5 Inconvenient Facts About Getting Your Photographs Stolen

5 Inconvenient Facts About Getting Your Photographs Stolen

Have you ever had a photo of yours stolen? Here are some important things you should know about.

Having your photograph stolen by another person or a company can be very frustrating. The mere thought of anything that belongs to you being stolen is of course already irritating in the most general sense. However, if you’re someone who shoots professionally, the implications of your photos being used by someone else can make things even more complicated.

In this article, we’ll talk about a few of the things that you should know about getting your photos stolen to better understand how to proceed with the necessary actions and if it is worthwhile. However, it is important to keep in mind that copyright laws vary from one country or state to another. There are some universally applicable points that are similar for most countries, but it would be best that if ever you deem it necessary, do familiarize yourself with the copyright law of your state and consult a lawyer.

1. Photo Theft Happens Millions of Times Everyday

Anything on the internet on any website or platform can easily be stolen. It's a matter of finding those who use your photos for profit or deception that matters more.

The act of copying and reproducing another person’s intellectual property (in the form of a photograph) has definitely become much easier with technology and social media. Most photos online can be saved with a few taps on a smartphone or a right-click on your computer. While some sites try to prevent this by presenting your photos in other formats, they really can’t escape the inconvenient convenience of the screen-capture. It has become so easy and so instant for many people that most don’t even think that any of it is wrong, especially since it’s virtually impossible to trace such activity if the person only keeps the copy of the photograph for themselves. What’s more realistic is to trace those who actually make use of the photos, and there are a few simple ways to do it.

2. Google Image Search Is a Double-Edged Sword

As mentioned above, a common way that photo thieves come across your beautiful photographs is through Google image search. This has, of course, become a very useful tool for anyone who is in need of visual material for whatever purpose. However, Google does offer some help in finding pages where your photos are being used, and that is through what’s called a “reverse search.” By simply uploading your image on the Google image search, it will find public pages where copies of the photo are being displayed. The mechanism through which the search engine does this also looks for visually identical images, so that may also have some value in finding material where your photos have been cropped or tampered with.

Here's a screen-cap of a reverse search I did on one of my most stolen photos. A few blogs, a few facebook profiles, some Airbnb postings, and a couple of companies seem to be using my photo. Note the copyright warning below the Airbnb item on the right.

The long-press or the right-click on your device can also be a double-edged sword on your browser. Making use of these gives you the option to search for the image on Google, which is actually a very convenient way of looking for copies of that particular image without having to go through your files and upload your photo. There are, however, more advanced ways available to trace copies of your photos, but they often require a bit of a fee.

3. Watermarks Do Not Protect From Theft

My multiple experiences of having my photos stolen and illegally used have proven that watermarks never really stop anyone from stealing your photos. With the simple use of the heal tool on Photoshop or even just by cropping out the area where your name was, many photo thieves think that they have permanently gotten away with it. Of course, even without a watermark, your photograph is protected by copyright even if most of the original image has been cropped out. A notable example of this was when the sky part of one of Elia Locardi’s images was used to replace the sky of another image. After some back-and-forth denials and shoulder shrugs, it was proven that the sky from his photo was grabbed by someone who uploaded his version on a stock photo platform.  

You might have seen this image from one of my articles last year. A land developer from my country took my photo of the skyline of Bonifacio Global City and rendered their new (seemingly 500-story) tower on top. This was easily found by reverse search even if the building was on top of my photo.

An unusual habit of mine a couple of years back did prove to be quite helpful in battling photo-theft. From the years 2014 to 2016, I had this habit of placing two watermarks on each photo that I posted. One was clearly visible, while the other was intentionally very small and almost transparent. Consequently, the photo grabber would assume that there was only one watermark on the photo (which they would remove one way or another) and would fail to identify and remove the hidden one. This habit didn’t prevent the photo from being stolen but basically acted as a “smoking gun” piece of evidence when it came to proving that the photo was indeed stolen.

4. Photo Thieves Come Up With the Lamest Excuses

The most common form of photo theft is the use of a photo for commercial use. It may seem so simple and easy to understand that you can’t just take another person’s photo to make some money out of it, but thousands of people do it anyway. The latest and most common excuse I’ve gotten was of course saying that they didn’t know that it was wrong. Most people, even big corporations, seem to think that if you can find a photo on Google image search results, then it means it’s free for you to use. Obviously, that is not the case, and if they took an extra second to read the smaller text on the page, they would have found a warning that says that the photo may be protected by copyright.  

Another lame excuse that you might encounter goes something like “that was done by the intern” or “the guy is new and didn’t know it was wrong,” but of course, any prudent company or organization would know that they are liable for whatever crime a subordinate does on their behalf.

5. All Your Photos Are Automatically Protected by Copyright

Again, it might not be safe to say that this applies to every country in the world, but at least, it is safe to say that if your country adheres to the provisions of the Berne Convention on copyright, which is a total of 178 countries, then this applies to you. From the moment of creation, in this case, the moment that you take a photograph, the whole and any part of it belong to you as the creator of the image. Without the need for any registration or notice, that image shall be protected by copyright unless you revoke that in any legitimate way. That includes selling an image with a subsequent transfer of specified rights, selling the image as a stock photo, or any other form of legally waiving your ownership.

Despite the absolute evidence of who is at fault, I’ve gotten unsolicited advice from people telling me to stop posting my work online if I didn’t want any of them stolen. Of course, such a remark would come from people who may not be oriented to the reality of how the internet and social media are important tools for marketing and that many of us actually get paid to post our work online. I feel no need to expound on this further; however, it may be valuable that if you do post online, then you should know that there are various ways to increase your level of protection. Doing regular searches for my most popular photos has proven to be quite successful for me. Another option I’ve recently found is Photoclaim.com. They basically search for your most popular photos (which you provide copies of) and help you throughout the process of collecting from the erring entities. It’s quite an awesome deal that they only charge you a certain amount for cases that they win, so there’s basically nothing to lose on your part.

Nicco Valenzuela's picture

Nicco Valenzuela is a photographer from Quezon City, Philippines. Nicco shoots skyscrapers and cityscapes professionally as an architectural photographer and Landscape and travel photographs as a hobby.

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Thanks Nicco. That tip about multiple watermarks was good.

"All Your Photos Are Automatically Protected by Copyright"

I'm not sure if that's really inconvenient, except for the person who stole it.

Also inconvenient for photographers who realize they've been watermarking copyright notices onto their images in comic sans for no reason.

True. Very true.

What size image are you talking about? I would think that small with copyright would definitely not be worth wasting time on .

1080x1350. The copyright notice doesn't have to be super long, just make sure every image you've ever uploaded has "Copyright 2020 Creative Vizionz Photography" written across the bottom in white comic sans. Maybe add a drop shadow for emphasis and style.

Comic sans again??? Oh......

Comic Sans......hilarious......sometimes when you use a watermark in the right font it actually makes your photo look more pro IMHO...

It's why I don't post my best photos on the internet. I'm beginning to let my guard down here on this site.

Google encourages image theft by stripping all EXIF and Metadata from your photographs. Takes out your Copyright notice, ownership information and everything needed to inform viewers who owns the images and who to contact concerning usage.

Years ago Google prevailed on court and won the right to display thumbnail images - like a catalog or encyclopedia. They have moved way past that and now post images large enough to be used by thieves and conveniently strip all ID from them. Worst case is users think they are free to take since no ID/Ownership information can be found.

This can put images into what is known as "Orphan Works" - images where ownership can't be determined and users/thieves have a defense for their taking.

You are saying that if I post an image of a yellow Corvette on my website, Google, while indexing the Internets, comes across my image and takes note.

Then, when some random person Googles "yellow Corvette", Google goes to my website, among others, and grabs a copy of my image, removes the Exif data, removes watermarks and texts with copyright information, and presents it to the random person?

You are so out of touch. In case you haven't look at Google images lately, here's a sample of the info they give you. Show me where they stripped exif and copyright.

If you populate the right IPTC metadata on your images, you can get even more now

Google don't strip Metadata. They recently implemented a 'Licensable' label for photos that have certain URLs in place in the IPTC fields of the Metadata. https://webmasters.googleblog.com/2020/08/make-licensing-information-for...

How much do you sell your images for? My last sale via a picture library netted me less than $10. How much could I get if I pursue someone using my image unlicensed/without permission? Well a family member recently was awarded over $100,000 for copyright infringement.

So maybe we are looking at this the wrong way. If we can tap into all these infringements - a million a day according to this article - I might actively change my business model to make all my images easily available and then just go after unauthorised use - just need an easy way to find them.

Multiple watermarks sound clever, especially when there are tons of tutorials on how to get rid of the watermark. It's funny how photoshop and photoworks and lightroom allow you to both add it and get rid of it, but the way people disrespect other's works isn't that funny at all.

Among other important legal benefits of “timely” registering your photo copyrights with the US Copyright Office (USCO), either BEFORE publication or WITHIN five-years of first-publication, photographers (and creatives) are granted “presumptive legal proof” that they have a valid registered copyright claim AND that all the information included in their (on-line) copyright registration application (who’s the creator of the photograph, who’s the copyright owner, date of publication, etc.) will also be deem to valid.

It’s NOT necessarily about having a RAW image file that proves you took the image – a US court MUST(!) see your issued copyright Certificate of Registration!

When completing a copyright registration application, you must check a box to “certify” to the best of your knowledge that all the information you’ve included is correct. If you knowingly lie or misrepresent a material issue, you’re subject up to a US$2,500 FINE.

So, you help PROVE your copyright creation and corresponding copyright ownership by quickly registering it with the USCO (that’s US federal law)!

Timely registering your photographs really count! Watch just the first 20-seconds of Washington, DC copyright litigator Joshua Kauffman’s video: https://youtu.be/cBOKkrleY3Y

International photographers (and creatives) are also ENCOURAGED to register their works with the USCO. This short law article explains why US copyright registration is CRITICAL for foreign photographers if they have to pursue US-based copyright infringers for money damages. Just replace the word “corporation” with “artist, author, photograph, musician, etc.” to get the point: http://donahue.com/resources/publications/copyrights-registered-u-s/

Photographers, who choose NOT to “timely” register their images with the US Copyright Office, should, at the very least, affix them with a watermark logo (and include robust metadata), so fans and new clients can reach out to them for commission sales and licensing.

Copyright infringers who knowingly remove, change, or modify a watermark (logo), metadata, and other Copyright Management Information” (CMI per DMCA) to hide their copyright infringements or to induce others to infringe, can be liable from US$2,500 to US$25,000 plus the photographers’ attorney fees and legal costs (a timely registered photo copyright is not required to pursue CMI violators in US federal court): https://www.photoattorney.com/?s=watermarks

Nicco Valenzuela wrote, “Watermarks Do Not Protect From Theft.”

In the US, if you choose NOT to affix a watermark, copyright attribution, metadata, licensing information, or other “Copyright Management Information” (CMI) to your posted or shared photos (and artworks), the copyright infringer can argue that s/he didn’t know that the work was copyright-protected, and a US court can deem the copyright infringer to be an “innocent infringer,” and thus, award the plaintiff photographer a statutory judgement as low as US$200.

In the US, by adding robust CMI to your posted images (BTW, your strategy of including a visible AND hidden watermark is brilliant!), you’re helping to keep your photographs from being “orphaned”; you’re also able to pursue CMI statutory money damages of up to US$25,000 plus attorney fees against the infringer.

In the US, affixing CMI and quickly registering your copyright claims with the US Copyright Office really, really count!