Photographers fight online Image theft.


by Thomas Schoeller.


It's become a fact of life that if you're an artist or photographer with a business presence on the internet, the likelihood of your work being stolen and used without your permission and financial compensation is higher than you may care to admit. Image thieves are a different kind of predator, unlike high-profile white collar Bernie Madoff 's operating fraudulent Ponzi schemes to swindle investors. Or the drug dealer on the street with a mile long rap sheet. The image thief may reside in the condo next door to you, a fortune 500 company or any small company. 

Your Rights as a creator are protected by copyright law, Title 17 of the U.S. code.  It states in clear language "The owner of copyright in a work has the exclusive right". You need to know your rights, and a great book to invest in is the Photographers Survival Manual - A legal guide for artist in the digital age. In addition, you need to register your work with the U.S. Copyright office!  I'll speak more of this in just a few moments.

Finding your photography or artwork being used illegally is frustrating, and to be honest it's not a task that most artist look forward to dealing with. You may struggle while coping with your thoughts on many levels. Ranging from outright anger or worrying if you may be upsetting fragile owners of a Mom and Pop hotel with a humble roadside establishment that "helped themselves" to your pretty countryside fall foliage image. (Yea, I've been there myself). Yes, they should be confronted because YOU are the victim.

Hey, how did you find your photos used illegally?  Until recently, it's been difficult to know where your © protected images may wind up on-line. A very useful tool can be found online, and is free.  It's the Tin Eye Search. It's a reverse image search that scrubs the web looking for exact matches from the millions of photographs. It may not find every possible hiding space, but it is an excellent place to begin. Another great site to try is the Google Image Search. Widely regarded as the 800 pound Gorilla in the room.

Confronting Image Thieves:  Let's begin with the small fish first. That is all the mommy blogs, Main St USA small businesses and personal websites etc.. I've found reactionary responses to vary upon first contact. The sound approach is going forward with level head and composure. Thankfully, it doesn't always escalate into a combative mission. Be prepared, jot down your thoughts and stay the course. Above all, don't be the one to blink, remember you are the victim. Be sure you saved SCREEN SHOTS, and Google the website where you found your work being used illegally. If you see you're dealing with a large corporation, and not a small business or personal use (mommy blog) issue this could evolve into needing professional help to recoup fee's. (I'll get into the big fish in a few)    

   If I'm contacting a small business or an individual, I'll introduce myself and ask to speak with the person of authority, perhaps the business owner or a manager/supervisor. You don't need to waste your time speaking with the maintenance man fixing leaky faucets. Your goal is clear, you need to open negotiation with them to be compensated for fairly, at the very least have them delete the image permanently from the website.  Recently, I discovered through "Google Analytics" an unusually high traffic volume leading to a rustic barn image associated with a high bounce rate. Red flag!  My dashboard showed the traffic originated from an interior decorator's business from North Carolina. Once I perused the website to get the jest of what they do, I called them. I was directed to the owner, who fortunately was a very good listener. I explained how I found my image being used on their website, that I'm the intellectual property and copyright owner and asked her if she had a hard copy of my Limited Use License agreement allowing permission to use the photograph for commercial use. (Ha!....long pause) Since she was a small business owner, she has much to lose. She apologized and knew how the image was downloaded. A teenage girl working as a marketing intern with a very high sense of entitlement found it by doing a Google search and swiped it. No questions asked, after all, we are talking millennials, am I right? 

At this point, the ball is now in your court. The next move is to work towards a resolution in your favor, keeping things cheerful and professional if possible. I asked the owner, "Is the photo something that works well for your website, and would you like to continue to use it?"  She said to me she would love to, but how?"  I suggested I'll provide an agreement retroactive to the original google traffic hits coming from her website and gave her a quote to avoid legal fee's and federal court. She accepted and transferred funds on the spot electronically. Case closed. Turns out that was one of the easier confrontations I have encountered. Unfortunately, not all image thieves will be open to negotiations or even admit to wrongdoing. When that happens, you still have options at your disposal however they will take longer to collect on, perhaps several months. It's worth it, be diligent and resolute.




The above image was found illegally used on a Vermont lodging establishment website. A search found it in only a few seconds.  


An obnoxious photo thief amongst the small fish in the big ocean is bluntly a real pain in the ass. It's important not to allow yourself to get lured into their negative combative nature. Your fortitude may be tested, stand strong. Heck, on one occasion I had the owner of a Vermont lodging establishment have a meltdown on the phone then begin calling me expletives as I explained to him he's been caught stealing. (Photo above) On this particular occasion, I could see from their website the place was a bedbug infested craphole and they didn't have a pair of dimes to rub together, so I only wanted my image removed from the website ASAP.  He denied ever downloading my image from the internet, but they knew EXACTLY what image they stole and deleted it while I was on the phone with them. Imagine that, as we spoke on the phone they rushed into their website manager and attempted to make it look as if I was seeing a delusion. Case closed.  

Let's quickly recap, to this point I've disclosed a couple of useful websites to help you find your stolen images, the need to add Google Analytics to your websites, and a link to the Photographers Survival Guide.  Also, some negotiating tactics with a small time operator, albeit a compliant infringer caught in the act and most importantly the link to the U.S. Copyright office. Lot's of information and hopefully, your hair does not hurt just yet! 

Working Together as a community to fight image theft: Many photography related websites have community forums or discussion boards where creatives collaborate on far-reaching issues, including the topic of image theft. Amongst the benefits, having hundreds of pairs of eyes familiar with your work finding stolen images on the internet!  So photo thieves, you've been served due notice. Seeking legal counsel from total strangers on forums is not advisable, especially when someone begins with "well I think that you should..." However, sometimes just following along by reading about their experiences can be of some value. If you do this, be mindful of the actions of the amateur photographer. Believe me, you can tell. Their stories are always a train wreck, and as the plot thickens you'll find yourself screaming "get an attorney!" out loud. The bottom line is, never go to online forums to ASK for legal counsel about intellectual copyright law, ever!  Observe from a distance and take note of successful stories.

Finding Stolen work equals untapped income source: I've been following an excellent thread on one of these website forums, and several artist had revealed finding their work being used illegally has, in fact, become a new form of steady revenue for the artist!   Google's reverse image search may be a virtual map to your personal hidden treasure. On one of these threads, a prominent artist from Arizona, Marlene Burns quipped she thinks of this "as part of her retirement income". Another artist, Sharon Cummings, revealed that it does take a certain mindset to pursue (copyright infringements) and in fact, she simply disregards the minor social media miscues and "mommy bloggers" of the world and focuses solely on the bigger fish.  She explained how she aggressively pursued the offenders by threatening legal action via well worded and professionally crafted letters, resulting in thousands of dollars of recouped income. Keep in mind, this is not her first rodeo and has years of experience dealing with online image thieves.  She did reveal the stress level eventually led her to seek legal counsel to help her recoup lost income. One of her most important realizations is after chasing down image thieves for years, the bigger paydays were associated with the bigger fish.

When big corporations steal your work:  Now let's move onto dealing with those big corporations. These are a big $$ payout, and if you registered your images with the Copyright office, record the website URL's and screen save your stolen work this is a virtual slam dunk.  Although I'm not an attorney on Copyright infringement, I can tell you this much. Unless you know exactly how to word your letters and handle yourself in a professional manner, they will not be intimidated. In fact, it's advisable not to contact any large corporation dumb enough to steal images online period. You'll need professional assistance. There is help available to you, and they are Image Rights International Even if you have worked hard to reclaim lost income or issue an immediate DMCA takedown from a website, and you've hit the wall so to speak it's time to pursue legal help. You won't have to front legal fee's, in fact, they don't collect a fee until they win your case.

Image or any copyright attorney will pursue your case if you can prove a track record of past invoices for Licensing fee's. In other words, it's helpful to be a proven professional photographer or artist with supportive documentation. Although I've seen it said it's not totally necessary, it is recommended to file your intellectual property with the Copyright office. My personal advice, REGISTER your work dammit!  You will also need to supply them with the original copy, unedited with all the embedded metadata as they will need this to prove you are indeed the rightful copyright owner. This is the Silver Bullet. 

Publishing your images on the Web: If you're sharing your work on social media, FaceBook, Flickr, Google +, Instagram or whatever it is you do, prepare a file specific for WEB use. Watermark it, lower the image quality and the DPI. (Screen resolution for monitors and smaller devices is quite manageable at only 72 dpi.)  The goal here is not to be posting photos at high resolution that can be downloaded and easily printed. If it's printed, a low-resolution file would result in a blurry 3.5 x 5" postcard which is a hard sell. Watermarking deters some image thieves, but not all. I've found my photos being used with my © Thomas Schoeller watermark still intact.  Some stock photography websites place aggressive watermarks dead center of the images, this works the opposite direction as it may only upset those trying to view your image for potentially a perfectly legal license agreement!  A small watermark or "branding" in a lower corner is all you need.  

I hope you find this article helpful, feel free to share it or bookmark it for future reference.

~Thomas Schoeller  "Revealing Natures Essence" Fine Art Photography

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