The internet is full of images that lack any sort of attribution. The only way around this is to make it a permanent part of the image itself.

How do you prove an image is your own? 

With billions of images captured and uploaded online each day, there’s ample opportunity for someone to claim an image as their creation, and to exploit it for social likes, monetary gain or something else.

And what’s stopping them? Sadly, not a great deal. So perhaps it’s worth tackling the issue from the opposite end, and examining what enables this to begin with.

Proving authorship

The ease with which images can be stolen is the most vital issue here. Address this and you may not need to worry about the other factors that tend to affect image theft, such as misunderstandings around copyright or the likelihood of being caught, or the ease with which the data regarding provenance attached to such an image can be removed or manipulated – something we’ll come on to shortly.

But let’s assume you’re asked to prove that an image you’ve taken is indeed your own. How would you do this?

One way would be to produce the camera’s raw file of the image, rather than just the JPEG alone. Raw files, which require processing and conversion to a mainstream format before they can be viewed online, are unlikely to be uploaded anywhere outside of cloud storage (and even this isn’t commonplace). That means that only the creator is likely to be able to produce this file on demand. 

The ability to show other images from what is evidently the same shoot could also be used as proof, although the obvious limitation to all this is that it only really applies to photographic images, rather than graphics, paintings or illustrations. 

Another potentially highly accurate – if decidedly more complex – way of ascertaining whether an image originated from a particular camera would involve comparing it with the characteristics of other images from that camera. 

How does this work? Slight variations in sensitivity across the pixels of a sensor – also known as photo response non-uniformity – can be used to determine a fingerprint of sorts, which would affect all images from that camera, without this being visible by simply looking at the images themselves. Still, however useful or accurate this is, this isn’t an option that’s open to the everyday user.

What about metadata? Photographers and other creatives are often advised to embed author and copyright information within the metadata of the image. This can be done in advance on a camera, meaning that it can pretty much be forgotten about once enabled, or it can be added later on using software. 

Read more: What is IPTC metadata? Everything you need to know

While this can help in the event of any dispute, the fact that this metadata can be easily changed or completely stripped away from images makes it less reliable once an image has been published.

And it’s not just a case of someone removing your name from this metadata and adding their own. Serial numbers of cameras and lenses used to capture an image are often embedded within metadata, and there’s little stopping the particularly motivated thief from simply adding serial numbers of their own equipment to any stolen images.

This is compounded by the fact that social media platforms and other services to which images are uploaded may not necessarily support the preservation of this metadata. In other words, someone downloading an image that originally had this metadata in place may end up with an image that’s indistinguishable from one that didn’t bear it to begin with. 

In the US, it’s also possible to register copyright for images with the copyright office. In fact, this is a requirement before a photographer or another creative can file legal proceedings. While this can help to settle a dispute, it wouldn’t do much to counter the initial theft of an image. Indeed, the author may be completely unaware their work has been taken. The fact that this service commands a fee also makes it impractical for large collections. 

Making authorship clear

Embedding information within an image file is a worthwhile practice, but even if this is preserved when used online, this does not immediately communicate who’s responsible for this image to the online audience. Having this information attached to the image file is one thing, but a photographer whose image is being used by a third party (with authorization) would typically expect that their credit visibly appears alongside their work, wherever it’s displayed.

We’re used to seeing such credits on news sites and other well-known online properties. Such organizations will have certain standards in place, partly to ensure compliance with an image provider’s terms of use, but also for consistency and transparency regarding an image’s orgins.

This is in contrast to images displayed on personal websites belonging to photographers and other creatives. While they may bear a caption that identifies the creator, their presence on a personal website implies that they all belong to the website’s owner, which makes any further accreditation unnecessary. The presence of a watermark – particularly one that clearly identifies the photographer – also negates a separate credit.

All of this isn’t just a concern for those creating their own original works – it also applies to anyone who may consider buying a print of an image for themselves. Perhaps you’ve seen a painting or another artwork on a social media channel, but there’s no credit. How do you know who to contact if it’s posted without any attribution?

Perhaps the easiest way to find out is to search for the image using the image itself, such as through Google’s Search By Image feature, but this won’t work for all lesser-known images and it may not necessarily lead you to a legitimate place where you can purchase a copy for yourself. It may simply highlight further instances of a particular image being stolen.

Clarity and trust

When an image is uploaded by its creator for the first time – whether it’s to a personal website, to a social media page, or a third-party website to which they have authorized publication of the image – the creator will have the most control over how this image is captioned. Problems only begin when the image is copied in some way, without the author’s authorization, as there is no guarantee any credit will be copied too. So the first issue is preventing the theft of the image to begin with.

It’s entirely possible that a person copying such an image will ensure the author is credited where they intend to publish it, and they may even link back to its original location in a bid to make the initial copying fairer. Given how used we are to seeing these images being credited, it’s reasonable to assume that some people believe this approach makes the action of reproducing the image itself permissible.

Regardless of whether such a caption is copied or not, the fact that such a credit will not be a fixed part of the image itself makes this separation likely. So the second key issue is that a tamper-proof credit stays with the image at all times. 

SmartFrame already addresses these two issues, and the principle of image streaming allows the creator to adjust this caption at any time. But the next step is to make this caption even more useful.

The example below from Granger shows this in action: an image initially displayed with the publisher’s website and logo before mouseover behavior switches this to show a caption. When embedded on the publisher’s website, only the caption shows. But when embedded elsewhere, the attribution shows along with the caption.

This way, the publisher’s brand continues to be seen when images are viewed without the context of the website on which they were originally published. And when the viewer requires more information about the image, the attribution momentarily disappears and the caption, along with a link to the original place of publication, appears in its place.

If you want to start enjoying these benefits for yourself, sign up for a SmartFrame account today.



Related articles