[ You can see now the new complete article Photo stealing and photography copyright – what if somebody is using my photos? – what does it mean, what are the penalties, who is using my photos, approaching the infringer and more to know – Updated 1st of December, 2015
Let me start with few common questions: can I download a photo and use it on my website? Can I buy a copy of your photo and use it in different articles? Can I use your photo on my website and put my watermark on it? What is photo stealing?
I have been asked some unusual questions in the last few years. I have seen my photos used by other websites without credits and, even worst, without asking. I have experienced ‘funny’ situations. Am I the only photographer that have been living this daily photo stealing, or should I call it property stealing? I do not think so. I believe that, unfortunately, it is common practice. Is it?
Image copyrights and photo stealing
When a photography job is assigned it is important to understand and agree on the copyright of the images, so if other people use them without permission it is in breach of copyright law. You would need to agree on how and when the customer will use the photos. It is easier in some assignments as weddings or commercials. It may be more complicated in other cases.
My photography work, beside the commercial part, is based on travelling and last year I started covering few cycling events. Some of the photos can be categorised as stock images. As an example, a photo of a bike with the team in the background completely blurred can be used during the Tour De France to say how the team is performing in an unsatisfactory way however it can also be used a year later in case the team is involved with drugs problems. I would categorize this photo as stock image. Can the magazine/website use it forever? It all comes down to agreements and, if none is there, to a good old handshaking even though. as a photographer, you have the rights to ask a compensation.
With travelling or landscape photography it is all more complicated. The sheer volume of images on the internet means you would be extremely unlikely to stumble across some of your work being used without permission, so how on earth can photographers protect themselves from intellectual property theft? Can photo stealing go on and on in the internet era?
Last week I came across an incredible Google website called of course Google Image. You click on the camera icon in the search box and you are asked to input the html address of your photo (in case it is already on the net) or just upload the photo. The engine will search around the web and will list all the websites that use your photo and where. The astonishing thing is that the matching is not based on Metadata/EXIF info, which can be easily changed, but on the pixels pattern. It even suggests images with similar subjects.
Being on the pessimistic side I think Google would discover only some of the website using your image, it is not an easy process. I spoke with my wife about it. She is a database/data-warehouse/cloud/whatever expert and she tried to explain me the ‘unstructured’ organisation of the Google data. I degreed in IT/databases over 20 years ago but I really never used my IT study. The thing I really understood is that my degree is probably worthless today considering the technology I worked on.
I tried the Google Image with few of my ‘stock’ photos and the result was that, yes, some of them have been re-used multiple times. I found even a website somewhere in Asia (not sure about the language) that used my photo and added the own watermark/copyright on it. I had a big laugh, I am a positive person after all.
How do I call this? Photo stealing
Contacting the websites
What next? What can you do? I contacted few of these commercial websites and I had a mixed response:
- a website I collaborated in 2014 reused my photos and credited them to another agency. I contacted the owner and they modified the credits. I know the website and I think it was a human mistake as nobody checked the EXIF info. I call it a success story, although I would have asked before re-using somebody else photos, just my 2 cents
- other websites removed the photos (I usually ask to either remove or pay for the photos)
- other websites did not answers my emails at all
Should I follow up on other photos? Should I get again surprised why other websites are using my photos without asking? Do I like internet and the easy photo stealing side of it?
I have decided to give up. What do I gain from it? Photo inappropriate usage has been always there and it just got much worst with digital. I remember that few years ago the singer Madonna in an interview announced she started an active fight against illegal music download. She was Madonna and the download is still there. It is a fight that nobody can win.
I will still not add any watermark to my published photos. I don’t like them and they can be easily removed anyway.
On the positive side, seeing that other websites are using (illegally) my photos is a nice push to my self esteem and the work I am doing. I know it is a difficult one to exchange for a dinner in a restaurant but, again, I am a positive person 😀
What about you?
What is your experience? Have you ever tried the Google Image tool? Did you ever experience any photo stealing? Have you ever entered in a legal process? If so, within Australia or other countries as well?
Looking forward to your experience
Update (April 2015)
A photographer on Facebook suggested also to use TinEye as an alternative to Google Image Search. I had mixed results and the Google tools is still my favourite, but have a look and let me know your result