Five ways to protect your images from unauthorized use online

Photo: Oliver Thomas Klein

Photo: Oliver Thomas Klein

For photographers and image creators, online image theft and unauthorized use of copyrighted work is a very real risk. In a 2016 Pixsy survey, 64 percent of photographers questioned said that their work had been used without permission.

Though it remains practically impossible to completely prevent image theft, there are a number of ways to minimize risk. Our experts have picked the top five most effective things you can do to retain full control of your work – and make sure you get fairly paid.

1. Register the copyright to your work

When you create an original work, you are automatically granted copyright of that work, which means you can decide how it is used and distributed. (Note: A number of exceptions apply to this rule, such as if you created the work as an employee).

HOWEVER, registering your work with an official copyright office brings many additional protections. In some jurisdictions, registering an image entitles you to claim damages for unauthorized use of your work, and can boost your chances of getting any legal expenses covered.

Copyright registration processes and costs vary from country to country. We strongly recommend registering your work with the US Copyright Office (USCO), even if you don’t live or work in the US. Here’s why – and how.

As the owner of an image, registering your work is time and money well spent: In the event of legal proceedings, it makes ownership rights clearer, speeds up the resolution process, and can result in a larger settlement.

2. Use a copyright notice

Attaching a copyright notice, such as ‘© All Rights Reserved,’ has not been a legal requirement in the US since 1989. It does, however, clearly identify you as the copyright holder, thereby decreasing the likelihood it will be used without authorization and bolstering legal evidence in the case that it is.

Here’s how to write a copyright notice for an image. Make sure you also include details on how interested parties can get in touch to request permission to use your work.

If your image does get used online without permission, it is fair to assume that the user must have known that the image was copyrighted. In such a case, a copyright notice is considered valid evidence to establish legal proceedings.

3. Watermark your work

A watermark is a strong way of protecting work from unauthorized use. Watermarks also identify you as the copyright holder of a work – a bonus in an age when social media and ‘viral content sharing’ are commonplace.

Note: Watermarks aren’t watertight!

Unfortunately, most watermarks can be removed. Research released by Google shows that even seemingly complex watermarks can be taken out quite easily using basic photo editing software. The study concluded that randomized digital watermarking provides the best protection for images. This method involves constantly changing the design or shape of digital watermarks, and there are many online tools available that do it – but although you can input characters, you don’t have control over the final design.

4. Use a digital signature

A digital signature is intended as a deterrent that, unlike watermarks, doesn’t affect the visual impact of the work. Basically, it’s an image attribute that’s not visible until the file is downloaded, meaning that anyone determined to use such an image would either have to make the conscious decision to ignore the digital signature – or crop it out. Both of these use methods could be considered a wilful breach of your copyright.

4. Include hidden foreground layers

Protecting an image with a hidden layer means adding a transparent foreground layer to an image so that anyone attempting to download the file only gets a blank image. While this method isn’t possible on all platforms, it is a good solution for images displayed on a personal website.

5. Use an active protection service

Using an active protection service, such as the one offered by Pixsy, means all your relevant work is monitored for cases of duplicate use. If a duplicate match is discovered, we can send an email to the publisher to verify the legality of use.


  • It’s practically impossible to completely prevent image theft, but there are ways to minimize risk.
  • Registering your work at the US Copyright Office establishes the fact of your ownership and may entitle you to statutory damages and legal fees.
  • Attaching a copyright notice to your work decreases the likelihood it will be used without authorization.
  • Watermarks are a good way of protecting work but they can be easily removed.
  • Digital signatures work as a deterrent without affecting the visual impact of your image.
  • Hidden foreground layers are also a good solution for certain platforms.
  • Active protection services greatly reduce the time needed to trace and track unauthorized image use.
  • Take screenshots and record the steps you take to protect your work – this creates a solid foundation of evidence in a legal case.

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