If you’re a concert photographer and have posted your work online, chances are at least one of your photos has been downloaded and reposted without your permission at some point. Photo theft on the internet is nothing new, but with the rising popularity of band fansites, fan pages, and an increasing disregard for intellectual property rights, the problem has gotten a lot worse. Read on for some simple steps you can take to protect your work, and to learn what to do if your work has been stolen.

Recently, I was asked to send high resolution images from a shoot for a client’s website. The images would be displayed through a small Flash viewer that also featured a full-screen viewing mode. I knew there was a good chance the photos would be stolen, but what I didn’t expect was that all 30 photos would be re-posted in high resolution, on at least three fansites by the very next day.

Look mom, I can steal a photo!

What was even more amazing [read: hilarious] than the theft itself, was the description the offender posted for my photos on their site:

Here’s a new photoshoot of AP by Cary Liao. It is in HQ, so if you are gonna use it, please credit [fansite name], Thanks :)

That’s right, they wanted other sites to credit them for stealing my photos. One actually did. Fortunately, a polite e-mail request to the webmaster resulted in the infringing photos being deleted fairly quickly. Things wouldn’t be so straightforward for the other two sites, however. The second offender didn’t respond, and the third responded with the following:

hi there, thanks for your email. the content is being used under fair use 107 of the copyright law. the website is a non-profit fansite only to promote the career of the celebrity. have a nice day :)

After politely explaining that the infringement was not within the scope of “Fair Use”, he continued:

this is a tiny website, and no one is making money from the posting or viewing of the images. the images are already widespread on tens – hundreds of webpages, forums, and google, you will see if you do a search on the internet. i can remove it but there’s no infringement here. also it does not hurt you since it helps to make you more famous when people look at the pix :) going over to a friend’s house now, ttyl.

And there lies the problem – “no one [was] making money” from the images being posted all over the internet – including me. After several exchanges, the offender continued to deny any wrongdoing and continued to state he would take the content down. Meanwhile, he stood his position with more absurdity:

your pictures are already all over the entire internet before it was even on the site, and i think the problem is not from any one individual site. it is impossible to control hundreds of websites, they are always going to be spread. if you post them online they will be spread.

After waiting another day for something requiring a few mouse clicks, my patience had worn thin and I decided to contact his web host. I sent off a DMCA “Notification of Claimed Copyright Infringement” form to the host, along with another copy for the non-respondent’s host. These actions resulted in the infringing content finally being removed in one case, and in the other account being suspended. With their website boasting a pretty “Site suspended” message, I finally received an e-mail back from the other party, claiming they “couldn’t see” my e-mails until now. The photos were deleted and their website was subsequently restored. So what can you do to prevent your photos from being misused in the first place?

Prevention

  1. Watermarks
    Watermarking is the first line of defense in protecting your property, and something most people already do. At the very least, if your photos are stolen, viewers will at least know who took the photo. If you decide to watermark, some considerations are how obtrusive or unobtrusive the watermark should be, and what information it contains. After trying out dozens of different watermarks over the years, I recently updated my watermarks to increase the readability of the text and to make it clear where a viewer could go to see the original photos.

The transparency on the old watermark (left) made reading the text somewhat difficult. Some subtle fixes improve readability against a busy background, and the addition of “.com” makes it clear where to find more photos. Don’t assume that people will visit your website if the URL isn’t present.

  1. Image Size

    Unless you absolutely have to, do not post your high resolution files online. If you use a service like Flickr to backup your files or just for displaying your work, consider changing the permissions so only you can access the full original images. While the majority of these users probably allow this by personal choice, I’ve come across countless people who have all of their photos downloadable in their original form. This makes it entirely too easy for anyone to make prints from your images, re-purpose them, or even claim your photos as their own. Also, don’t rely on “who can download?” settings to protect you. If your photo can be viewed through a web browser, it can be stolen via a multitude of methods.

  2. Disclaimer
    Sometimes, all it takes to deter the theft of your work is a short disclaimer. Photos in my Flickr Photostream state “NOTE: These photos are copyrighted and may not be used or re-posted without my permission”. My photography websites display a copyright message when a right click is detected. Believe it or not, some people don’t even know that downloading an image and using it however they please is wrong, so your message may prevent some misuse.

  3. Make Use of Technology
    Flash-based photo galleries such as SlideShowPro are attractive and can make it more difficult for a photo thief to simply save a photo through a browser menu. However, unless the data file containing your image locations is obfuscated or hardcoded into the SWF file, anyone with basic HTML knowledge can still save the original files you upload to your Flash gallery. Also, don’t forget – if you can see an image in your browser, a screen capture program can save it.

    You may also want to disable right clicking on your website through JavaScript, but this once again comes with caveats. First of all, JavaScript can be disabled in seconds, rendering your protection instantly worthless. Secondly, tampering with a web browser’s core functionality is frowned upon by some web developers and users. If you are still up for it, check out some free scripts at Dynamic Drive. On my sites, I disable right clicks in order to remind viewers of my intellectual property rights, and not necessarily as a means to prevent them from saving files.

My Photos Have Been Stolen – Now What?

  1. Send an E-mail

    If you have a bit of patience and the infringement isn’t severe, sometimes a polite message to the individual who stole your work can result in a positive outcome. When I have used this method in the past, I normally provide a few options, such as allowing them to keep the image(s) with a proper credit or having them link small thumbnails to the photos on my website. If you want to avoid the possibility of getting into a heated debate with an ignorant fanboy or fangirl, you may skip directly to the next step.

  2. Send a DMCA Complaint

    The first step in successfully filing a “DMCA Notification of Claimed Copyright Infringement” form (commonly referred to as a “DMCA takedown notice”) is identifying the web hosting provider for the website which contains your work. This can usually be done with a quick WHOIS search, by looking at either the Technical Contact or the Domain Name Server (DNS) entries. In some cases, the web host is not readily available by searching the WHOIS database. For instance, the DNS entry for one of my offenders was nsX.thebadfansite.com, which wasn’t useful since it was the same domain as the website itself, and the Technical Contact was the offender’s internet handle and PO Box. In this event, you can use a website like Domain Name Details to get the IP address of the website, then use the IP address to get the host. A traceroute (“tracert” through the Windows command line) can also be used. Once the web host has been established, visit their website and look for an e-mail address or contact form subject line that deals with “trademark/copyright infringement” or “abuse” (usually abuse@somewebhostingprovider.com). You will need to send them a completed copy of the DMCA form (see a sample form here). In your written notice, you are required to provide the following items:

    • Signature (or an electronic signature) of the copyright owner or a person legally authorized to act on behalf of the copyright owner
    • Identify the copyrighted work that you claim has been infringed (you may choose to include copies of the photographs, to aid in identification)
    • Identify the material that you claim infringes your copyright (include specific locations)
    • Your address, telephone number, and e-mail address
    • Statement by you that you have “good faith” belief that the disputed use is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law
    • Statement by you, “under penalty of perjury, that the information in your notice is accurate”, and that you are the copyright owner or legally authorized to act on behalf of the copyright owner

    If all of the information checks out, the web hosting provider should remove the infringing materials or suspend the account until the customer complies. In the unlikely event that this does not occur, you may have to resort to an intellectual property lawyer, if the infringement is severe enough.

As long as your photography is available online, no amount of JavaScript or Flash code will stop someone who wants to steal it. Therefore, my best advice is to assume everything you post will be stolen, and adjust your image sizes and watermarks to a level you feel comfortable with. If you see someone who is clearly violating intellectual property rights, consider contacting the rightful copyright owner(s) or warning the appropriate photo community about the possible infringement. There is no end in sight for photo thievery, but by following some of the above advice, you should be able to minimize the damage.

Do you have any tips or horror stories about your photography being stolen? Feel free to share them here!