It happens to all of us. You build a photography website and show off your best work. You start a Facebook page and share your greatest photos. Thousands of people begin to see your stuff, leading to better photography opportunities. But all of this online exposure has a downside unique to photographers… stolen photos.
Discovering Stolen Pics
One day, you’ll stumble across one of your photos being used without your permission. The first time it happens, it may feel almost complementary: Wow, my photos are good enough to get stolen.
Sure, that’s a validating feeling… sort of.
Then the realization sets in that this thief didn’t feel you deserved to get paid. Or maybe they didn’t know better.
Why Photos Are Stolen
Google Image Search has made it easier than ever to search for and download photos without a license. Unscrupulous or less knowledgeable users take advantage all the time.
A simple search serves up millions of photos, and all the end-user has to do is download the images they like.
Suddenly, their blog post has a featured image or their advertisement has a nice background photo that didn’t cost a thing. And no one noticed.
Quite simply, images are stolen because it costs nothing, it’s difficult to police, and people are so often misinformed.
US copyright laws can be confusing, and lack of understanding makes a great (and often bona fide) excuse. But the fact remains: if you created the image, you hold the copyright, and you control who has a right to use it.
How To Find Your Stolen Images
You can combat unauthorized use of your photography to an extent by proactively monitoring the use of your images.
Start with one of your most popular photos. Maybe it had the most likes and shares on Facebook, maybe it was featured on a popular website.
Perform a reverse image search and you’ll soon find out if anyone has “liked” your photo a little too much. Here’s how it’s done:
Reverse Image Search
A reverse image search essentially reads the unique ‘pattern’ of an image and works to find similar patterns around the web. There are a few ways to conduct a reverse image search.
TinEye pioneered the technology, and you can easily do a search from their website. Upload your photo or link to the image URL, and their algorithm will find any similar images that have been uploaded online.
Google Images also offers their own reverse image search with their own algorithm, which provides a different set of results from TinEye.
I can demonstrate how to search for and take down copyright violations with one of my own photos, titled “Through Fire,” an image from Valley of Fire in Nevada, USA.
Because I’ve never made this image available for license, any use by a third party is an immediate copyright violation, no question.
So let’s see what I find using Google’s reverse image search:
One quick search brings up a handful of results. Some are from my own websites, some are from social media shares.
I scan through the whole list and find quite a few unauthorized uses of this images. Now what?
How To Deal With Copyright Violations
There are many ways to approach a copyright violation. Sometimes it’s best to do nothing, and sometimes you need to get a lawyer involved.
Weigh Your Options
Not all copyright violations are worth pursuing. Does the unauthorized use devalue your work? Is the violator benefiting from your photo in some way? Does the image appear on a high-traffic page with ads? Is it for resale as a printed product?
For example, I found an album cover mockup for an English singer on DeviantArt using my photo as a background image.
Because this is a practice composite in someone’s portfolio—very clearly a student or beginner—I see no reason to pursue this violation.
Start With An Email
I found my image again used on a musician’s blog. Because this is a violation by a fellow artist, I’m compelled to say something.
I decided to send a polite email to see if I could have the photo removed. Here’s the message I sent through the site’s contact form:
From: Hillary Fox
Subject: Please remove my photo from your website
I’m a photographer running an audit of my photos on the web and stumbled into this page here: [URL HIDDEN] which is displaying my copyrighted desert road photo without permission or credit.
I ask that you please respect the work of a fellow artist and remove it, as it is part of an exclusive collection that has never been available for license. 🙂
Thank you and best of luck. Your site looks great by the way! 🙂
The artist responded immediately, apologized for the mistake—promptly removed the photo—and even complimented my work. Often times, it is this easy.
Submit A ‘DMCA’ Claim
I found another version of my photo used in an advertisement on a Facebook page.
This time, my image is being used commercially in a digital advertisement. I decided to submit a DMCA claim to have it removed after my message to the page owner went ignored.
A DMCA claim, which stands for Digital Millenium Copyright Act, is a US law that helps protect your copyrights online. Facebook makes submitting a DMCA claim refreshingly easy.
Simply visit Facebook’s DMCA claim form and follow the prompts. Facebook will remove the offending photo usually in less than 24 hours.
Contact An Intellectual Property Lawyer
In worst-case scenarios, when your image is involved in a major copyright violation, it can be necessary to hire a copyright lawyer. Sites like LegalMatch help you connect with intellectual property lawyers who might take your case.
Copyright violations are bound to happen, but with these tips you can help minimize the damage and keep your photo copyrights in check. Have you discovered any of your images being used without permission? Leave your comments below. We’d love to hear your story.