Keep your photos from getting stolen on the internet

Enforcing copyright is not easy, but it might be worth it.

Person taking photo on high rock
You went all the way up there to take that photo—no way you should let somebody else make money off of it.Blake Cheek Unsplash

If you post your photos online, there’s a good chance someone will eventually steal them. I’ve had my photos stolen to be used on websites and even to catfish people on online dating apps—and it can happen to you.

You should know that any photo you take is, theoretically, protected by copyright. That means there are some things you can do to both prevent someone from stealing your work, and enforce this protection in case theft happens to you.

Copyright 101

Copyright arises automatically whenever you make an original creative work (by taking a photo, for example). But, at least in the U.S., copyright is “essentially toothless” if you don’t also register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office, according to Coco Soodek, a lawyer at Seasongood Law, Inc. Because this is not a simple process and costs between $35 and $55 per application, a lot of photographers don’t do it—especially amateurs.

Let’s imagine you find someone has stolen one of your photos and reposted it on their website without your permission. If you have your work registered with the Copyright Office, you can sue them for statutory damages in federal court. This could mean compensation from $750 to $30,000 per work—and up to $150,000 if the copyright infringement was intentional—as well as reimbursement of your legal costs. If your work isn’t registered, you’re limited to suing for the actual damage caused by the infringement (like loss of earnings). But here’s the catch: you have to win the case.

“All litigation is expensive, cumbersome, and unpredictable,” Soodek says. If you’ve registered the work and think you can show intentional infringement, it may be worth going to court. But if whoever you’re suing could mount a credible defense or won’t be able to afford to pay you a large fine and reimburse your attorneys’ fees, litigation is a risky option. At minimum, a copyright infringement case costs $20,000, according to Soodek.

And things can get even more complicated if the person or company who infringed your copyright is outside the U.S. While there are international treaties that protect copyright across borders, trying to enforce them is murky, expensive, and difficult. Suing somebody in a foreign country involves hiring a local lawyer, litigating the suit, and enforcing the judgement—all expensive and mysterious processes.

And there’s a reason Soodek keeps mentioning the expense: Lawyers are expensive, fighting a court case is expensive, and, unless your copyright has been blatantly and willfully infringed in a way that has cost you a huge amount of money, even if you win—and that’s a big “if”—it might not be worth it.

Instead of relying on the judicial system for copyright enforcement, photographers are generally better off taking proactive steps to protect their work and limit possible damage if it does occur.

Register your work

yellow rose between buds and foliage is reflected on water
Yes, that's a pretty photo of a rose, but that might not be enough to register it as creative work. And yes, that sucks.Antonio Scarpi via Deposit Photos

The easiest way to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office is through their website. You can register up to 750 unpublished or published photos in a single application for $35. You’ll need to upload a digital file of each photo you’re copyrighting—technically called a deposit—as well as a list of their titles and when they were published (if they were published). Online applications are processed in an average of three months, though it can take as long as 16 months, the Copyright Office says.

Be warned, though: The Copyright Office stresses that “although most photographs are protected by copyright, the Office will not register photographs that lack a sufficient amount of creative expression.”

“If you aren't bringing something of your own, some artistic direction to the image, it isn't an original work of authorship,” Soodek says.

By this standard, you can take a picture of a rose and it could be good, but the likelihood that your photo is copyrightable will still be low. There’s an appeal process you can go through if the office decides your photograph is not original enough, but ultimately, they have the last word.

For the best protection, Soodek recommends you register your images within three weeks of publication—which includes posting them on your website or social media accounts. You can also register them before you publish them anywhere. If you don’t register them within this timeframe or before any infringement, your legal options will be limited.

While Soodek recommends registering images as the “bare minimum” that a photographer should do, it may not be worth the trouble if you’re an amateur and won’t be making use of the increased protections. If you’re still concerned about your work being used by other people, consider submitting a single application at the end of the year with all your best photos. Other than that, it may not be worth the time and financial cost if you only post your images on Instagram.

Embed your copyright metadata

Hand holding photographic camera
By default, your camera embeds a lot of information into every file. This metadata can also include your name and contact information.JESHOOTS.COM via Unsplash

Another protection option is to embed copyright metadata in your photos before sharing them online. Almost all DSLR and mirrorless cameras will do it automatically as you shoot—you’ll just need to enter your name, contact details, and any other copyright information in the settings. You can also use Lightroom (in the Library Module), Photoshop (go to File and then File Info), or another image editor to add it afterward.

If someone steals your photo and you can show they deliberately removed an embedded copyright notice, you may be able to prove intentional infringement. Unfortunately, many websites, including Twitter and Instagram, remove metadata by default. Of the major social networks, only Facebook preserves the copyright information. Similarly, Google indexes photos without their metadata. Many web content management systems (CMS) remove it, too. For example, the CMS PopSci uses to build its stories removes copyright information from my photos.

So to be blunt, embedding your copyright information is a good idea, but not something you can rely on. Only 3 percent of images on the web have copyright data embedded—and that’s excluding images posted on social media.

Watermark your images

A watermark is significantly more effective than embedded copyright metadata because it is part of the actual image file—it can’t be removed without cropping or otherwise editing the photo.

The downside of watermarks is that they’re generally ugly—big ones can detract from the image as a whole, and small, subtle ones are easily cropped. Whether ruining your photos by using a watermark is worth the copyright protection is a big debate in the photography community.

If you want to watermark your images, you can add one in Photoshop, Lightroom, or any other image editing program. There are even mobile apps like eZy Watermark (iOS, Android) that will watermark your smartphone photos.

Don’t upload large files

If there is nothing there for someone to steal, it just can’t be stolen. Never sharing your photos isn’t really a viable solution, but you can be careful with the quality of images you upload to the internet. If someone is stealing your photo to print, put on a t-shirt, or use in an ad campaign, they will need a high-resolution file—and a 1200-pixel-wide, low-quality JPEG just won’t cut it.

If you’re sharing your images on social media, some sites shrink files for you. Facebook and Instagram both automatically compress and resize your photos, and although Facebook gives you the option to upload your images in higher quality, I’d suggest you ignore it.

The place where you need to be the most careful is actually your own website. It’s tempting to upload the full-resolution photo and let your CMS handle all the resizing. Unfortunately, this can leave the original file available for anyone to download with a bit of URL tweaking. When it comes to protecting your work, it’s better to resize your images yourself using your image editor of choice. If your website displays things at 1000 pixels wide, upload 1000-pixel-wide images.

While uploading lower-quality files won’t stop people from stealing them, it at leasts limits what they can do with them. Low-resolution photos will still work around the web—but at least someone won’t be able to turn them into products and sell them.

Look for infringements yourself

a man in a gray suit using a magnifying glass to look at a tablet
No, uh, that's not the best way to look for copyright infringement online, dude.BrianAJackson via Depositphotos

Copyright infringement is a silent crime—unless you actively look for people stealing your photos, you’re unlikely to find them.

The simplest way to do this is with a dedicated service like Copytrack or Pixsy. Both work in much the same way: you upload your copyrighted images and they crawl the internet for people using them without your permission. If they find someone using a stolen image, you can send a takedown notice and even attempt to get compensation. If they’re successful, the service takes a cut.

If your photos are regularly being stolen, using Copytrack or Pixsy is a great option. They’re no win, no fee services (although Pixsy does charge for monthly plans) so there’s no real risk to you—and you certainly won’t be $20,000 out of pocket if it doesn’t work out.

Think twice (or three times) before suing

As Soodek stressed time and time again, suing is expensive—it should really only be a last resort. You’re far better off limiting your exposure to copyright theft by uploading low-resolution, watermarked images and using a service like Copytrack or Pixsy to monitor and send takedown notices.

And if you’re determined to go the legal route, talk to a lawyer about sending an invoice and a strongly worded letter threatening to sue first. “It can be surprisingly effective,” Soodek says.