If you value your images you should take the necessary steps to protect them. In the first part of a two-part series, we explain how to stop your photos being stolen and misused.

Do you ever ask yourself: how do I protect the images on my website? How exactly do you stop people from downloading your photos? 

Image theft is a significant problem, not only for individuals, but for businesses and other organizations with an online presence. And it’s a particular concern for those who rely on images to sell their products or services. 

There are many reasons why someone may wish to steal an image. It may simply be for personal use rather than any publication, or it may be with the intention of deceiving others or for financial gain – if not for something even more sinister. 

Many photographers have found their images to have been stolen from their website or social media page, and used without authorization elsewhere. Some businesses have even found their entire websites to have been cloned and used to sell counterfeit copies of a popular product. This can put a dent in a company’s profitability or perhaps even damage the brand as a whole.

There are many ways of protecting images online and pros and cons to each approach. Should you watermark your images? How do you disable right-clicking? And how do you protect images on social media?

In the first part of a two-part feature, we’ll examine the various ways in which image security can be compromised, and what you can do to protect your images so that they don’t end up being used without your authorization.

Social media: How to protect your images on Facebook, Instagram and other sites

Many of us choose to share images on social media sites, whether they’re personal or professional. While this may be the quickest way to get them seen by our intended audience, this is also an obvious place from which they can be stolen.

Furthermore, few people that post images here understand exactly what they’ve already agreed to when they opened up an account on that platform.

When you sign up for a social media account, you will typically agree to a number of different things. Most social media Terms of Use agreements will state that posting content on their platforms – which, of course, includes your images – gives them certain a license to that use content.

Ostensibly, this is required so that the platform can deliver this content appropriately across different devices. A more cynical view would be that the platform is trying to steal your images or exploit this content in some other way. 

The fact that these agreements are typically written in complex legalese means that not only will most people not read them in full, but even if they do they won’t necessarily understand them. This is compounded by the fact that, once you share an image or some other content on these platforms, you lose the ability to control what happens to it.

Our in-depth guide to protecting your images on social media explores each of these social media channels in turn, and takes a closer look at what these agreements state. 

The risk of theft isn’t quite the same on every platform. You can, for example, typically right-click on an image on Facebook and Twitter and save it to your computer as you would do elsewhere online. On Instagram, however, the same action doesn’t bring up a ‘Save Image As’ option, although downloading images from Instagram is not difficult if you’re committed to doing so.

Can you share images on social media securely?

Does this mean you shouldn’t share images on social media? Not necessarily, no.

For some businesses, this is a vital avenue for marketing their services or products, and this includes photographers that run workshops, sell prints and so on. For many of these, the downsides to not being able to communicate with their audience would easily outweigh the risk of their work being stolen. But this does not mean that these images cannot be protected when they are shared.

One common approach here is to post a low-resolution version of the original image, perhaps with a watermark for further protection. While this is one way to share an image on social media channels, and to retain some protection over them, this obviously means they won’t appear as impressive as they normally would.

Watermarks embedded in images can be removed too, although quite how easily depends on many factors. We’ll go into more detail on resolution and watermarking later on.

Another option is to paste a link to a SmartFrame instead of uploading an image directly. This pulls through a thumbnail of the original image, such as in the example above.

This gives you a number of advantages over uploading images into the platform. First, your content is not being posted directly to the social media site, so you do not grant the platform a license to the image itself. It’s similar to when you share a news story; a preview is there, but you still need to click on it view it fully.

There is also no option to right-click on the thumbnail and enlarge it in the platform with the intention of saving it, as there may be when sharing images here normally.

Another major advantage is that this method encourages users to click through to the original version, which is hosted on your site and can be protected against theft in many other ways. This is particularly useful if your business relies in part on advertising revenue or online sales.

Image resolution: Pros and cons of downsampling

Today’s cameras capture images that are far more detailed than most people need. While it’s useful to have plenty of detail if you plan on printing large images for your walls, in reality, we typically view images at a far lower resolution, whether that’s on our phones or tablets, or on a computer display.

Make sure to check out our crash course in image resolution if you want to get up to speed on why this matters in photography.

The danger of sharing high-resolution images has traditionally been that, the higher the resolution of the image, the more it appeals to thieves. Whereas low-resolution images are only suitable for online display, images captured using cameras with high-resolution sensors can be printed, cropped and used both online and offline with greater flexibility.

To that end, photographers have traditionally downsampled their images before sharing them online. This describes a process whereby you reduce the number of pixels in the image as a whole, usually once you’ve finished editing an image.

So, instead of an image that measures, for example, 6000×4000 pixels – which is what a 24MP camera would output as standard – you may choose to downsample your images to something closer to 1500×1000 pixels or smaller. 

The obvious trade-off to this process is that your file stands to look less impressive to the viewer, as it will only occupy a smaller portion of a given display.

So, suppose your computer has a 4K display, that is, its resolution is around 3,840×2,160 pixels. Clearly an image that measures 6000×4000 pixels will fill it without any issues, when viewed across the whole display. That 1500×1000 copy, however, will only occupy a fraction by comparison. That’s fine for a smaller display, but such an image won’t have the same impact as a larger one elsewhere.

We don’t necessarily need to upload images at their maximum resolution, although if they are protected sufficiently by other means – such as dynamic watermarking and screenshot protection discussed below – we can do so with ease and peace of mind.

Copyright and your images

If you capture images, you also own the copyright to them. This isn’t something you need to apply for – it’s yours as soon as the image is created.

The only exception to this is if you have already signed a contract with your employer or another entity that gives them the rights to the images you take. This is standard in many employment contracts, and usually covers images that are taken but not necessarily used in any final product too.

Having copyright over your images allows you to protect them from unauthorized use. It gives you the option to license them out to individuals or organizations, which can provide you with another revenue stream, and it also means you can take legal action against those who may be using your images without your permission.

Having the copyright over an image is one thing – making sure it’s effective against image theft and unauthorized use is another. So what should you do to minimize any chance of images falling into the wrong hands and being used without your consent?

Adding copyright information to your images’ metadata

Today’s cameras make it easy to add copyright details to images. You can simply add your name in your camera and every image you subsequently take will have these details attached to that image. These details are known as metadata, and also include things like camera settings, time and date of capture and so on.

Want to do this now? We show you how in our guide on how to add copyright information to your images.

This is a good idea as this information will typically stay with the image as it’s sent to others and shared online. You can even use this space to add other details, such as the current year or even your website.

Captioning your images with copyright details

Our research shows that displaying copyright messages alongside images is usually enough of a deterrent for most thieves – and there are many ways to do this.

You could either add the caption in text underneath the image where it’s posted, or perhaps add this as a watermark to the image in some way (see below).

What should you include here? Spelling out ‘Copyright [photographer’s name]’ is quite common, although the copyright symbol (©) is often seen before the photographer’s name instead for the sake of brevity.

‘All rights reserved’, a phrase that originated from the 1910 Buenos Aires Convention, is also sometimes seen here. Adding the year is a common option too.

Bear in mind that regardless of whether or not you include a copyright message or a symbol of some sort, this does not change the legal protection you have over the image. If you captured the image, and it’s not subject to any contractual obligations you may have by your employer or another third-party, the copyright is yours – whatever you include alongside it.

Watermarking – still a good idea?

The watermark is one of the oldest and most popular methods of protecting images, and it’s easy to see why. It’s easy to apply, it stays on the image at all times, and it immediately discourages theft as (usually) the watermark is immediately visible to the viewer.

You don’t even need specific software to do this. While you can use Adobe Photoshop or a similar program, a number of websites allow you to upload and watermark images in your browser. Native camera apps in smartphones are also now offering this functionality. 

Watermarks typically make the photographer’s identity clear, and discourage unauthorized use. Some photographers choose to forgo their name and simply have a copyright symbol, or a pattern that incorporates this symbol repeatedly instead.

There’s no right or wrong here – it really is a personal choice – although it’s easy to apply a watermark that ends up swamping the image and ruining its appearance. It’s possible to strike the right balance between protection and professionalism – our guide on how to get your watermark right explains this more fully.

But are watermarks on images still effective? While widely used – not only by photographers but also stock libraries and other organizations – they typically won’t provide 100% protection.

Many photographers have found watermarks edited out of their images, either by cropping out the area with the watermark or by using a cloning tool to brush it out, or by some other means.

Not only that, but AI-powered algorithms have proven to be remarkably effective at removing these, even more complex and dominant watermarks. Admittedly, these tools are not yet offered in commercial software packages as standard, but the video below shows just how important it is to consider if you rely on this as your sole means of protection. 

So what should you do? First, it’s worth remembering that the effectiveness of a watermark is heavily dependent on its placement. Many photographers choose to place the same watermark in the same corner or edge of every image they take, which makes sense from the perspective of consistency, but is not so ideal when you consider that every image is different. Some will be easier to remove from images than others, simply because of how this watermark interacts with the details in the image. 

A watermark positioned over a relatively featureless area of an image, for example, can be processed out quite easily. Were it to be placed over an area with more complex details, the kind that would be difficult to clone from surrounding areas, it would likely be a more effective deterrent against theft.

Dynamic watermarking takes conventional watermarking to a new level, and provides a solution to its main weaknesses. The main point of difference between dynamic watermarking and conventional watermarking is that the latter has watermark streamed alongside the image (which is also being streamed), rather than embedded in the file as is normally the case.

You can see how this works below. The watermark remains independent of the image as the viewer zooms into it, but it continues to provide the same protection at all times.

So what’s the point of this? As both the image and watermark are streamed, the user is able to update the watermark independently of the image. This means that the watermark can be adjusted, removed or replaced many years after the image has been shared online. Furthermore, these changes are applied immediately, regardless of where these images are found online.  Sign up for a free SmartFrame account to try it for yourself.

The fact that the watermark and the image are separate might make it seem less secure than a permanently embedded watermark, but this is not the case with SmartFrames that use this. The reason for this is that it’s just as difficult to steal an image without the watermark as it is to steal it with the watermark included, as the JPEG file cannot be isolated from the page’s source code as usual, regardless of whether or not it carries a watermark.  

Protecting images from screenshots

A screenshot describes the action of capturing what’s shown on a computer, tablet or phone display at a particular moment. It’s also the name given to the resulting image.

Screenshots may be used to capture everything shown on the display, or more selectively to only include the most relevant element(s), and they can be used to steal images and graphics for all kinds of reasons.

They are, however, arguably more of a problem for individual content creators such as photographers, illustrators and graphic designers, rather than brands, whose websites are more likely to be copied in full.

So how do you prevent screenshots? Screenshots are difficult to prevent, not least because there are a number of ways in which these can performed.

You may have already come across screenshot protection in smartphones and tablet apps, such as with some messaging and banking apps, although these only protect content when it is viewed within them. Clearly this is effective if the content can only be viewed in this way, although less so if it can be viewed elsewhere.

Watermarking images and including copyright information can, to some extent, be used as a deterrent against screenshots, although this won’t necessarily stop those determined on stealing your images. Ideally, you would use these methods in conjunction with a way of recognising when a screenshot is being taken, which itself would instigate some method of protection at that very moment.

Our technology offers protection against most common screenshots methods. As soon as the viewer attempts to capture a screenshot, a warning flashes up over the image, which thwarts their attempt. This works with any image uploaded to SmartFrame and doesn’t require any particular app – it simply works in the browser.

Click here to read the second part of this article

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