May 14, 2018

Hannah Graves

Image Theft In The Digital Age

Don't Look Down by Paul Reiffer © (All Rights Reserved)

How can photographers tackle image theft in the digital age? Having travelled to over 60 countries capturing people, landscapes and commercial images. Professional Paul Reiffer talks to Pixsy about his personal experience and offers his perspective.

Introducing Paul Reiffer

Paul Reiffer is a multi-award winning professional photographer. His work has featured in exhibitions all over the world, from Times Square in New York to the Royal Albert Hall and Houses of Parliament in London, with gallery installations in Europe and Asia.

Paul returned to the UK in 2015 to focus on commercial projects, having spent the previous three years in Shanghai,  capturing vivid landscape and cityscape photographs of the eastern hemisphere.

In High Demand

Much of Paul’s photography has been commissioned and used by some of the finest brand names and companies worldwide. His landscape work is featured by the US National Park Service and National Geographic, as well as in promotions and destination guides by travel companies. His images have been extensively published in well-known national and international newspapers and magazines around the world and his technical expertise are regularly called upon for editorial features and by luxury travel and adventure brands. He is sponsored by and works with, some of the top equipment providers in the industry. We had a chat with Paul about the problem of image theft in the digital age...

Over The Rainbow by Paul Reiffer  © (All Rights Reserved)

What challenges do you face as a photographer in the digital age?

In the modern world of marketing our images, there’s now a real struggle online between two very different requirements, with contradicting needs : getting your work seen, shared and enjoyed by as many people as possible, while at the same time retaining control of your images and ensuring you still make a living from them!

When did image theft first become a problem for you?

I noticed a few publications had used my images without permission, including a random email from a friend who’d been reading a magazine and thought he recognized the photograph!

From there, I started “dipping in” every now and then, using products such as TinEye to reverse search for where my images had popped up across the internet. The problem with that is I have thousands of images, some licensed, some not, and keeping a track of all of those became a task that would have taken a week out of every month to keep current.

Beyond that, even though we could “scare” the infringing party with a sternly written letter, we were still missing the licensing revenue that should have initially come from its use – and I didn’t have time to work with different legal teams in different countries for hundreds of infringements at any one time.

How much of an impact has image theft had on your professional career?

The relative ignorance that still remains out there when it comes to image theft and copyright infringement is quite scary. Even my own friends would often say to me “but it’s OK if I found it on Google, right?” or “Yeah, but I’m only a little business, they won’t mind, it’s good for them to get their image out there” when referring to using photographs without permission.

We now actually teach people, as part of our workshops, not only about trademark and copyright infringement but also about how to protect their own work.

"Many people don’t actually know their rights as image creators, and it’s a really important element if you’re in the business of selling your work for licensing or print."
Fog City by Paul Reiffer  © (All Rights Reserved)

How did you find out about Pixsy?

Initially, a friend pointed it out via social media, and I was unconvinced. I mean, here’s a company who will take a big chunk of any “recovery” money that they receive on your behalf when they didn’t even take the image, right?

But then, as an experiment, I loaded a small sample of my work into their tool and the results were shocking. We had hundreds of cases, from the very outset, including some very large companies and brands who had been using my work for years without any permission, license or payment.

On the one hand, I thought “I could get my own team to chase this and cut out the middle-man”, but on the other, the task of chasing, negotiating, and if necessary taking the infringer to court just seemed too daunting when I was looking at the volume of cases and countries they spanned across on just that small sample. So, I gave them a try.

What result has using Pixsy had on your problem with image theft?

We’ve had three big results:

  • We’re now being recompensed for unauthorized use of our images, where companies have blatantly used them without permission. We don’t apply any outrageous “damages” claims, just our standard corporate licensing rates and ensure the infringer pays the same as others would have done for the same usage.
  • We’ve had images removed from sites all across the world with the automated tools and chasing that Pixsy does on our behalf – ensuring our brand is maintained as providing the highest quality of images to commercial enterprises at a fair price to all.
  • It’s helped to educate other photographers and image users that I speak with – I’ve recommended Pixsy to many others, with anecdotal successes when I check back with them. Indeed, some previous infringers have also now come to me for advice on the correct approach when licensing images in future, so it’s not all a one-way street.

What forms of active protection would you encourage photographers to take in the fight against image theft in the digital age?

To be honest, in the age we live in there is very little that can actually be done to prevent your image being stolen.

  • Watermarks can be removed easily (indeed, Adobe actually make this easier with every release of content-aware fill!)
  • Digital watermarks, while better, can still be obliterated (I’ve seen it done).
  • Copyright Metadata can be easily removed by freely available programs.
  • Social media (and screen resolutions) are demanding higher and higher resolution photos – and so are our customers – in order to preview your work, so the old trick of “low res for web” really no longer applies.

Instead, I’d recommend to everyone that they register their work with the US Copyright Office. Even though I’m very much against that way of working (as a British photographer, I shouldn’t need to do that, as we’re lucky that copyright is granted automatically over here), for any US infringement it makes life so much easier should it need to go through any legal process.

Definitely, invest in some form of “Reverse Image Search” technology. There are many out there – some free, some paid. There are services other than Pixsy that offer similar solutions too, but having tried their major competitor with appalling results, I wouldn’t personally switch to anyone else.

Save your files with copyright metadata, and a file-name that includes not only keywords but the copyright owner. As above, it won’t stop a thief intent on stealing your work, but it can help a legitimate customer find you from your image.

And while I don’t like watermarks on images, sometimes a visual clue as to who to contact should someone want to purchase the photograph can often help!

You can keep up to speed with Paul’s adventures by following him on Twitter and Instagram. Check out more of his incredible work and buy prints at  If you haven’t tried Pixsy yet, sign up free today and find image theft in the digital age.


Hannah Graves

As Pixsy's Product Marketing and Community Manager, Hannah is always keen to start conversations and she loves to make connections! With years of experience working with and advocating for visual artists, she is passionate about fair pay for fair work and enjoys helping to get artists paid, and heard.

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