5 Things Photographers Can Do to Protect Their Images Online

5 Things Photographers Can Do to Protect Their Images Online

Image security and copyright protection are perennial hot topics. As online content sharing continues to evolve photographers face new opportunities, and challenges, for striking the
right balance between promoting and protecting their images online.

There are a lot of options for protecting your images online, but none that comes with a guarantee.  In the end it comes down to understanding your rights and finding the
level of security you are personally comfortable with.

We asked Carolyn Wright, The Photo Attorney to share some tips on keeping your images safe as they travel across the web.  She went a step further and showed us some useful things photographers can do to increase the likelihood of recovering what you are owed if your image copyrights are infringed upon.

Carolyn’s tips offer ways to add some piece of mind to your online image sharing.

Copyright Carolyn E. Wright, Esq.
All Rights Reserved

It’s almost a must now for photographers to post their images online.  With the advantages of a broader and more accessible market, the Internet also has the disadvantage that it’s much easier for others to steal your work.  But there are things you can do to protect your photos.

1.  Register your copyrights to your photos.*  When a photo is not registered with the U.S. Copyright Office prior to the infringement (or within three months of the first publication of the photo), a copyright owner may recover only “actual damages” for the infringement (pursuant to 17 U.S.C. 504 (b)), instead of statutory damages.  Courts usually calculate actual damages based on your normal license fees and/or industry standard licensing fees.  You also may recover the profits the infringer made from the infringement if they aren’t too speculative.  Unfortunately, actual damages usually don’t amount to much so that attorneys will not take your infringement case on a contingency basis.

If your photo is timely registered for an infringement, you will be eligible for statutory damages of up to $150,000 for a willful infringing use.  See 17 USC §504(b) and (c).  Legal fees and costs also may be recovered from the infringer.  See 17 USC §505.  Additionally, you need to have received your registration certificate to file a complaint for a copyright infringement lawsuit in most jurisdictions.

*Check Carolyn’s article for how to register your work and the PhotoShelter  step by step tutorial on how to register your copyrights

2.  Put your copyright notice on or adjacent to each of your images.  The official copyright notice has three parts: the first part is the © (the letter “c” in a circle), the word “Copyright,” or its abbreviation, “Copr.”  The second part notes the year when the work was first published.  The third required part of a copyright notice is the name of the copyright owner.  The final form looks like this: © 2010 Carolyn E. Wright.  You may use the copyright notice without registering your images with the U.S. Copyright Office.  Including a copyright notice is no longer required for copyright protection, but it is a good idea to use it.

When you use the copyright notice it may stop someone from stealing your photographs, either because it serves as a reminder that the work is protected or because the notice interferes with the use of the work when it is part of the photo.  When you post a copyright notice along with your registered images, then the infringer cannot claim that the infringement was innocent (reducing the damages to as low as $200 per work) and the court is more likely to find that the infringement was willful, supporting the maximum in infringement damages.


3.  Put your copyright management information in, on and/or adjacent to each of your images.  Copyright management information (“CMI”) “means any of the following information conveyed in connection with copies of a work or displays of a work, including in digital form (such as in the metadata of your photo file):

(1) The title and other information identifying the work, including the information set forth on a notice of copyright.
(2) The name of, and other identifying information about, the author of a work or
(3) The name of, and other identifying information about, the copyright owner of the work, including the information set forth in a notice of copyright.

Section 1202 of the U.S. Copyright Act makes it illegal for someone to remove your CMI from your photo to hide the infringement.  The fines start at $2,500 and go to $25,000 in addition to attorneys’ fees and any damages for the infringement.  You don’t have to register your photo in advance to recover under this statute. So, if possible, put your CMI as a watermark on your photo and in the metadata of your digital file (be careful that your CMI is not removed when using the “save for web” function).

4.  Make it more difficult for others to use your photos without your permission.  Even though a burglar can break into your home, you still lock your door and set the alarm.  Do the same to protect your images.  First, disable “right-click” so that novices cannot easily copy and save your images.  Second, read the terms and conditions of any website where you may post your images or contest that you enter to make sure that you’re not giving up rights to which you’re not aware.

5.  Prosecute unauthorized uses of your images.  Many people think that they have a right to use your photos or they won’t be caught if they do.  Fortunately, there are many tools to battle copyright infringement.

One easy option is to prepare a DMCA Take-Down Notice.  Thanks to the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) enacted in 1998, the Internet Service Provider (“ISP”) that hosts a website is not liable for transmitting information that infringes a copyright only if the ISP removes the infringing materials from a user’s website after receiving proper notice of the violation. The notice must: be in writing, be signed by the copyright owner or the owner’s agent, identify the copyrighted work claimed to be infringed (or list of infringements from the same site) and identify the material that is infringing the work.  Additionally, the notice must include the complaining party’s contact information, a statement that the complaint is made in “good faith,” and a statement, under penalty of perjury, that the information contained in the notification is accurate and that the complainer has the right to proceed (because he is the copyright owner or agent). Check my article here: http://www.naturescapes.net/docs/index.php/articles/314  to learn more about how to prepare a DMCA take-down notice.  Even if you don’t reside in the U.S., you may use this great tool to stop an infringer whose ISP is in the U.S. from  using your work.

Another option is to prepare a “cease and desist/demand letter yourself.  When you don’t want to alienate the infringer (the infringer is a potential client and/or appears to be an innocent infringer), you may want to contact the infringer to explain that the use is not authorized and either request payment of an appropriate license fee, a photo credit with a link to your website, or that the infringer cease use of the image.  It’s best to do this in writing – a letter by surface mail seems to have more clout than email correspondence.  There are some risks in sending the letter yourself.  First, the infringer may attempt to preempt an infringement lawsuit and file a request for declaratory judgment that the use is authorized.  This may involve you in a legal action for which you may need legal counsel in a jurisdiction (court location) where you don’t want to litigate.  Second, your demand for payment may be admissible against you if an infringement case is filed.  If you demand too little, then it may limit your ultimate recovery.  To avoid this possibility, include in your demand letter that “these discussions and offer to settle are an attempt to compromise this dispute.”

You may hire a lawyer to send a demand letter.  When an attorney gets involved, the matter is escalated and tensions rise.  While the infringer may be more defensive, the weight of your demand letter is dramatically increased if it comes from an attorney and the infringer generally takes the matter more seriously.  Some attorneys charge a flat fee to send a letter; others may charge a “contingency fee” which is based on the percentage of recovery or the fee may be a combination of both.

Your most aggressive option is to pursue your legal remedies by filing suit.  Unless you have a breach of contract or some other state claim, you must file your infringement claim in a federal district court (http://www.uscourts.gov/districtcourts.html).  To file suit, it is best to hire an attorney to help you because the legal procedures are complicated.  Note that you have three years from the date of infringement to sue for copyright infringement.


Carolyn E. Wright is a licensed attorney dedicated to the legal needs for photographers.  Get the latest in legal information at Carolyn’s website, www.photoattorney.com.  These and other legal tips for photographers are available in Carolyn’s book, The Photographer’s Legal Guide, available on her website.

NOTE: The information provided here is for educational purposes only. If you have legal concerns or need legal advice, be sure to consult with an attorney.

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There are 29 comments for this article
  1. Eric Leslie at 5:57 pm

    It was nice to read on this subject from a more legal angle. I didn’t know you could protect yourself from statutory damages by filing for copyright. Can this strategy be applied to images that are licensed CC?

  2. Graham P at 4:55 am

    Just wondering how a non US citizen (UK) stands on registration of copyright if for example a US publication used one of my images without my permission and I was looking at a legal challenge to the use of such image??

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  5. Sam at 10:34 am

    Firstly I’d like to say good article. Thanks for sharing all that information Michelle, apart from one point I think it’s great.

    I know this article is old, but for anybody who is setting up a website and stumbles across it like me I think I need to point out a major problem I have with one of the points.

    If you don’t already know it, this point is number 4. Disabling right-click is one of the worst things you can do to your website, especially in this day and age where a lot of people use extensions and gestures and rely on right clicking. Not only does it make your site less accessible it also looks unprofessional. And the worse part, it doesn’t even protect your photos! Anybody can just hit the print screen button on their keyboard and in a single press have your picture copied to their clipboard. Or they can drag the picture into the address bar and the right click and copy it. If you don’t want people to copy the picture either display it with flash or use javascript to simply disable copying of the photo.

    It annoys me when someone prevents me from using right click. To be honest it annoyed so many people that I’m not sure if the feature is still even supported in most browsers, I know there are options and extensions to stop websites from imposing these restrictions.

    So in summary, follow the steps above but do not annoy your user by imposing a block on the right click and pretending you’ve “locked your front door”.

    • rose at 11:45 am

      I agree with that, as a user, a disabled right click makes me think the site is broken. And if I wanted the picture, I can just get it from the browser cache. If you can see the picture on screen, then its already there on your computer.

  6. edie raye at 1:04 am

    i would think the image sharing sites would be EXCELLENT, FREE advertising for anyones’ work. van goghs’ starry night has been seen by billions and rarely in the louvre. if people fall in love with your work why would you not want them to share it? i am naive but curious why would you put something on the internet knowing that “when it is out there it is out there” – ask paris hilton. if i don’t charge to share the image and thus make no profit where would the damage be? i see it as showing a magazine picture to the guy sitting next to me on the train. one last question would be about quotes on pictures – who has the copyright – the photographer or aristotle who he is quoting and is long dead – pretty sure he didnt consent to having his words used so who has the copyright when you print on the image? also you took the picture of a tree (tree belongs to God) with a camera (made by canon) and put it on paper made by kodak – now what part of this work is really yours? BE GLAD SOMEONE WANTS TO LOOK AT IT AND SHARE IT WITH THE WORLD. now…can i copyright what i just wrote or is it true they are the same 26 letters you use in a different combination and therefore you would be infringing my “writing?”
    what is art anyhow ever borrow a cd and listen – did you send money to the artist hmmm i must think on this. can thoughts be stolen??? ask a schizophrenic :).

    • Lyndsey at 1:11 pm

      The issue is not just someone sharing it. People share things all over Facebook every day. But now images are being stolen by non-legit stock photo sites and sold for profit, with no profit or credit going to the photographer who actually took the image. Also what good is having people share their photos, if they never actually say where the photo came from? Just last week, a friend of mine got married, I took a lot of photos, edited a small sampling of them, and posted them to my professional Facebook page. Within an hour, her mother, had taken one of the images (which had a watermark on it) cropped out the watermark, and posted it as her profile picture on Facebook. I wouldn’t have minded her using it had she left the original image intact, with the watermark. So many up and coming photographers depend on word of mouth to drum up business, but because she shared it without giving any credit to me, it becomes some random picture of her daughter and son in law on their wedding day.

      • Eric at 2:19 am

        Not to sound rude, but in a situation like that, I can’t really consider it stealing when it’s the mother using a picture of her own family. After all, how can someone steal something that’s already technically theirs? Did you actually lose anything by her doing so?

        • Wes at 10:21 am

          Eric, by that logic, all architects should freely use any image of buildings they’ve designed. The federal government could freely use any image of the national parks and monuments taken.

          Further, the bride herself could claim, “Well, it’s my wedding, so I own the photos.” What is the point of paying a photographer to shoot it if you can make such a claim?

      • rose at 11:50 am

        On a similar note, I had my video on repairing a laptop stolen. Someone put their own watermark on it and put the video on their own site. That made me quite angry. Even with watermarks, people can crop them out like you said. So now I try to watermark smack in the middle on the picture. If they want the original, they can ask me for it. Another advantage of using watermarks is that you can use them to market and promote yourself. People are going to copy your images on the Internet, there is no way around it. Might as well use your pictures to advertise yourself for free. I use tools like SquiggleMark to apply a semi-transparent watermark, so its not very intrusive, with a link to my website. And with this, I can also batch watermark thousands of files at once.

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  9. Destination360 at 8:48 pm

    Nice to see people are discussing copyright and the different aspects on how to protect your images. We didn’t start off placing a copyright on Destination360’s travel images for aesthetic reasons. But we’ve seen such an abuse of our images we have been forced to add a copyright. Even with this we find people still take them and in some cases recrop images to remove copyright. Most are not using images for fair use but for commercial gain. There’s so many resources for free images and cheap stock photos its just lazy on the part of a creating content to take the first image they see on Google.


  10. Philippe B. at 11:14 am

    first, this is a great post, copyright laws are complex and help is always welcome.

    this is a answer to Graham P.

    if your not a US resident, uou should register with your own national copyright office (most country have on). But the U.S. Copyright Office is the only one providing a mechanism to deposit a copy of work’s content that is the subject of the copyright registration.

    that means in most cases, you only restering the title of your pictures ( not really conviennent to get protection in case of illegal use…)

    to complementaury your registering copyright with national copyright offices, I suggest you to combine it with a online depot of your copyright to prouve your work. I think http://www.myrightskeeper.com is the most efficient site you could find. it will strongly enforce the protection you obtain with your national copyrighting office. The MRK recordal will supplement the registration by providing digital time stamped evidence of the actual work.

    hope it’s helping

  11. Jamie at 3:45 pm

    Awesome article!

    I would (personally) also suggest the following (making it incredibly hard for anyone to steal your images):

    For WordPress, I use WP Content Copy Protection available here: http://wordpress.org/plugins/wp-content-copy-protection/ – This plugin is used by over 115,000 users. They have a pro version that uses image layering technology for protection.

    For non-WordPress, I would recommend this aggressive little jQuery plugin: http://www.securiilock.com/super-content-copy-protection-jquery/ (really good at protecting images and text content for any website)


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  13. Eric Whitney at 2:31 am

    Don’t get me wrong, I understand the importance of someone protecting their work, but I think sometimes it’s taken WAY to seriously. To go back to what Edie Raye said in another comment, when someone uploads a photo of something like a nature shot, who really DOES own it if a thousand other people have taken a photo of that same thing before?

    Here’s something I’ve always wondered about: As stated above, companies go after someone with a Cease and Desist order for posting an image that they own, but WHY? If the person is trying to sell the image themselves, sure, by all means, the company has that right to go after them, but say someone posts an image of Link(I’m a HUGE Zelda fan, which is why I’m using it as an example that I’ve seen) to show off to their friends that Nintendo’s next Zelda game is about to come out. If Nintendo goes to them and tells me to take it down, fine, they probably should, but what I don’t get though, is that when people do stuff like this, they’re basically giving those company FREE advertising! That’s sounds like a WAY better option compared to them spending MILLIONS on ads and 30 second commercials! I activated the notifications, so if I’m getting something wrong here, please reply explaining why.

    • Adam at 2:21 pm

      Yes, you are getting something wrong, YOU do not decide the value of someones work. If that was the case, I think the Mona Lisa painting isn’t worth anything, in fact, I will head over to the Louvre and take the painting to my house and hang it in the bathroom.

      It’s ok though, because I will just tell anyone who uses my bathroom that Leonardo da Vinci painted it, so he will still get credit/advertising.

  14. Austine at 9:09 am

    Thank you ALL for the most helpful information.
    I have been shooting and sharing for years. I have saved a few until I could protect them.
    You have given me direction and a little poke to get started and I thank you for that.

  15. Nadia Reckmann at 6:29 am

    Thanks for the great post, Michelle, and for the helpful advice, Carolyn! Hopefully, with better copyright education, it would be more difficult for infringers to take advantage of photographers and their work.

    I wanted to add one more useful tool for copyright protection – Pixsy (https://www.pixsy.com/). It tracks the use of images online and helps photographers get compensated for their stolen work. Disclosure: I work there and I love it.

    Let me know if you’d like to give Pixsy a try — I’d be happy to walk you through the process.

  16. Jason Sutter at 3:02 pm

    – Costs about $65 to register multiple photos 🙁
    – Allows you to claim statutory damages in case of infringement, which is good because you do NOT need to prove actual damages in court.

    – Proves that your photographs existed at this time. Include your name to claim copyright.
    – No cost 🙂
    – Though I am not a lawyer, I believe that in case of infringement, you would need to prove the actual damages in court. However, I think that a way around that hassle is that if you discover infringement, you could then register on copyright.gov, and you would still have true time stamp to claim that you were the 1st creator. Then, you could may be able claim statutory damages because your work is also registered with the government. I would appreciate any feedback on this point.

  17. Copyright Troll at 1:07 pm

    Interesting dialog here on copyright but rather old. It impossible to prevent someone from stealing your work but you can always punish for doing so if you’ve protected your photography but registaring it. Interesting how the copyright thieves don’t want to pay the copyright trolls but in the end most get settled.

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