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’s a common misconception that images found in Google, or available under a ‘royalty-free’ license, are free of copyright and therefore free to use. 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 are royalty-free images?

Royalty free is a license type. Those who obtain a license to use a royalty-free image do not have to pay ongoing royalties to use the image. It does not, however, necessarily mean that the image is available free of charge.

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, if you use a royalty-free image without the express permission of the copyright holder, you will be in breach of its copyright.

How do you prevent image theft?

Some of the more common methods adopted to prevent image theft online include watermarking, only displaying low-resolution images, disabling the ability to right-click – and so, to save – images and hiding images from Google. But these solutions are far from ideal.

Watermarking images and only displaying low-resolution images diminishes the quality of your photos and website. You also may not want to hide your images from Google and lose that potential traffic source. Disabling right-click functionality is likely to annoy your users, but they may still be able to copy your images using other means.

A better approach is to ensure that anyone viewing your images is fully aware that they are subject to copyright. Consider placing 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 – and our research shows this to be effective.

Online image theft. Image: Shutterstock

You should also prevent hotlinking. Hotlinking happens when someone copies the source link of your image and displays it on their website while it remains hosted on your server. Preventing hotlinking requires some technical knowledge that’s outside the scope of this article, but a quick Google search will bring up many articles on how this can be achieved.

With a little technical tinkering, you can also configure your image Sitemaps to ensure that Google only indexes watermarked images. You should, however, remember to hide your non-watermarked images from Google using your robots.txt file.

Doing all this should eliminate, or at least diminish, instances of accidental image theft. It won’t stop anyone determined to steal your photos, though; ultimately the measures commonly implemented to prevent image theft – including those suggested above – are not perfect.

At SmartFrame, we’ve developed a new technology to help combat image theft. Images uploaded to SmartFrame are broken down into many pieces, a bit like a jigsaw. These pieces are scrambled and are invisible to users, and they’re also encrypted for maximum protection. This makes it even harder for people to copy your photos, and allows you to display high-resolution unwatermarked photos on your website. Find out more about SmartFrame.

What to do if your images are stolen

If you’re the victim of image theft, seeking appropriate legal counsel would be the first thing to do. What follows is not legal advice, rather the steps previously taken by many photographers to quickly settle cases of image theft.

First, consider your desired outcome. How exactly do you want to remedy the situation? Perhaps you want the offender to remove the image? Or license it? Or maybe just add a credit? Whatever you want, you must be realistic, and any compensation demanded should be objectively proportionate.

When contacting the offender, clearly state the offense committed, providing some form of proof that they are in breach and outlining the action to be taken. You could, for example, email an offender with a link to the offending image on their website, and instruct them to review the IPTC metadata, which can confirm you as the copyright holder. Having stated a demand for a remedy, you can now conclude that the breach must be rectified within a defined timeline, after which legal action would be taken.

This has worked for many photographers although 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. If you continue to have issues, seeking legal advice – particularly if you haven’t already – would be your best option at this point.

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