Protecting online images from thieves

by John Briggs on January 6, 2010

in Bird Photographs, Blog, Site News

Over the last several days, I found nearly 100 websites using my images without my authorization. Most of these sites were forums, but quite a few were blogging sites, four of which were birding blogs. I am not going to name names at this time, but if I continue to find the rampant thievery of my copyright photographs, I am going to list each and every offender on  this website. 

There is nothing in this world that torques me off more than a thief! When my images are used without my approval (STOLEN), it’s the same as if the perpetrators walked into my home and stole something. You may say “well, that’s a little harsh isn’t it?” Hell no it’s not harsh! I spend valuable time and money (equipment) in each and every photo that I take. I take the time to put my copyright watermark on each and every photo that I will post online. Imagine how you would feel if you found your copyright photo being used on a website, and the site owner claims they took the photo. One of the reasons that people don’t understand the laws about copyright and copying is that they see people just copy photos and text and think it must be okay because everyone else does. But it isn’t okay.

As soon as an individual writes, photographs and/or takes a video, it is protected under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). If you do not receive written permission from the copyright holder before using a photo it is stealing under the DCMA. It does not matter whether you credit someone after the fact, you have to ask BEFORE you do it. What if I came to your home in the middle of the night and stole your car? Should I expect you to be happy when I returned it the next day and said “that was a nice ride”. 

According to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA): Every photograph is the intellectual property of the person who took the photograph. Copyright protection attaches even where the person has not put a copyright notice and even if the copyright is not registered with the Copyright Office.
Every copyright holder has certain exclusive rights that attach to their work. These include the right to reproduce, distribute, display and create derivative works from the work. Without permission, even if you were to give credit to the copyright holder, you would still be infringing their work.
If you were to contact the photographer and ask for permission to use the photo, you then would not be violating the rights of the photographer provided you abide by whatever terms the two of you agree to. 

To sum this all up; If someone comes to me and says, “Hey John, I really like your pictures. Is it okay if I use one of them on my website?” I will more than likely approve as long as credit it given under the photo, a link back to my site is given, and the photo is not redistributed elsewhere. 

Protecting your images


Red-breasted Merganser | ©2010 John Briggs Photography

Red-breasted Merganser | Click thumbnail for larger view | ©2010 John Briggs Photography - All Rights Reserved

The only sure fire way to protect your images is to NOT post them online. You may ask, “what fun is that?” If you do post photos online, crop them small and render in low resolution. 

There are several techniques, plug-ins and software we can use to make website downloads and image theft much harder. Links for how-to’s and plug-ins will be at the end of this post. 

One way to protect images is to add a copyright watermark, such as I have done with the photo above. Clearly state who the photo belongs to when designing your watermark. The best way to do this is to make a brush preset. When an image is ready to receive your copyright watermark, simply select the brush, click the area of the photo where you want it placed and save. 

A copyright statement may also be clearly indicated in text near the image; include the year of copyright, the copyright holder’s name, and your rights management (such as: all rights reserved or a creative commons type license). For those that manage their own web page, a copyright notice deserves a special web page of its own, indicating the copyright and your policy on image downloads, usage, and theft. 

Low resolution images should always be used on the Internet to protect them from theft. A 550 pixel wide image saved at 72 dpi is a good size for Internet use. This will not give down loaders much image to work with other than for Internet use. On a photo sharing site like Flickr, images are re-sized to 500 pixels in their longest dimension for basic viewing, and you can upload images 500 pixels wide and not change how most users view the photo. 

Another way to foil some thieves is to use a right click disable script on your website. I use a plug-in for Word Press called WP-CopyRightPro. This plug-in will disable selection of text, disable right click, protects from iframes, protects from drag and drop images and it doesn’t have problems with search engines. It will protect copying of your content 90% of the time, but is not fool proof. I installed this plug-in yesterday. 

Another problem is bandwidth theft, aka hotlinking. In this process people use images from your server to display in their own web pages. This results in the image still being on your server but linked to and displayed by a remote website. This is easy for people to do and it happens a lot. You may ask why should I prevent this from happening. In short, other websites are stealing your bandwidth. If your web host has a policy on how much bandwidth you may use in a month, you do not want this type of theft happening on your site. When hotlinking occurs you don’t know how the image is being used. The site using your link could be a pornography site or malicious activity could be involved on the site. 

Hotlinking is preventable. Most web hosting services provide a link in their cpanel to turn on hotlinking protection. An alternate way to deal with hotlinking is to use a ‘.htaccess file’. This is a plain text file that allows the user to make configuration changes on an Apache server. If you are comfortable with making changes to an .htaccess file, the following lines of code will prevent hotlinking. 

RewriteEngine On
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !^$
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !^http://(www\.)?mydomainname\.com [NC]
RewriteRule \.(jpg|gif|bmp|png)$ - [F]

Replace ‘mydomainname’ with your domain name. Leave everything else in the code intact, including characters such as ? and $. If you want to add other sites that you want to allow hotlinking, such as search engines and forums, add this line of code BEFORE the RewriteRule line in the code above. Be sure to change ‘’ to the site you want to allow.

RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !^http://(www\.)? [NC] 

When the above code is used, those who try to hotlink will find the ‘Image not found’ marker on their web site. If you want an image to show up when the culprit is trying to hotlink, such as the one illustrated below, replace the RewriteRule line above with this line of code: 

RewriteRule \.(jpg|gif|bmp|png)$ [NC,R,L] 

Replace the yourdomain with your own domain name and the jpg image name that you want to show up on the offenders site. Here is the image that shows up on sites trying to hotlink to my site: 

Hotlinking image

Hotlinking image | Click thumbnail for larger view

You may be asking, “How do I find out if my images are being used without my say so?” First of all, you must be able to devote an hour or two each month tracking down image thieves. I use Google and Yahoo image search and search for my images using the name that I gave them, such as bald_eagle.jpg. I also use an SEO tool called Backlink Checker. Simply type in your web site address and the tool will return every site that is linking to yours. It’s up to you to check the sites to see if the link is legitimate or not. If you have access to your server, use cpanel and check your log files. This is by far the best way to check for hotlinking. Another tool is called Copyscape. The free version works well if you have a small site. 

The steps I outlined in protecting your images will not stop everyone. Those who are determined to lift your images will do so with screen capture programs. I use a buddy system as another way to stop image thieves. If I see a friend’s image on another site, I will let them know. This week, I was contacted by 3 followers who found images of mine on other sites, none of which had permission to post the images. If you find my images on another site, please let me know. You may email me or comment on any post on this site. I will keep all reports in confidence.

Here are a few links on how to make a copyright brush:

Creating a Custom Copyright Brush in Photoshop

Creating a Copyright Watermark Brush in Photoshop Elements

Watermarking Photographs with Corel Paint Shop Pro

In closing, you will not stop everyone from stealing your images. Those that are determined and web savy will get an image one way or another. The combination of steps that I have provided to protect your images will make it a hassle and not worth the effort for most image thieves. If you find your image on another web site without your permission, there are steps to take to get the image removed. This an involved process and I will not get into it here, but here is a great article on What Do You Do When Someone Steals Your Content.

Happy birding!



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