Whether accidental or deliberate, image theft is a considerable worry for many photographers and content creators. This article explores various measures that can help prevent image theft and outlines what you can do if your images are stolen.

What is Image Theft?

Image theft occurs when someone uses a photo without the permission of the copyright holder. It is commonly misconceived that images found in Google, or available under a ‘Royalty Free’ license, are free of copyright and therefore free to use. This is simply not true. Unless explicitly stated, it should always be assumed that a photo is subject to copyright, particularly online where the content creator may not be immediately obvious.

What does ‘Royalty Free’ really mean?

Royalty Free is a license type. Those who license a Royalty Free image do not have to pay ongoing royalties to use the image. However, it does not necessarily mean that the image is free. Royalty Free images are still subject to copyright. The copyright holder may charge a fee for you to license their Royalty Free images, or they may decide to grant you a Royalty Free license for free. However, using a Royalty Free image without the express permission of the copyright holder means you are in breach of copyright.

Preventing image theft

Some of the more common methods adopted to prevent image theft online include watermarking, displaying only low-resolution images, disabling the ability to right-click (hence save) images and hiding images from Google. However, these solutions are far from ideal. Watermarking images and displaying only low-resolution images diminishes the quality of your photos and website, and you may not want to hide your images from Google and lose that potential traffic source. Disabling right-click functionality does nothing but annoy your users, who can still copy your images using shortcuts.

Instead, I recommend you first ensure your users know your images are subject to copyright. Place copyright notices on your site footer, perhaps under the images themselves as a caption. The idea here is to eliminate accidental theft by making it perfectly clear that the images are not free. I’d then prevent ‘hotlinking’. Hotlinking is when someone copies the source link of your image, displaying it on their website whilst it remains hosted on your server. Preventing hotlinking requires some technical knowledge so I won’t cover it here, but there are plenty of articles in Google. With a little technical tinkering, you can also configure your image Sitemaps to ensure that Google only indexes watermarked images, but remember to hide your non-watermarked images from Google using your robots.txt file. If you do all this, hopefully you’ll eliminate accidental theft, although it won’t stop anyone determined to steal your photos!

Ultimately, therefore, the measures commonly implemented to prevent image theft are not that great, including the preventative measures I have suggested. And now for the plug! …here at SmartFrame we’ve developed a new technology to help combat image theft. One of the features of SmartFrame is that it encrypts images into lots of pieces, a bit like a jigsaw. These pieces are unscrambled and made visible to users, but encrypted so they won’t work if copied or downloaded. This makes it even harder for people to copy your photos, allowing you to display high resolution unwatermarked photos on your website. Click here if you want more information about SmartFrame.

What to do if your images are stolen

If you suffer image theft I advise you to seek appropriate legal counsel. The following is not legal advice, but it does offer insight into steps that I have previously taken to quickly settle cases of image theft.

You should first consider your desired outcome. You’re the victim, but how do you want to remedy the situation? Perhaps you want the offender to remove the image, license it, or add a credit line? Whatever you want, you must be realistic and any compensation demanded should be objectively proportionate.

When contacting the offender, clearly state the offence committed, providing proof that they are in breach and outlining the action to be taken. For example, I have previously emailed an offender citing a link to the offending image on their website, telling them to review the IPTC Metadata which would confirm me as the copyright holder. Having stated my demand for a remedy, I’d conclude that the breach must be rectified within a defined timeline, after which I’d take legal action.

This has always worked for me, but I’m aware that not all offenders will be as forthcoming. It’s therefore worth considering what you’d do if your requests are ignored. One route is to send a DMCA takedown notice to the company hosting the offending website. Assuming the offender has not complied with all reasonable requests to remove the offending content, the hosting company is obliged to do so. I will however reiterate that you should always seek appropriate legal advice if you are facing image theft.