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How to Protect Your Photography from Theft

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As a photographer, one of your biggest concerns with putting your work online is probably that it can be stolen so easily. No matter how well you try to protect your intellectual property (IP), once it is on someone's screen, there's not much you can do if they're serious about stealing. But there are a number of ways you can lock down your photos online, and at least make it so that someone has to intentionally steal your image rather than unknowingly share it with friends.

From copyrights to compression, watermarking and user-registered image galleries, protection for your intellectual property online comes in numerous forms, and using more than one method better shields your work from theft.

"Locks" by Steven Tom

The reality of our digital world is that there's no getting around putting your photos online. A recent article on SBTelegram points out that innovation is the key to avoiding stagnation in your business, and two of the areas critical to innovation in business are marketing and product/services.

If you want to grow your photography business, you have to be willing to put your work out there; digital accessibility to photographs is a necessary product and services innovation in this digital era. This can be a scary move, I know. But with a little information and a few systems in place, you can go a long way toward keeping your photos safe and your worries at bay.

Know Your Rights

First and foremost, you must know your rights and how to exercise them. Always make it very clear on any website where your photos are hosted that your images are copyrighted and you are reserving some or all rights to their use. By not stating you are reserving rights, you risk letting people believe you are reserving no rights.

You probably will want to go so far as to put your copyright information directly on your images. This makes sure that even if your graphics or photographs do turn up in an image search or somewhere other than your website, that the images still state that they are copyrighted. Many photographers and graphic designers use the "Copyright {year} All Rights Reserved" statement.

With this statement of copyright, you are actually serving the viewer legal notice. They have to legally honor your rights, similar to a no trespassing sign that serves legal notice to someone crossing a property line.

Use Custom Coding

Some people go so far as to use a special code on their websites to prevent someone from simply right-clicking and saving the image. Here's the scoop on custom coding available to photographers:

  • Disable Right-Click: you can find JavaScript that will prevent right-click action anywhere on your page. While this helps, it's easy to go to the navigation menu and select "view source" to find the image path. It helps, but I've found this usually emboldens thieves. However, it does keep the honest people from using your photos.
  • Tiling Images: some photographers will intentionally crop their images into four or more pieces and put them back together on the website. When looking at the image, it looks like a single photo, but if they right-click or try to drag and drop the image, they only get a small part. They would have to save each piece of the image and reconstruct it. This also works, but it's a real pain to do this for every photo, if you can imagine.
  • CSS Background Image: Another trick you can do is to put a transparent image on your page and use CSS to put your photo in the background. If they right-click or try to drag the image, they only save the transparent graphic in the foreground. This is a nice trick and easy to automate, but far from bullet-proof. All it takes is right-clicking and viewing the source of the page to find the image path.

Photo by NatureFocused

Keep in mind, though, that no code can beat a screen capture. Windows and Mac machines both come with free screen capture software, not to mention the built in "print screen" function. This is why you will probably want to add in more of the protection methods below.

Upload Thumbnails or Small Images

Personally, I rarely put anything over 400px-600px wide online. While this is bigger than a thumbnail by most standards, it's still a small graphic and usually not worth stealing.

This method gives a consistent size, which in many ways becomes a part of the brand. If all of your images are the same size, they communicate your care for details. So anytime you find an image you want to show off, just be sure to shrink it down to a small size prior to uploading.

Tip: Don't use code to shrink the image - for example, a full-size, 8MP image can be made in HTML to look like a thumbnail in size, but it's actually a high resolution image. Don't do this. Just upload a small image by using your "image size" function in your image editing software to make a smaller copy of your photo. As a benefit, this not only protects your photographs, but also improves your site performance.

Use Compressed/Low Resolution Large Images

If you do want to put larger image sizes online, avoid using high resolutions. I purposefully use highly compressed images. In Photoshop, for example, you can control the compression of your JPG formats. Get the compression as low as you can possibly stand - start around 20 on the quality setting. I know this goes against every fiber of our collective beings, but this is a great way to protect your work.

You can also reduce the image resolution. A typical photograph on the web is around 72px/in (28px/cm). Cut this in half. Add the compression recommendation above and you've got an image that is low resolution enough that theft is less desirable, but hopefully gives potential customers an idea of your capabilities.

Of course, you can always put a statement on your website that high resolution images are available upon request. This at least will help prospective clients know that these images are purposefully low quality for protective purposes. Keep in mind that you still want to balance protection with showing off your talent. It's not worth protecting your work if clients think you are a less than amateur photographer.

Watermark Photos Gratuitously

You may also want to watermark all images you put online. If they're relatively small images, keep the watermark small and in one of the corners. Larger images above 800px (if you choose to ignore the small image advice above), you may cover a large portion of the photo with your watermark.

Just keep in mind that aggressive image thieves have Photoshop and know how to use the tools to remove small watermarks. It's very easy to do, and if they don't just crop them out, they can use one of many techniques to just remove it. Therefore, the bigger the watermark, the less likely they'll be to even make the effort to steal your images.

Tip: In Photoshop, make a standard watermark that you will use - you may even create a couple of versions. Make the background transparent and save this file as a PNG. Then, you can make an Actions to open and place the watermark on your image with a hotkey. On my computer, I only have to hit F3 and I have a huge watermark dead center on my image. Then I just resize and place it where I want. It just takes a few seconds.

Limit Distribution of High Resolution Images

If you do put high resolution images online, put them in a protected folder by Dropbox or uploading them to Google Drive. You can then send someone a link to these images. You know who has what links this way, and if you find that images are being distributed without your permission, you will have a pretty good idea of who is doing what.

Require Registration for Image Galleries

If controlling distribution is too much of a pain, consider putting your images in a gallery that requires the user to register to see your images. This is a self-service system and makes the person register with a valid email address. Because it's automated, you won't have as much control, but at least you're not having to send individual links to images.

Consider that people can use an email address and remain anonymous. So this doesn't protect you, but it does require more work on the part of thieves. This also protects your images from showing up on search engine results.

Maintain a Single Repository

Dropbox Account

A big part of controlling and protecting your photography is to keep it all in the same place. Don't put a bunch of images on Facebook, then some on Flickr, and some more on your own site. Keep all of your high resolution images in one place so you know what is where.

Dropbox is an excellent solutiong for storing images because it's free and allows you to put a lot of images in one spot. You can even organize them into folders and share entire folders really quickly.

Watch for Theft and Get Aggressive

You may want to regularly Google yourself. Every now and then, you may find one of your images in search results and have to make contact. Here's a big tip: be gracious when this happens. If you simply send someone an email to ask them to remove your photos, 9 times out of 10 they will and you can move on with your life.

On those rare occassions that someone does not respond, get aggressive. You can find a standard "cease and desist" document online. You can even send people a bill - that gets their attention fast. If a bill still doesn't work, send the bill to collections. You can still be really nice when contacting them, but you have to be able to drop the hammer fast when someone isn't honoring the rights you've full reserved.

Don't Put Images Online at All

Lastly, there are many photographers who, through reputation or because they have physical galleries, just shouldn't put their images online. Not to contradict my original argument that photographers should have an online portfolio, thumbnail images and low resolution are still appropriate. However, high resolution images just shouldn't be out there for professional photographers.

People can walk into a physical gallery, see something they like, and Google the photographer. Do you think they'll buy your expensive, framed image if they can download a high resolution version and print it themselves? Unless they're a collector and just don't care, most of the time they'll just print it themselves. The only fool-proof way to prevent theft of your images online is to not put anything close to the original online at all.

The following list of quick processes may save you a lot of heartache:

  • Watermark every image going online
  • Include the copyright information in the watermark
  • Limit image sizes to 600px or smaller
  • Stick with one or two locations for all image galleries, for your own sanity's sake as well as security

Tip:Make use of Photoshop's Actions to quickly create a watermark, size your image, and save images in a low-resolution format. If your images are in a single folder, you can use Photoshop's Automate Batch function to perform the same Action you created on all of your photos at once.

Unfortunately, there isn't one single sure way to protect your photographs from theft online, except for never placing them on the Internet in the first place. However, if you are trying to gain new clients, you probably cannot avoid putting at least a small sampling of your work online.

Just take the necessary steps to make it harder for thieves to steal your work, including never distributing high resolution photos digitally, and you will be much less likely to have to take legal action against someone who disregards intellectual property rights.

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