Stealing images and photography copyright – what if somebody is using my photos?

Photo stealing and photography copyright – what if somebody is using my photos?


Let me start with few common questions: can I download a photo and use it on my commercial website? Can I buy a copy of your photo and use it in different articles? Can I use your photo on my commercial website and put my watermark on it? Photo stealing is nowadays almost common practice. Why people think that movies and music has a copyright meanwhile there is no photography copyright. 

Sometime I ask myself if people know that they are illegaly downloading photos, and they do not care, or they are just not aware and they keep doing it, with the risk of copyright infringement penalties

I have been receiving some unusual questions in the last few years. I have seen my photos used by other websites without asking and/or without credits. 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. Isn’t it?

Photography-Copyright-Graffiti_ Hosier_ lane_ Melbourne_ Night-CBD_20150510_029

Photography copyright laws

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 photography 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.

The rule of thumb is not to give away more than the project is about. Selling a photo for perpetual usage means that the customer can use the photo for the present project and for anything that may come up in future. The price should be higher than for single usage in this case.

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 the customer can use the image only for the project it was commissioned for and not in any other stories, articles, posts.

If you live in Australia, as I do, you can check the Copyright Act 1968 and more precisely the section 35 “Ownership of copyright in original works“. The Paragraph 5 is even more specific about the subject we are just discussing

In the photography copyright laws there may be however special cases. For example, in Australia without previous agreement, if the customer is a government office they would own the copyright.

It could get quite complicated in some cases as well. Laws change but, unless specified, do not affect previous work. This means that if the photo was taken before the change, the previous law should be taken in consideration.

What is all this telling you? If things get nasty contact a lawyer.

Before involving lawyers I like to have a talk with the “potential” customer first, I like to think it was just a misunderstanding. More on this subject later in the post.

Please note that if you work as a photographer for a magazine, newspaper, website etc special agreement on copyright and ownership are usually included in your contract.

How to copyright photography

If you are in Australia, a photo is protected by copyright automatically from the moment it is taken. There is no system of registration.

For the other countries I found this great pdf document which helps in understanding the own rights and the local website you can follow up with.

For more information on photography copyright laws I suggest to check the Australian Copyright Centre.

Most important, you don’t have to add a watermark or a copyright notice to have a copyright protection.

Copyright free photography

Yes there is and it may be again different from country to country.

As stated in the Australian Copyright Centregenerally, copyright in photos lasts for the life of the creator plus 70 years. Copyright has expired in photos taken prior to 1 January 1955. I suggest to ask anyway before assuming there is no copyright. I believe that “generally” implies that the rule may be not applicable to all photos

Photography-Copyright-City_ Docklands_ Landscape_ Night-Docklands_20150510_080

Copyright infringement penalties

This is quite a complicated subject. If the photography copyright laws may be different from country to country or even based on the state you live, the copyright infringement penalties are into a very wide range.

It’s good to know that in the last 24 months more than twenty copyright cases were filed with the Australia’s Federal Circuit Court. Photographers are acting even in cases where things get nasty.

It is important to notice that the infringer may even go to jail

Maximum Copyright infringement penalty

On the Australian Copyright Centre it is mentioned that if the infringer is an individual he/she may be fined up to $93,500. Penalties may be higher, up to 5 times, if it is a corporation found to be guilty. Again, you need to contact a lawyer to better understand your rights, it is all on cases by case.

During my research I bumped also in the Purdue University Website where it is mentioned that the range can be from $200 to $150,000 for each work infringed in the United States

The new St.Kilda pier for the local Royal Melbourne Yacht Squadron is now finished, there are just few pieces here and there to remove, but nothing major. It is somehow a pity because we lost, from a photography prospective, the old wood made harbour, which added a nice texture in the foreground of the photos. A new breakwater has been added as well, and this is for sure a addendum for everybody, another great spot for our photography in St.Kilda

What are royalty free images

Till now we talked about the photography copyright laws, who belongs the image to, and the penalties.

What if you do not want to pay a royalty each time you use an image.

There is a solution that makes everybody happy, the royalty free images.

There are few websites that stock some of these photos. One the most famous and used one is Flickr. When you add a photo in Flick you can decide if it is royalty free and people can download it without paying. It’s a personal decision.

Also other famous photography stock websites as Getty have a small bunch of them, right next to the ones you have to pay for. Usually you can see a difference in quality.

If you are a blogger and you do not have a budget for the photos you should download and use royalty free images only. In this way you will not run into troubles.

If you get frustrated because  you cannot find a royalty free photo with your subject you should start thinking that a professional photographer to make that photo is spending time, investing lots of money in gear and possibly have travel expenses and/or studio rent too. Now you can see the point why we put a price on a photo. It’s a service

You cannot resale royalty free images and if you want exclusive usage you should contact the photographer. On the positive side, unless stated you can use the image forever worldwide

What do I think of royalty free images

I believe in competition and usually the price reflects the quality. Of course rules are there to be broken. If somebody wants to give away its work for free that is absolutely fine. It is an incentive for me to provide better quality to differentiate my work. If the customer believes that the free image is ok for his/her requirement, that’s fine as well, that would not be a customer I would get anyway.

Creative Commons, Non-Commercial images

All of my photos on this website are creative commons, non-commercial. To summarise in just two lines this means that I am fine for people to download and use my photos for anything which is not commercial however if there is even a Google Adsense advertisement on the website (not just the page of the photo) than I need to be contacted for royalty agreements

The same concept goes also for a printed format of my photo. See more details of Creative Commons, Non-Commercial here.

Melbourne is a bit divided with pro and against this world event. It is great for tourism however it disrupts the city traffic and daily life for about 3 months. We are just few days from the green light and most of the circuit is still open to the general public. This is the time when cyclists give their best trying to make the new records. Yesterday I also met few skate boarders, in a huge speed contrast with the F1 circus that will start in just few hours

How to protect photos online

I wish I had a definitive answer to this question. The reality is that it is impossible, as far as I know. You can make the life of the infringer more complicated using a website that limits the download capabilities however a printscreen of the monitor would suffice to copy and use your image on another website.

I usually post all of my images with a 1920px wide resolution, in landscape, and 900px in portrait mode, with 92 dpi. This protects my photos online from stealing for prints (too low quality).

I don’t like to watermark and unless positioned in the right spot in many cases can be removed anyway. I like to show my photo with a good quality on the monitor and I have to accept that it may be stolen. I take it as they would steal my bike and I go around to look for it, hopefully I can find it again, report it to the police and apply a fine.

It cannot get better than this sunset. Lovely view, fantastic weather, beautiful boat and a drink to close the day in Docklands. Most of the locals in Melbourne do not really like Docklands as a place to live. However every time I come here I must say I am so impressed with the beautification of this area. The City of Melbourne is really investing big time to develop it and make it attractive. Will be it the neighbourhood of the future?

Is any website using your photo

With travelling or landscape photography it is all very 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?

Google Image

Last year 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 LOL.

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


This is another great website on pair with Google Image.

I actually use both website if I feel that one of my photo is a good potential candidate to be copied. I start with TinEye and I check the result, if I see some unknown websites, I verify once again with Google Images. I go on the websites and copy the emails to contact. Now the “fun” begins


This is a photo hunting service that may be quite useful.

The drag to follow up on other website is quite big, at least I see it that way. I prefer to spend my time on photography than actually contacting the guilty.

You can upload up to 5,000 images on the Pixsy website and they will do the work for you. They get 50% royalties fee in case of successful resolution only. You may think it is a lot for your work however I see it in another way. It’s better 50% of something than 100% of nothing, assuming you don’t like to invest your time in searching and contacting


The Observation Wheel is definitely a great subject in any photos. Combine it with the background, or foreground, of Docklands and you will have a nice composition. This corner is pretty unique. It includes some boats, positioned like spectators to the wheel show

Contacting the guilty, or unaware, website

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 don’t like it but I have to live with it 😀

First contact email model

I improved my first email across the last two years. It is far from perfect however it works, although not every time. I found also a great article from ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) which is extremely relevant and I think that it helps

Here is a copy of the email, feel free to use it (no copyright :D)

Good day <XYZ>
        I am so sad to notice that <CompanyName> has used one of my photos in the commercial event <NaneOfTheEvent (or name of the website, etc)> without paying for the rights, and without even asking. It is considered against the law as much as downloading illegally movies or music
The photo has been even photoshopped (cropping and lighting) in breach of my moral rights. The photo was not even credited to me or my website
I attach a printscreen of the photo used on your website
You can see the original photo on my website <website page address>
The copyrights on my website are very clear (no commercial usage, for that I should have been contacted) and the infringement was committed wilfully.
I prefer to avoid any legal action as done by photographers Vincent Taylor and Sheila Smart (see more on recent ABC article Photographers net thousands in compensation after spike in copyright infringement cases) however I do hope you understand the seriousness of the infringement.
Please do contact me at your earliest opportunity.
I will have to let know also <Any other entity or company related to the post>.
Best regards

Final decision

Give up or fight back? 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.

My decision is to go on case by case.

If the infringer is based overseas I just give up. I contact them and ask to remove or add a link back with credits on text (a link back on text is more valuable than on image, that is the way Google works)

If the infringer is in Australia I send my first email as above. I keep “playing” based on the response

Photography-Copyright-AppleTV_ HeadOnMY2-StKilda_20130903_001_2_3-2

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


Related Post

Stefano Ferro
Stefano is a cycling, movie and life style photographer with a big love for landscape & travel photography. When in Melbourne, his hometown, you will see him cycling around at sunset or sunrise looking for the best spot for a photo of this beautiful city. It is quite amazing how much photography gear he can pack on his bike :o

Latest Popular Posts

  1. Reply

    Thanks for the great post, Stefano! Image theft is always frustrating, and, hopefully, the more people know how to deal with it, the more difficult it would be for photo thieves to get away with it.

    I wanted to add another tool to your reverse image search list – Pixsy ( . Disclosure: I work there and I love it 🙂

    Aside from tracking images online, Pixsy also helps photographers get compensation if their work was stolen. A team of licensing super heroes and a global network of lawyers make sure of that.

    The service is completely free (for the import of up to 5,000 photos) and we get 50% royalties fee in case of successful resolution only.

    Let me know if you have any questions or want to give us a try — I’d be happy to walk you through the process!

      • Stef
      • March 18, 2016

      Thanks Nadia,
      that’s a great service you are offering. I will check it out more carefully. I would love to spend more time photographing than following up websites that use my photos without permission. I will update the post with it 😉

Leave a Comment