March 19, 2021

How To Find Stolen Pictures Online: A Practical Guide to Fight Image Theft

‍Photo by Lianhao Qu

The internet provides a cozy home to images: it grants many opportunities for photographers, illustrators, and other creators to share their work but it is also a nest of stolen pictures. In fact, 85% of images uploaded to the internet are used without permission or a license.As an image owner or creator, if you don’t acknowledge that image theft exists, you risk a loss of potential income and recognition. It may sound threatening but the best you can do is to prepare for the worst and learn how you can find your stolen pictures online by smart monitoring. Trust us, they’re out there.

When is an image copyrighted?

First things first. Copyright exists from the moment of a work’s creation — in the case of a photograph, from the moment you snapped the picture. Technically, you don’t need to register your work for it to be copyrighted either but it’s worth knowing that in case you would end up in court due to a serious image theft issue, you would have a better starting point if you took care of official registration with the U.S. Copyright Office. This way, you can legally ask for statutory damages and potentially have your legal costs reimbursed. It also helps if you register your work as soon as possible, within three months after creation, or, again, your legal options can be limited. Read our extensive Image Protection Guide to learn more tips.

What is image theft?

Image theft is when someone uses a visual work without permission or a license that was granted by the image owner or copyright holder (a copyright infringement). Copyright infringement is a strictly liable offence, and can carry heavy penalities in most countries.

It can take many forms: people can display and distribute your works publicly without permission, copy and alter it anywhere in the world. And whether image theft is a misinformed case or a malicious one, it brings many uncomfortable consequences for both the image owner and the unauthorized image user. Photographers must react as soon as possible if their images get stolen but first, they have to find them.

How can I find my stolen pictures online?

Let’s make an important note here about what online means. Although Google is the most popular search engine, it’s not the only one. If you’re looking for your stolen pictures on the internet and choose to do this manually, don’t do only half of it. Make searches with other engines such as Bing or Pinterest which also partly function as a search engine for visuals. It’s a wide and wild web out there but with the help of our practical tips below you can make sense of it.

Photo by Nathana Rebouças
Photo by Nathana Rebouças

1. Search yourself

At the very least, you should google yourself from time to time and see if your name appears anywhere along with your work. This way, you can find your pictures in a context where they credited you but may have skipped asking for your permission to use them (which can be a violation of your copyright depending on the license you gave for the picture so make sure to address the case accordingly).

When doing a Google search, use these tricks:

  • Search for: “name” — the quotation marks will limit the search to exact mentions of your full name or any name that you use as a creator
  • Search for: “name” and “photography” — this will be useful when they refer to you as a photographer or owner of a photography business
  • Search for: “name” and “specific theme of the picture” — when you want to see if somebody stole your image of the Statue of Liberty, try “name” and “Statue of Liberty”

Make sure to experiment with keywords until you see successful searches.

2. Set up a Google alert

This could be considered an advanced Google search as you can set up automatic alerts for your name or any combination of words that Google will monitor for you with Google Alert. You can set the frequency of these email alerts as well to come “as-it-happens”, “at most once a day” or “at most once a week”.

Source: Google Alerts

Make sure to use specific keywords again to make the best use of these alerts, instead of having extra and pointless emails filling up your inbox. You can also choose the types of websites you want to see or the part of the world you want Google to scan for your images. Although, for the most comprehensive results, it’s best not to limit these as you’ll never know where your stolen images could end up online.

3. Reverse image search with Google

Google lets you search by an image in Google image search or Google image finder, as also commonly known. When you land on the page, click on the camera icon in the search bar:

Source: Google Images

Then you’ll be presented with two options:

  • Search by URL: paste the exact URL of the image here
  • Search by uploading the image: upload the image that you would like to check
Source: Google Search by image

Google will likely show you your stolen image in different sizes, on different websites, and even if the once-color picture is now also “available” in black and white. Make sure to focus on the “Pages that include matching images” section and note every page that hosts a potentially stolen picture of yours:

Source: Google Search by image

An even easier way, if you’re using Google Chrome as your browser, is to right-click on the image online and click “Search Google for Image”:

Source: Pixsy — Photo: Tabitha Mort

4. Use an advanced reverse image search service

A dedicated image protection and monitoring service will prove itself useful and fruitful in a little amount of time. Such a service will crawl the internet for your images, similarly to Google but with much higher efficiency and accuracy. Especially, if you use a service like Pixsy’s that combines an award-winning reverse image search technology and advanced AI to monitor your work online. Reasons to consider Pixsy to find your stolen pictures online:

  • You can monitor up to 500 images per month for free, with paid plans for higher volumes.
  • You can quickly import your images from popular visual platforms such as Instagram or Flickr.
  • You can issue one-click takedown notices yourself worldwide, matching specific laws and languages, to get your image removed from the site.
  • If you want Pixsy’s help to recover compensation for commercial use, you only have to pay for the service when your case is successfully resolved and you receive payment for your work — in other words: submitting cases is free and you only have to pay Pixsy when you get paid. No win, no fee.
  • You can be wherever in the world and the infringer as well — Pixsy has a network of international legal partners to take care of your case.
Pixsy’s monitoring service

Is this photo stolen?

If you found one of your images used without your permission, it’s worth looking at its EXIF data which is a type of metadata. You can do that by simply downloading and then opening the stolen photo with your operating system’s built-in image viewer program and checking its properties there.

If you previously made sure to include at least your name or a full copyright notice in the EXIF data — see more of our image protection tips here —, the information identifying you as the creator should technically still be there for the stolen photo as well. Technically, if it wasn’t deleted in the process by intent or by the unfortunate operation of some platforms: for instance, Instagram and Twitter and even Google remove metadata by default. In some cases though, this data can help in proving copyright infringement by showing that the original picture is yours.

Before you take any further actions though, you must be sure that the infringing image is your original work. There is a difference between asking for someone to simply take down the image and sending them a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) notice, or taking the matter to court. Know your rights and evaluate your options carefully.

Photo by Michael Dziedzic
Photo by Michael Dziedzic

Find your stolen pictures online

In every case, a systematic approach to protecting your images will help you out. Keeping track of where you upload and share your photography, taking notes on permissions you have given for image use, and creating a habit of monitoring your work online for possible unauthorized use will be beneficial without a doubt.

If you would like to see how Pixsy’s award-winning reverse image search technology and advanced AI can monitor and find your stolen images, find out more about our monitoring service or sign up for free.

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