Stop! Thief!

It’s a question I am asked over and over by photographers and other visual artists: “How do I prevent someone from stealing images from my website?” I’ve even had creatives tell me that they didn’t want a website or wanted a site but didn’t want to put artwork on it! These days, neither of these are options.

computer thief (c) Can Stock PhotoSo how to prevent someone from stealing your work? Can it be done?

“Unfortunately, only degrees of protection are available,” says Will Bontrager of Will offers his input:

“We used to have Image Shield and it worked beautifully for what it did. What Image Shield did was put a transparent image over the image to be protected. Right-clicking to download then downloaded only the transparent image, not the image under the transparency. It didn’t prevent image caching. Nor did it prevent screenshot software from working.

“Another protection sometimes employed is cutting up the image and putting it on the page one piece at a time. The result looks like a whole image, but it’s actually composed of pieces.

“A good protection is to have software on the server deliver the image to the browser. A PHP or CGI script could do the job. The script can check where the request is coming from, and perhaps also check a cookie value, then deliver an alternate image if the request isn’t from the web page.

“Computers don’t need, actually can’t use, high-resolution images. Resolution is reduced to the ability of the medium to display it. That’s generally under a hundred pixels per inch for desktop computers. Being that as it is, a low-resolution version of images can be published on web pages. When an image is copied, they get only the low-resolution one.”

In short, the answer is “no.” The nature of the web is for sharing information and if someone wants to take your photo, s/he will find a way.

This blog post was inspired by the upsetting story that’s been going around creative communities in the past couple of weeks. Illustrator and fine artist Lisa Congdon shared on her blog that Cody Foster & Co. blatantly stole design concepts from a series of illustrations that she did a couple of years ago. Clearly, a company or individual doesn’t have to steal the image itself off your website, but can just copy your design or concept.

Since you can’t stop that from happening, at the very least you can protect yourself.

  1. Watermarking. If you’re a photographer, artist, or similar, you can watermark your images. In this case, when your images are shared around the web, your mark is on them and folks will know where the original work came from. A great Photoshopper can probably remove your watermark, but the casual sharer probably won’t think it’s worth the effort. There is some conversation about watermarks hurting your business, but what if someone sees your work and wants to contact you? Not having your website name as a watermark surely hurts your chances. There is a great conversation about watermarks here. I haven’t worried about watermarks for many years for my own work, but am planning to start watermarking when I find a tool that doesn’t make it too much extra work. 😎  I’ll share that when I find it.
  2. Keep good records. Keep an inventory of your work. Date your sketchbook pages. When you share online, date that, too. When you need to go after someone who may have copied your work, you should be able to prove this is originally your image or piece of art.
  3. Add your contact/copyright info to and near the file. Always post text next to your images when you post them, and before you post them, embed your data in the file.
  4. Be vigilant. Watch companies that have a reputation of stealing designs. Of course, this is a lot of work in itself and a bit on the paranoid side. I’d rather be creating new work than looking out for copycats, myself.
  5. Copyright your work. I am not a lawyer and don’t claim to have a complete understanding of copyright laws, so here is a link to the US Copyright Office. Finding a lawyer who deals with copyrighting and artists would be helpful as well.

What have you done on your own site to help combat theft? Have you found a great watermarking tool? Share in the comments!

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