There is a short answer to this question of how to prevent photos from being stolen online. The answer is - nothing! This is not some random sensational statement but a fact as I have discovered from personal experience.
Once a picture is out there on the Internet - there is nothing you can do to prevent them from being stolen from a person who is determined to do so. Watermarks can be erased, the picture can be cropped etc. You can subscribe to services like Digimarc Digimarc Guardian for Images to keep track of your stolen images but the question is, do you have the time, money and resources to do this? If you find out someone has stolen your images do you have the additional time and resources to go all Liam Neeson on them - hunt them down and make them pay?
Nobody steals Liam Neeson's photographs and gets away with it!
Who "steals" photographs on the internet?
In my opinion, there are two kinds of people who "steal" photographs from others.
PEOPLE WITH NO MALICIOUS INTENT: People who just find your photograph interesting and want to share it for others to see. They feel an emotional connection to it and hence share it. A lot of my photographs from my hometown Lucknow, get posted in this manner. Perhaps, they have never seen my hometown shot like this and perhaps (I hope!) those were some of the best pictures they stumbled upon.
The second reason why they might do this is the joy of discovery. When they post these pictures, they say to their peers,"Hey, have you seen this? I discovered this first!"
The photograph above is perhaps one of my most "stolen" photographs. It is a photograph of an actress from one of our very popular shows. It went straight from my Facebook page to a thousand other pages, forums and websites. I was angry at first but then I realised that that no one meant any harm. They were just avid watchers of my TV show and they just loved the picture. I messaged some of the biggest groups and fan pages and told them,"A credit would be have been nice!" or "You could have just shared it!" You will be surprised to know how many people responded with a credit in a repost or just re-shared the photo again from my page. My website which was already showing a spike, just went nuts!
PEOPLE WITH MALICIOUS INTENT OR WHO DON'T GIVE A DAMN: These are people who try to pass of your work as their own to gain a better standing in their peer group or try to get assignments based on your work since they are not capable of achieving the standards your photographs have. There are also a large number of websites which use your work depicting your picture as a representation of the content they are creating. A lot of them, use your photographs on commercial websites including international news websites. Hell, some people have even won contests, using photographs belonging to others.
These are the people you should go after but there is no reason for you to all ballastic. Try to be civil and start a reasonable dicussion. You might be outraged but be cool. You might be surprised by the results. As far as news outlets go, you might not get anything but an apology because news outlets are covered by "Fair Use " and they use it to their advantage.
Fair use as defined by Wikipedia is:
Fair use is a limitation and exception to the exclusive right granted by copyright law to the author of a creative work. In United States copyright law, fair use is a doctrine that permits limited use of copyrighted material without acquiring permission from the rights holders. Examples of fair use include commentary, search engines, criticism, parody, news reporting, research, teaching, library archiving and scholarship. It provides for the legal, unlicensed citation or incorporation of copyrighted material in another author's work under a four-factor balancing test.
Different kinds of stealing
Stealing photos from social networks
Most of the content that is stolen, is stolen from social networks and posted to a social network and according to the Digitial Millenium Copyright Act, this is illegal. While most of the poular networks have a facility where you can report stolen images, I have a sneaky feeling that this is somehow counter productive to their core business. This is the reason perhaps, that over the years they have made it more difficult to report stolen images.
The Twitter page for reporting violations is here.
The Facebook page for reporting violation or infringement of your rights is here.
The Instagram page for reporting violations is here.
With that having been said, I have found both Facebook and Twitter to be quite responsive when you submit a complaint. They take action pretty fast and they are, in most cases, pretty fair. I have lodged about 5 complaints with Facebook, so far (in about 6 years) and in all of them, I have been successful in getting the photographs removed.
STEALING FROM or TO WEBSITES
This is where it gets slightly tricky. Since each website is unique and might be hosted anywhere in the world, getting your photograph down might be a bit of a problem. There are of course, paid websites that offer to do all the work for you but I have never tested one (including the one I linked to) therefore, cannot vouch for how effective they are. Here is what you can do on your own.
Track the owner/webmaster of the concerned website by using the contact form or contact us page.
If you can find the contact on the website, use a service like WHOIS to see who the domain is registered to.
Send an email to the adress mentioned there, marking it to the hosting company as well and report that your images have been stolen and request a removal. The email should have all the deatils that you can gather - both to establish that the work/image in question actually belongs to you (yes, you have to prove that beyond doubt) as well as details about the infringement. In this email, you may ask them to take down the image or give you credit or link back to your website - whatever makes you happy. Please be civil in all your communication. State things as facts, though you might be angry. "How dare you steal my picture? IT IS MINE!" - is not really going to work.
Here again, I would like to say that a lot of people don't even know that reproducing your image amounts to stealing, so give them a chance to explain and remove the photo or photographs or link back to your website, if you want.
Usually, this works, more so if you have marked the mail to the domain hosting provider.
If there is no response or the response is not what you wanted, the next step is to issue a DCMA Takedown Notice to the search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing asking them to delink the offending website from their searches. You can read more about this here.
MY PERSONAL APPROACH
Watermark your images in a way that it does not take away from the beauty of the photograph. Also, make sure that it includes your website - so that people who really like your photograph can go to your website to check out your work.
Most people don't want to steal - they just want to share. Make it easier for them to share, so that you and your work becomes known to more people.
Every once in a while, upload a really good photograph in high resolution for the people to enjoy and use as wallpapers if they wish to - for personal use. Tell people to that it is alright to use your photographs for personal/non commercial uses as long as they link back to your website/Flick page etc and give you credit.
Make sure that people who want to use your photographs for some other use can easily contact you by creating a website or About me page.
Be generous - I have had many students ask me for hi-res photos to use for their project/presentation. I usually give it to them and when the presentation/project is a hit, they will usually mention you in a social media post. I have also made a few friends this way.
Build a community around the people who love your photography and see how much you gain from it - both in terms of positive energy and exposure.
Go only after the people who you think have caused you monetary loss or stolen from you as if it was their right to do so or they have made money while reproducing your work.
THE POINT IS to try in your own way, to educate internet users to ask before using someone's work and give due credit while sharing. Ask people to share on Facebook, rather than downloading and reposting. Encourage them to use apps like
A photo that I took of a coffee cup got shared by a friend. Her friend shared it and so on until it reached the feed of someone working at a big online publication and guess what - they were doing an article on coffee. They contacted me for permission and I gave it to them for a small price - understanding that it would get me good exposure. They ran it as the cover image for their article. That particular morning when I took that shot - I never imagined the journey that photograph would make.
A photo posted by Gorky M (@gorky) on Dec 7, 2014 at 5:45am PST
Somehow, I have seen, people who are just starting out with photography are more concerned with their images being stolen than the established photographers. I have gone done that route and found out that it is almost always, a waste of my time trying to hunt down all the people who are stealing your images.
Stop fretting too much about people stealing your photos.
Take the basic precautions like watermarking with your name and website.
Upload files you don't want stolen in small dimensions. (500px should be fine)
If there are photographs that you really don't want stolen and want a 100% guarantee - do not upload them.
As I said earlier - establish intent first and then go after the real offenders. With the others, it just pays to establish communication.
Spend most of your time on improving your skills and craft.
Develop your own unique style and make it known to people. So any one who tries to pass off your work as their own gets caught and called out. Trey Ratcliffe and Joel Grimes are perfect examples of this.
Try to get to a point where people even start thinking that your photographs are worth sharing. No seriously! This was one of the first benchmarks that I created for myself.
Hope and pray someone worthwhile steals your images and you can sue them for a million dollars. I have been doing this for years but no luck so far! I promise to keep you updated.
The case of Noam Galai's "Stolen Scream" is one of the most interesting stories and case studies about a stolen photograph. You have to see how it got stolen and what happened to it. See all about it here
and leave us a comment as to what do you think of it. What would you do if something like this happened to your photograph?
If you managed to reach here, to the end of this really long post and found it helpful, please share it with your friends.