How To Use ‘Reverse Image Search’ to Find Your Stolen Photos Online—And Take Them Down

How To Use ‘Reverse Image Search’ to Find Your Stolen Photos Online—And Take Them Down

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.

Image Copyright

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.

google-reverse-image-search-form-copyright-theft

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:

google-reverse-image-search-copyright-theft

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?

google-reverse-image-search-copyright-theft-stolen-pics-photos-deviant-artFor 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 portfoliovery clearly a student or beginnerI 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.

google-reverse-image-search-copyright-theft-stolen-pics

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

Message Body:
Hello,

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! 🙂

Hillary Fox

http://facebook.com/hillaryfox
http://hillaryfox.com


The artist responded immediately, apologized for the mistakepromptly removed the photoand 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.

google-reverse-image-search-copyright-theft-stolen-pics-photos-facebook-DMCA

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.

Photo credits
© bowie15 / 123RF
© Hillary Fox / hillaryfox.com
Written by Hillary Fox

Founder of OnGoingPro, Hillary Fox is an international travel photographer and entrepreneur currently residing in Cape Town, South Africa. Visit her site at hillaryfox.com.

  • Steve

    I have found my images being used online. In some cases on hobby sites they use it with attribution and a link and I’m fine with that. I did find one site using it for a commercial purpose and we ended up negotiating a license fee. If you value your photos at all, it is worth doing a reverse search. Just be nice when you contact the site and it should work out to everyone’s satisfaction.

    • Good to hear it, Steve! Did you have any difficulty negotiating a license?

      • Steve

        No, I looked up their media manager, called him up and explained the situation and offered the choice of taking it down or licensing it. They chose to license it. It was all pretty straightforward.

  • I’ve also used this method to find where my licenced RF photos were being used. Found them in some interesting places, including the covers of a couple books on Amazon. 🙂

    • I’ve done this, too 🙂 Nice find with the book covers!

  • LOL – this mirrors a lot of my experience. My words of wisdom are this: Never, NEVER post an image to Reddit without watermarking it, just in case it goes viral. 😉

  • so far I found my image on 50-60 blogs and sites, one had it for page cover, others had it as post featured image etc, not worth going for them, all I want is credits, or link back, that can be good marketing move, ask them to put link to your site (portfolio),… I wonder how to find more, I bet there are even more, if 60 sites had it, maybe some books etc have it too, how to find it?

  • Carl

    I hoped when I saw the headline for this article that you would offer tips how best to utilize Google’s image search engine. As with most Google products, it works, but it is hindered by Google’s minimalist credo for design and function. It could be made to work a lot better. I am aware Google gives users of its products negligible consideration in design and implementation of products, but maybe some users out there have developed methods for getting results with minimal tinkering.

    • Hi Carl, in Chrome I’m able to right-click on any image in the browser and select “Search Google for this image” — it’s the quickest way to perform a reverse image search.

    • Sam

      Hi Carl,

      Whilst Google certainly provides the most comprehensive results over most search engines, it can be tedious if you have to use it to search thousands of images..and lets face it, most photographers have thousands of images in their portfolios.

      That’s why I built a tool which allows you to do a bulk check in one click – all you need to do is tell us where we can find your portfolio. You can check it out here: http://searchmyimages.com/

      Its still in its early stages, but I thought you might find it useful. In just the past few weeks we’ve managed to detect over 5000 cases of copyright infringements!

  • Adrian Palyi

    Thank you for this article. I just found a ton of blogs using my photos and a music record studio(that I can’t accept).

    • Adrian, I feel the same way — I’m most disappointed when it’s someone from a creative industry who’s violating a copyright.

      • On the other way, it’s kind of encouraging, becauuse I’m just at the beginning of the road, so this is like people will not steal something that’s ugly or just bad, but still it’s not fair at all.
        Anyway I like your articles, keep it up.

  • MHiler

    One year I just happened to go to the official state of Georgia website and BAM! Right there on the homepage was an animated GIF cycling through several images and one of mine was among them.

    • Wow, nice find! Any idea where they sourced your image? What did you do about it?

  • Mark Sabastian

    I just found the Search by image app. This app lets me search by image on my smartphone. I can upload my photos to search via Google easily. You can also share images from any website to social media in one click.
    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.searchbyimage.app

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