCommerce plug that will allow you to take payments automatically and distribute your work simply and to a broad audience. If you don’t have your own domain, then e-Commerce platforms such as WooCommerce and Etsy are great alternative options.
Unfortunately, if you are handling payment details, then your site—and, subsequently, your photos—immediately become much more inviting for hackers. Credit card information falls under what is known as “sensitive data” on the Internet. This is because, if intercepted, there would be incredible fallout for the victim. This includes direct theft by emptying the account or using the details to commit fraud elsewhere.
The tips below will help you to stay safe and maintain a comprehensive level of protection, no matter where you chose to sell your images.
Password Protection: A good password is your first line of defense. Ensuring each login you create is unique, complex, and long will help prevent hackers or malware from gaining entry and stealing or corrupting your photos from within.
Personal Practices: Adding additional security features when your personal practices are sloppy is a particularly fruitless activity, as it’s easy to infect your website admin panel via your computer. Be sure to have a comprehensive security suite to check for intruders and be stringent when clicking links or opening emails.
Remote Security: Public WiFi is notoriously insecure, as the open nature of the network means other users can access your data. This can result in remote hackers intercepting important passwords, or even your actual photos, just because you haven’t secured yourself when connecting.
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) encrypts your data so you can easily prevent theft on these platforms. These apps work by establishing an initial secure connection between you and the VPN server, which mimics a private internet set-up, meaning no hackers can gain access or view your traffic. Just make sure you get a professional, well-reviewed service.
Dedicated Plugins: Especially if you have built your site on WordPress, there are many great security plugins available that provide a whole range of protections. Popular options include WordFence or Bulletproof security. However, I definitely recommend researching the options out there and choosing the best option for your setup.
Storing Your Photos
Unfortunately, it’s not just selling and displaying your photos that put you at risk of falling victim to theft or cyberattack — storage is also a vulnerability. Almost all storage systems have drawbacks, so versing yourself in the potential downfalls will help you avoid falling victim to any of them.
Cloud Storage Vulnerabilities
Cloud storage is an incredibly convenient resource, but it holds the same weaknesses as anything else hosted online. These include:
- Little protection against brute force attacks.
- Easy password interception from poor remote security practices.
- Security holes that are yet to be identified and patched.
- Vulnerabilities from your cloud service provider.
External Hard Drive Vulnerabilities
While physical storage is at no risk from online thieves and criminals, it does have its own share of drawbacks:
- Easily corruptible if dropped or knocked
- Hardware degrades over time
- Little to no way back from errors or corruption
- Carrying it everywhere increases the chance of breaking.
As no single storage solution is completely secured from potential risks, the best way to ensure you always have a safe copy of all your photography work is to perform two-fold back-ups. By storing your work both online and on a physical drive (or several, one offsite) there is no chance you will lose all of the copies.
As reiterated several times in this article, photography security is by no means something that requires endless amounts of worry and doom and gloom. By going through this comprehensive guide and ensuring you have taken the necessary steps, you will never have to worry about losing your photos indefinitely.
If you’ve had any experiences with photo security, or have tried any of the above practices and want to share your story, then please leave a comment below! The more we can discuss this issue, the safer we can ensure our online photography is as a whole.
About the author: Faith MacAnas is a veteran hobbyist photographer who has dabbled in the professional world occasionally throughout her career. Inspired by photographing her travels, she’s ventured into stock, retail, and occasionally commercial photography projects. Now working as security and technology blogger, she wants to help fellow photographers stay safe from the perils of sharing art online.
Image credits: Header illustration based on photos from Depositphotos and by Luca Micheli.