A graphic image or photograph on your website is copyright protected as soon as you publish it. But, these days the Internet is rampant with copyright violations and stolen images. While there isn't much you can do to stop it, there are several things you can do to minimize someone else using your images for their own gain. Many of the tactics listed later in this article are deterrents you can use to reduce copyright violations. We have also listed the pros and cons of each. But, the best practice is to employ all of them if you're concerned about image theft.
Lets face it - you can pull your hair out, get angry, or take legal action when you find someone has stolen one of your images and used it without asking permission or paid for use, right? The cost of copyright legal action can be quite high in your own country. But the cost of taking legal action against a copyright violation outside your country is astronomical. Most small business' can not afford to act on copyright violations as they may not have the funds to do so.
The other problem is finding your images which are being used on other people's sites. Google and other search engines do index images on websites. But, in most cases all your images will not show up in image rankings because the violator may have changed the image name or used an image on an unrelated page that doesn't match the actual image or keywords. You could spend thousands of hours searching and sourcing image violations.
There are some low cost things you can do in the event you find someone has stolen and used your images. But, it is not 100% guaranteed that the image violation will be removed.
Here are some tips to reduce the amount of theft and image leaching from your website:
1. The best option is to "Watermark" all your images. A Watermark is a semi-transparent overlay you put onto the image which can be text or graphic. You should watermark your images using your company logo and website address to ensure it is easily identifiable as your image. In most cases people who are intent on using the image won't because it is clearly marked as someone else's and watermarks are difficult to remove or hide without a great deal of work. If they do use your image, at least they're advertising for you. You can find lots of low cost watermarking programs, or use a photo program you already have to do a semi-transparent overlay. If you do it large enough, the image would be unusable by someone else in most cases. Most image thieves are looking for clean and clear images.
2. Enter image meta-tags and use meta-copyright image content using a program which allows you to do so. This is hidden information entered into the image source. When your right click on an image on your desktop and click "properties" you can view this information which includes descriptions and keywords, copyright notices, camera and lens properties, and any other information you might add. You will want to source a program which automates some of this like "Adobe Lightroom" so you only enter copyright information once, then import your images and batch save out to reduce your workload if you have lots of images.
A good tip is to add in a non-descriptive gibberish string of text like "myfoobaringimageYOURFULLNAME2013" as a "keyword". Why would you do this you ask? Well, this solves the problem of searching and finding your images using image search tools on the Internet. Google has a new tool used for copyright image searches and you can search for your gibberish keyword to find violations more easily! This helps weed out images that don't have your gibberish keyword embedded.
But, in some cases the copyright violator may have known about this tactic and removed meta-content if they have a batch image processing program. Hence, watermarking is still your best defence!
3. You can do some other things on your website and hosting to reduce image downloading, leaching and hot linking. Leaching is when abusers regularly download your images or the same images either manually or by using automated software. This activity can chew up your bandwidth allowance on your host quite quickly if you use large size image files. Some hosts have limit tools to reduce image downloading by blocking IP addresses automatically if leaching is detected. But, a change of IP address solves this tactic for the abuser quite easily.
5. Hot-linking is a particularly important problem to watch out for. Hot-linking is when someone adds your image to their website but utilizes your image from your hosting. They simply call up the image location from your host on their website and use your bandwidth for traffic who view the image on their site. This procedure doesn't cost them much on their bandwidth traffic at all. But, It can cause you to go over your bandwidth allowance if their site gets lots of traffic. Although there is SEO benefit for you in this type of image linking. If you use large images - it can cause your host to either suspend your account or terminate it if you don't take care of the problem. This is one of the reasons why you want your images posted in the lowest resolution possible on any page. Luckily, most hosting companies have anti-hotlinking features in their hosting service. You should use this host feature if you have lots of images or if you prefer large images for your customers. Again, "Watermarking" also works as a deterrent and advertising opportunity if you don't enable the anti-hotlinking tool on your host.
Unfortunately, like any other code, flash image carousel, or attempted image theft disabling feature you might find to try and stop direct image theft - there is always a way around it. Some seasoned image thieves simply know they can view your website source code to obtain your image folders and locations, and many of the source code tactics do not work to deter them if they really want your image. Even with flash type applications, all a thief needs to do is grab a screenshot and they have your image anyway.
What to do when you have found image copyright violations
1. The first thing you can do is obviously take legal action. But this may be the most costly action as you may need a lawyer involved to do it right. If it is worth your time and effort, you can choose to exercise this option. But, consult with a lawyer first before doing anything.
2. You can contact the violating party directly in writing, advise them of the copyright, and request to remove the image with copyright violation. In some cases this will work. In other cases, your request will simply go ignored. Keep the correspondence formal and professional though in case later on you decide to take legal action if your request is ignored.
3. In the United States, you can issue a "DMCA Takedown Notice". This is a formal request sent to the ISP or hosting company. You should do some research though to ensure it is done correctly as some hosts may not follow this type of request unless it is done properly. But, there is a higher chance that an ISP or host company will act on it to avoid getting into a legal issue surrounding a copyright violation. Again this should be done professionally and be a formal DMCA document outlining the copyright violation, location found and relation to the ISP or host to make it work. Consulting with a copyright lawyer is recommended as they can help you develop or provide a DMCA Takedown document you can use. If outside the United States, you may have similar options like this available to you in your country. But always consult with a copyright lawyer for your own country specific legal regulations.