Protecting your photographs from copyright infringement is important in today’s digital age. It’s too easy to have your images stolen and used for profit without your knowledge. If your a professional photographer or amateur enthusiast there are a few basic steps to take to protect your images from being stolen.
You wake up at 5am, pack 60 lbs of camera equipment in the trunk and drive 20 miles to a location to take a great image you scoped out a few months back knowing the conditions will be right for the image you were looking to create. You come home after a few hours of shooting,go through 100 or so images until you find the right one and sit down for an hour to edit your work and polish up the final image.
You take the final image and post it up on Facebook, Google +, Flickr and whatever other photo sharing sites you use only to find that after a few months, BAM! someone else is profiting from your image by selling it on a tee shirt or coffee mug or perhaps using it on their own website as a banner because they liked your picture and never asked you for permission to use it. Unfortunately, you have to post your images on the Internet otherwise they will never be seen. I’ll often post on social sites to draw traffic to my website where my portfolio can be viewed.
A few years ago I was contacted by National Geographic Stock cause they were interested in a few of my images for their collection. Cool… whats the deal? The deal was I get 40% of whatever they sell my image for. They negotiate terms and licensing agreements on behalf of the photographer. Sounds like a good opportunity especially since to sell stock images through National Geographic is a by” invite only thing”. So I uploaded the three images they wanted and forgot about it. A year and a half later I decided to do a reverse image search on one of the images using Google’s free image search feature and I seen my image for sale on Zazzle.com web site. You could get an i-pad case for $40 , tee-shirts for $15, coffee mugs for $10, key chains and whole bunch of other junk for various prices all with my image on it!
After some research I found that National Geographic stock had made some kind of deal with zazzle.com to sell this stuff. I can do that myself and collect 100% of the profit of sales without national geographic taking a cut. The other thing I found out was that national geographic had also sold my image to Getty images, AP Images and Superstock. Again, I could have done that myself without National Geographic getting 60% of the sale and me only getting 40%. I was never notified this was going on until I asked. My cut of these sales turned into penny’s on the dollar by the time the profits trickled down the food chain.
After a few phone calls to national geographic stock, all of the images were removed from the other stock sites and Zazzle.com within 48 hours. I had also pulled my images off the National Geographic site.
How can you protect your images from being stolen like mine were? Simple answer…you cant. Once you post images online people will take them. There are however a few steps you can take to make it harder and be able to pursue legal action if necessary.
1. Always have a copyright watermark on anything you post.Make sure it’s clearly written on the image. It may take away from the aesthetics but it is a deterrent for some image thieves. I did this!
2. Register your images with the library of congress copyright office. It costs about $30 but you can register hundreds of images for that fee. It’s not a bad idea to register the images first before you publish them if time permits. By registering the images you have a much better case of copyright infringement if you have to go to court. I register almost all of my images in large groups at a time. I do this about every 6 months to a year depending on how many images I have shot over the course of that time period. I did this too!
3. If you have a few prize winner images, do an occasional Google reverse image search to see if any infringement has occurred. Click on the little camera icon to the right of the search box upload your image you want to search and it will spit back the results in a few seconds. There are other services for this but I found Google’s service to work best and it’s free.
If you find your image has been stolen you need to use your judgment on weather to handle the matter directly with the accused or involve an attorney who specializes in copyright infringement and intellectual property rights. If you choose the later of the two methods of handling the dispute be aware you have have an initial layout in legal fees. If the infringement involved a large global company there could be quite a large settlement rewarded and the initial investment can have a big payoff. However,if the infringement involved a small personal website, you might be better off contacting the author direct. Often it will behoove them to be receptive to your requests especially if you let them know its a registered image.