Photo:oliver-thomas-klein-207908 CC0

How to protect images from unauthorized use online?

Photo: Oliver Thomas Klein CC0

A 2016 Pixsy survey found that 64% of photographers had reported their work used without permission, making image theft and unauthorized use a very real risk for image creators. There are several common techniques that can be employed, including six approaches highlighted in this article to attempt to minimize risk of unauthorized use or theft of your images. Please note: these techniques are not guaranteed to prevent unwanted use of images.

Copyright Registration

The moment an image is created, the copyright to that work is automatically assigned to its creator, by legal default. There are exceptions and grey areas to this rule – for example: 

A) If a photographer is subject to a work-for-hire arrangement and they have signed a contract which states that copyright of any photographs taken for the purposes of that employment are legally assigned to the employer, then the copyright would belong to the employer.

B) If a photographer photographs something during the act of trespassing then the copyright of any photographs taken there would belong to them, however they may not be eligible to distribute that work – for financial gain or otherwise.  

While the creator of an image is the legal copyright owner from the moment of creation, registering work with an official copyright office offers many additional protections. In some jurisdictions, registering an image entitles the copyright owner to claim damages for unauthorized use of their work, and can allow for the recovery of any legal expenses paid during the legal proceedings.

Cost and official copyright registration processes vary from country to country.

As the owner of an image, investing in the registration of work can be seen as time and money well spent; it makes ownership rights clearer in the event of mounting legal proceedings and increase the processing speed and settlement value in resolving cases of unauthorized use of work.

Using a copyright notice

Attaching a copyright notice, such as ‘© All Rights Reserved,’ has not been a legal requirement in the US since 1989. Using a copyright notice does, however, clearly identify the copyright holder to possible users of that work. Doing this can both decrease the risk of unauthorized use and increase legal evidence in the event that such an image is used without authorization.

Users of such a marked image are indisputably aware of copyright ownership and (provided the watermark provides enough identification) should have a clear contact path to seek permissions for its use.

If an image holding a copyright notice is subsequently published online without permission, it is fair to assume that the user must have known that the image was copyrighted work prior to their actions.

Therefore copyright notices are considered to be valid evidence to establish motive in legal proceeding.

Read about how to write a copyright notice for an image.

Using Watermarks to signify ownership of work

A watermark is a strong way of protecting work from unauthorized use. Watermarks also identify the copyright holder of that work, which can be viewed as a strong benefit in an age where social media and ‘viral content sharing’ are commonplace. 

Vulnerabilities inherent with watermarking

In short, most watermarks can be removed. Indeed, research released by Google demonstrates that watermarks can be removed with some ease. Those who possess a basic level of skill in photo editing software are capable of removing even a seemingly complex watermark from a copyrighted piece of work. Google concluded that a randomized digital watermarking scheme provided the best protection for images.

What is randomized digital watermarking?

Simply put, randomized digital watermarking is the method of constantly changing the design or shape of digital watermarks. There are some tools in existence that can generate an almost infinite number of watermarks based upon the characters input by a user, although the user has no control over the design of the outcome.

Digital signatures

When looking to protect images displayed on a personal website, adding a digital signature can minimize the risk of unauthorized use or distribution of the work visible on it. Adding a digital signature, sometimes known as a ‘secret watermark,’ is achieved by adding an attribute, to an image, which is not visible until downloaded. Anyone determined to use an image attributed in this way would either have to make the conscious decision to bypass the digital signature on the image or crop the image from its location, in order to use that work for their own purposes. Both of these use methods could be considered as a breach of copyright terms.

A digital signature is intended to act as a notice of deterrence, without compromising the visual effect that work was intended to have upon its audience.

Hidden foreground layers

Protecting an image by using a hidden layer means adding a transparent foreground layer to an image. When anyone intending to use that work tries to right click and save the image, only the blank layer is saved. While this method won’t be possible on all platform, it is a good solution for images that are displayed on a personal website.

Active protection

Using an active protection service, such as the one offered by Pixsy, as well as others, means all work under that protection is monitored for cases of duplicate use. Upon detection of a matching duplicate image, an email notification can be sent, upon request, to verify the legality of this use, to a registered user of an active protection service. 

Key Takeouts on effective image protection methods:

  1. Applying a combination of image protection techniques can greatly reduce the risk of improper use.
  2. Recording evidence of protection measures allows for a solid foundation in a legal case – such as screenshots of rights reserved work.
  3. The degree of quality of image protection is very much dependent of the IT skills of it’s creator, however there are services in existence with the express purpose of assisting this need.
  4. Active protection services greatly reduce the time needed to trace and track unauthorized image use.
  5. Registering owned work at an official copyright office is generally the most effective form of evidence in a case of copyright infringement.


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