February 22, 2018

The Ultimate Image Protection Guide: 13 Tips To Prevent Image Theft

Photo by Andres Umana

For photographers and image creators, online image theft and unauthorized use of copyrighted work is a constantly present, real risk. In a 2016 Pixsy survey, 64 percent of photographers said that their work had been used without permission. Some platforms, including WordPress, Facebook, or Instagram, are places where stolen images surface particularly often due to their visual nature and higher user base.

Though it remains practically impossible to completely prevent image theft, there are a number of ways to minimize risk. This image protection guide explains the most important terms you need to know, plus 13 tips that you can implement to retain full control of your visual work — and to get fairly paid later in some circumstances.

Image protection 101: 6+1 essential terms

Before covering the practical tips that will help you protect your photos and pictures online, let’s review some basic terms around image protection.

  1. Image theft: Image theft happens when someone uses an image without permission or a valid license from the image owner and thus the copyright holder. For example, a WordPress travel blogger may use an image of the Golden Gate Bridge that they found in Google search, but without having secured a license or permission from the rights holder.
  2. Unauthorized use (of an image): An unauthorized use of an image is when someone uses an image without the image owner’s permission, or outside the terms of a license. For example, the image owner only authorized print usage but not digital, thus publishing the picture online is a violation of copyright terms. Likewise, the image owner may grant non-commercial usage, thus using the image in any commercial way would be an unauthorized use or contract breach.
  3. Image protection: Image protection means protecting an image from download, misuse, image theft and unauthorized use. It especially applies to a digital context, as it can be easier to find tools online to protect and monitor possibly stolen images. An example can be an image monitoring and protection service platform such as Pixsy.
  4. Copyright: Copyright is a “bundle of rights”, which include, as explained by The Copyright Society of the USA, the right to “(1) distribute the work, (2) reproduce (or make copies of) the work, (3) display the work (for example, a painting that you want to allow a museum to publicly display), (4) perform the work, and (5) create Derivative Works based upon the original work”.
  5. Copyright notice: A copyright notice is placed on or displayed in the context of the work and gives information about copyright ownership.
  6. Copyright infringement: According to the U.S. Copyright Office, “copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner”.

+ 1. Image rights: Image rights are a set of rights of a photographed individual. Although the photographer holds copyright to their work from the moment of its creation, they might not hold all the rights to its publication or distribution — they may have to ask for permission, for example, from the subject of the photograph, depending on the country they operate in and the intended use of the image. For both beginner and professional photographers, it’s best to learn the basics of image rights.

Image rights especially highlight that image protection may be more complex than what it seems to be at first glance. However, there are ways for image owners to do their own part that don’t necessarily have to be complicated either.

13 tips for image protection

Here’s our collection of tips and best practices to help you prevent your images from being copied or stolen online.

1. Register the copyright to your work

When you create an original work (in the use case of photographs, when you click the shutter button), 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, can boost your chances of getting legal expenses covered, and provides an independent database where your ownership can be verified.

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, as a vast majority of online use comes from the US. (Note: a recent ruling determined that you can’t bring a case to a US court without a valid USCO registration.)

Photo by Markus Winkler

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

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 your work will be used without authorization and bolstering legal evidence in the case that your work is misused.A copyright notice should include:

  • The copyright symbol (©) or the word “copyright”
  • A statement of rights (e.g. “All Rights Reserved”)
  • The creator/author’s name
  • (optional) The date or date range (of creation) marking the year(s)
  • (optional) Contact information (where interested parties can get in touch to request permission to use your work - often your website address)

See the “Some rights reserved” license highlighted in the bottom right of the screen for the photograph of Luca Sartoni on FlickrSome rights reserved

You may also choose to license your online image under a Creative Commons (CC) license with specific terms — our article on Creative Commons licensing will help you decide which one is best for you. If you do go down this path, make sure to signal the appropriate CC license in your statement of rights. (Note: once you choose to publish under CC, it’s very difficult to undo.)

It's also worth noting that a CC0 (Creative Commons Zero) license will deprive you of your copyright, turning your photos into public domain images.If you want to learn more about licenses, you may want to read our article on licensing agreements.

3. Watermark your work

A watermark is a strong way of protecting your work from unauthorized use. Watermarks also identify you as the copyright holder of the 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.

Source: Google AI Blog

Source: Google AI Blog, original images: COCO dataset, Copyright logo — “The consistency of a watermark over many images allows to automatically remove it in mass scale. Left: input collection marked by the same watermark, middle: computed watermark and its opacity, right: recovered, watermark-free images.”

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.While watermarks are not perfect anti-theft solutions, potential image users are more likely to take an image without a watermark, so it’s a valid feature to consider adding. If an image user does remove your watermark, this removal is a modification of your Copyright Management Information (CMI) and can entitle you to damages.

4. Use a digital signature

A digital signature can be created with image editing software, and is intended to be 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.

5. Include hidden foreground layers

Protecting an image with a hidden layer means adding a transparent foreground layer to it. When somebody then downloads the image online, the download only shows the blank layer in front of the image — not the actual image itself. Hidden foreground layers can easily be added in Photoshop and other similar photo editing software, and is a good solution for example, for images displayed on your website.

Photo by Hikarinoshita Hikari
Photo by Hikarinoshita Hikari

6. Edit EXIF data

EXIF (Exchangeable Image File) data is a type of metadata that is generated when you capture a photograph with a DSLR or other digital camera. The EXIF file contains the image dimensions, shutter speed, and even the model of your device, among other attributes. It also offers an option to add your name or full copyright notice to the image data, and even data for Google to process and mark in search results.

IPTC photo metadata sets the industry standard for administrative, descriptive, and copyright information about images, and is widely supported through editing software and Google.

While adding your copyright information to image metadata is an easy step for photographers, it’s not widely known among non-professionals — so in case your image gets stolen, you can quickly resolve the matter by pointing to the EXIF data. This might not be this simple in all cases, as metadata can easily be removed by the hosting platform (e.g., Instagram) or if the image user strips the metadata from the file.

photo by Elvis Ray
EXIF data of a photo by Elvis Ray

7. Use low-resolution images

Uploading your images in low-resolution to any online platform ensures that if they get downloaded, the quality will likely be too poor (i.e., pixelated) for the downloader to use. It might even stop them from downloading it in the first place.

A low-resolution image may still look appropriate online (when used as a thumbnail) and it’s also a UX-friendly choice that helps sites load much faster than if you were to use full-resolution images. You can also hide the full-res version of an image behind a licensing portal, or make it available only for paying clients.

8. Adjust the color profile

Adjusting the color profile of an image usually comes up among photographers because they want to improve how their work looks like on the web. Today, all commonly used web browsers are color managed, so they will guess the color space and display the image according to their own settings. This also means your work can look somewhat different in Google Chrome than in Firefox, for example.

For this reason, sRGB is the recommended choice of color space for the web, but we have another image protection perspective to add to this discussion. Based on the same thinking, if you were to upload your images to the web without a standardized color profile, you could prevent some instances of theft. While web browsers would color-correct online viewing of your work for the average user, any downloads of your work would be in some circumstances unusable.

9. Disable right-click

Today’s educated internet user has a go-to move when it comes to downloading images from the web: the right-click. A simple right-click, “Save picture as” and a photo is downloaded to a local device in seconds.

As the image owner, you can disable this right-click option on your site by using HTML or JavaScript. You can find WordPress plugins for this, and the function is also built into many image hosting platforms such as SmugMug.

Note: disabling right-click will block all right-click options for the user (e.g., viewing the site source or opening a Google search for the image in Chrome) so you may want to consider if you would like to restrict your site visitors this way. On the other hand, it may help in preventing your images from being copied — however, this cannot be bulletproof either: a screenshot is an easy way to get around the right-click block, but we have a tip for that too.

Right-click options of an image online — Photo by Dakota Corbin

10. Block screenshots

If the right-click is the go-to move of the digital user today, knowing how to take a screenshot must be in our DNA by now. Unfortunately, for photographers and other image owners, screenshots endanger their images and support image theft.

Luckily, plug-ins exist now that can prevent this activity on websites, with many of them also available for popular publishing platforms including WordPress. However, it’s worth noting that such plugins are script-based as well and therefore can also be disabled.

11. Disable hotlinking

Embedding an image on another website, without properly crediting the image owner, is also considered image theft — yet, it happens. Another perspective here is that this action means that the thief is also stealing the bandwidth of the image and site owner — i.e., as the image is loaded from the original source — via a direct file URL, which is called hotlinking.

By hurting your resources, hotlinking can therefore hurt your site’s overall performance by generating unnecessary and unwanted traffic, and furthermore, it is definitely unethical and can be illegal, too.

You can disable hotlinking by editing your own code or in some cases, plugins are available to do the job for you, e.g., on WordPress. If you want to modify your own code, you can do it by adding this code below your .htaccess file:

RewriteEngine on
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !^$
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !^http(s)?://(www\.)?yourdomain.com [NC]
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !^http(s)?://(www\.)?google.com [NC]
RewriteRule \.(jpg|jpeg|png|gif)$ – [NC,F,L]

Notes to this code:

  • Type your own domain name instead of “?yourdomain.com [NC]”, i.e., “?pixsy.com [NC]
  • The “?google.com [NC]” section means that you will allow Google to link to your site — if you do not want that, delete that row but we recommend to use it like that
  • Alternatively, if you want to add any other site as an exception, allowing it to link to your site, add the same row including the specific domain name, e.g., you might want to add your photographer Facebook page or Twitter profile

If you don’t want to play around with coding yourself, many content delivery networks (CDNs) also have the option to help you disable hotlinking. Depending on the solution implemented, hotlinking can be fully stopped and/or a warning message can be displayed to alarm the user if someone wants to embed your image.

12. Check where you upload photos

When you upload images to any third-party site, your pictures will no longer be so protected — as is the case any time you share your work with the public. However, don’t just throw your hands up, be informed. Understand that the more places you upload your images, the more places there are for search engines to index, and users to download — and the more there will be for you to clean up someday.

It’s advisable to check the sites’ terms and conditions related to how they handle images, how they will protect them, and if they have any policies about image crediting.

Photo by Jakob Owens

Stock photography sites and social media platforms all have different terms and conditions regarding this topic.

Social media sites may even use your images for their own economic purposes, e.g., including them in their own company advertisements. But always remember: social media copyright is image copyright — the basics stay the same, meaning that you stay the copyright holder of your own image, even if shared on a social platform.

Some stock photo sites will not provide sales or download history so it becomes nearly impossible to track what might be an infringement or not. These sites are also well indexed by search engines, potentially spreading your images to every corner of the internet — often without information on valid use.

Therefore, it’s best to review all relevant sites from this perspective individually before you post or upload anything — this way you’ll know what you’re walking into.

13. Use an image monitoring & protection service

Using an active image protection service, such as the one offered by Pixsy, means all your relevant work is monitored for duplicate uses. If a match is discovered, you can review it to see if it’s an infringement of your rights, or an approved use. Getting compensated for commercial infringements can be as easy as submitting a case to Pixsy’s copyright experts.

You can also choose to contact the copyright infringer on your own, but more often than not, if the infringer is approached by a company specializing in image protection, with specific evidence, and following the correct legal process, there is an even greater chance of success.

Monitoring all your images with a service like Pixsy means long-term protection. Unlike other solutions mentioned, it can be a true savior of your resources as you outsource image protection tasks to a competent third party.

Pixsy’s monitoring service

Find the best image protection option for you

Image protection is a complex activity, and different photographers and image owners find different tactics valuable. First and foremost, it’s important to know your options, then choose the one(s) that seem the most suitable for your needs. If you want to know more about your rights as a visual property owner, visit the Pixsy Academy.

It’s also worth noting that an image protection service will certainly save you time and energy in this field. For instance, Pixsy’s award-winning reverse image search technology and advanced AI can continually monitor your work online. Plus, if the trouble hits, you still don’t need to worry: we can help you send simple and effective takedown requests and resolve cases by recovering lost revenue around the world.

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