Sunday, March 11, 2012

Unauthorized Use of Photography and Copyright Abuse

In the last 3 days alone, I have found - either through looking or by sheer accident - around 20 examples of my photographs being used without my knowledge or permission. These uses include commercial websites, forum posts, email newsletters and the cover of a specialist, internationally published magazine.

In every case, I was not asked if my photographs could be used, I was not told about their use, my name was not used with the photographs and I was certainly not paid for the useage.

I managed to contact some of those who had taken my images, via: email, Facebook messaging and telephone. The responses that I got back have, so far, varied from: no reply; abuse ("we don't want your **** pix anyway"); outrage ("how dare you suggest that I have stolen your images - I will be calling my solicitor"), surprise ("I had no idea that they were not free - I found them on Google images"), apology ("I am genuinely sorry to have caused you upset") and practical reparation ("how's this for a solution?").

One person has taken the webpage with my image on it down, another person has issued a correction giving a link to my website and the magazine has offered free advertising space in the next edition. Some webmasters have not replied as yet, and many of the photographs are still (illegally) on show. Interestingly, although I told everyone that there was a fee involved for using my images, no one has offered to pay hard cash for them.

Before I give some practical tips on how to find and persue the misuse of photographic imagery, I just want to let those people who trawl the web looking for free top-class photography into a secret:

Someone took that photograph you found. And because they own the copyright to it, taking it without permission is likely to be an offence in law. But more importantly, if you go onto a professional photographer's website and take thier images - you are also taking their opportunity to make a living. Professional photographers (like me) only make our money (you know, the stuff we use to get food and keep a roof over our heads) from taking photographs and selling them. Not by letting you use them for free, without asking and without even having the decency to say who took the photograph that you now use to adorn your own website or magazine cover or office wall.

I have spent nearly 30 years honing my craft so that my photography is good enough to be used in books, magazines, websites and brochures. And, (this is really important) it is now good enough to be paid for. Unless I have expressly given my work to you for your own use (only) - often with my thanks for help you have given me - I will expect you to pay for it.

How to Find Your Photography on the Internet

1. Use a reverse search engine such as "Tineye" or "src-img". (click the names to go to the websites for these utilities). They are very easy to use, and basically all you have to do is highlight the photograph that you want to find. The reverse search engine will then show you any uses of the image on the internet. It may only find where you have put the image yourself (say on your own website - or where you have sold the image to others for legitimate use). But it may also find the photograph where you least expected it.

2. Use Google Analytics to narrow down your searches. If you have a large number of photographs on your own website, you may not know which ones to search for first. I use Google Analytics to show me what searches have lead to my own website. If I see a recent visit which has come from a search for "red door" or "coffee cup with hearts" or whatever, and I know that I have an image like that on my website, I go to it and do a src-img or Tineye search on the photograph. I did just that recently and came up with 8 illegal uses in less than 15 minutes.

How to Protect Your Images on the Internet

1.  Put a watermark on every image that you have online. This is easy to do in software such as Photoshop and Lightroom and you can Google tutorials on how to go about it.

2. Make the watermark BIG and OBVIOUS. It doesn't matter what you put - it can be your own name or the traditional copyright symbol or "keep off it's mine" (or whatever - see my example above) just make sure it's right in the middle of the photograph. If you tuck it away neatly in the corner, it will be easily removed as if it never existed. You can make the opacity lower so that it doesn't completely obscure the image (again easily done in Photoshop) but make sure it covers most of the main parts of the photograph to deter others from trying to take it off.

3. If you sell (or give away) your photographs for website use: Ask the webmaster to copyright the image or use a copyright statement which may (hopefully) deter third-parties from lifting the images. This gives less protection than the previous method, but at least you are giving out the message that your work is not there for the taking by all and sundry.

4. Put a clear notice on your website stating that you images are not free and that all usage will involve payment. Put it on every page that you have images. Again, it may ignored, but at least no one can then say "oh, I thought this was free photography!"

What to Do When You Find Unathorised Image Use

This is a very complex area and there doesn't seem to be one clear solution, yet. But there are some very basic things to do in the first instance.

1. Take a screenshot of the unathorized use. With the website open so that you can clearly see the website URL and your image on it, press "prtscn" (print screen) on your keyboard, then open "Paint" in "all programs" on a Windows machine (or similar program on a Mac) and then open a new document and click "paste". This saves the screenshot of the webpage - and you have your evidence that the image was used against your wishes - even if they take it down later.

2. Bookmark the URL of the offending web page. So that you can find it again easily. I have now built up a sizable folder of "illegal usage" bookmarks in my documents directory.

3. Let whoever used your photograph KNOW that you KNOW. There will usually be some form of contact on the offending website. If not, you can go to and search for the owner of the website. Doing that, I have found not only contact emails but even phone numbers and full addresses of the website owners. How you let them know may vary - email is often the obvious way, but I have also used social network site messaging and even phone calls. Basically you need to tell them that you have seen your photographs used without payment or permission and tell them to take it down immediately.  You could also contact forum / website webmasters or social networking sites head offices and report the unathorized usage. This usually (but not always) results in the image being removed or the page being taken down.

Then of course, there is the thorny issue of  getting paid for the illegal usage. I know of some photographers who have done this very successfully - and recouped thousands in a short space of time - and others who have come up against a brick wall and got nothing. I will return to how this can be dealt with in another post.


  1. Excellent stuff. It's a war we photographers will be constantly fighting I'm afraid. Some friends of mine said the most effective strategy is to contact the webmaster. Most will view the offending website owner as badly as we do. Looking forward to your next blog on this issue.


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