How to Deal With Image Theft Effectively

Each time you snap a picture, it is your intellectual property. The problem is that not everyone respects this, whether out of sheer ignorance or willful malice. Image theft is a relentless problem that’s very frustrating because it’s prevalent in spite of the fact that laws exist to protect you from being cheated out of compensation and recognition for your work.

Image theft is a real big problem these days, and you can thank one, gigantic culprit for that: the Internet. Thanks to the world wide web, it’s easier now than it’s ever been to get a hold of photographs and download them without a second thought. Many people do this, whether out of malice, insensitivity or just plain ignorance.

Dennis Yang
photo by Dennis Yang

Today’s photographer has to face the fact that image theft is a constant threat. The only solution is really to know how to handle an image-theft situation and take preventative measures to lessen the chances of it happening to you. Here’s what you do.

Take the Direct Approach: Keep Things Confidential

If you see that someone’s misappropriated your image without paying you for it and giving you recognition for it, you basically have two options, right off the bat. You can immediately get in touch with the offending party, whether that’s an individual or a company or organization.

You don’t need legal representation; simply get the party’s email address to send them a confidential email that tells them in no uncertain terms:

  • Who you are
  • That they’ve used your copyrighted photograph without permission
  • When and where they’ve stolen your photograph
  • That you expect them to stop using your photograph as per a cease and desist letter you’ve attached
  • That you’ll send them an invoice for the wrongful use of your photograph

The response from the offending party will dictate your next step. Much of the time, though, if the offending party still has a shred of decency and sense of ethics, they will apologize, stop using your unauthorized picture, pay you for its unauthorized use and be grateful that you didn’t make a bigger (read: public) fuss about this. This segues smoothly into the second option you have.

Take the Direct Approach: Make Things Public

It could also be that the offending party won’t take copyright violations seriously in spite of the whole body of law that says otherwise! You could get absolutely no response from the offending party or maybe just a half-hearted “apology” and no commitment to pay you for the unauthorized use of your photograph. In such a situation, you can always try to put pressure on the offending party by going public with their image-theft misdeed.

Of course, if you’re so inclined (perhaps you’re more temperamental or just want to cut to the chase), you can make things public right away. The best way to do this is by taking to social media, as many a photographer may tell you. Always think twice before matters like this public.

This works if you’ve got a good-sized following on Twitter, Google Plus or Facebook. Simply expose the offending party by sharing a picture and link of them along with a short message that explains what they’ve done. Based on the intensity of your following – but, in general, image theft really rubs most photographers the wrong way – your followers will actually take to the social media page of the offending party and blast it with comments complaining about the offense. This results in public pressure to get the situation fixed rather quickly since most, if not all, people and companies are averse to bad publicity.

Other Things You Can Do to Be Proactive

If you want to be totally strategic about this, the best way to deal with image theft is naturally to lessen the chances of it victimizing you in the first place. You can do this by being proactive.

There’s really only one way to safely guard all of your pictures from image thieves: take horrible pictures! Joke aside, here’s what options you have at your disposal to deter would-be image thieves:

  1. Watermark your pictures – This is not for every photographer because it’s a mixed-bag approach. Yes, the watermark will likely make the image unappealing for use by a copyright violator, but it could also make it unappealing for a legitimate buyer for precisely the same reason.
  2. Shoot in low resolution – Low-res images have less detail and aren’t as sharp. That’s why it’s less likely that they will be used in print. However, that won’t deter some online image thieves, unfortunately.
  3. Slicing and dicing your pictures – Slicing and dicing your pictures involves using a graphics-editing program to “cut” the image apart and then put it back together again. This can be time-consuming, and you need to learn how to use a graphics-editing program, too.

That said, none of these approaches is 100% foolproof; they may be unappealing to some photographers because of what you’re sacrificing or how much time and effort you have to invest.

Why Is Image Theft Prevalent?

Unfortunately, image theft is prevalent and will remain prevalent because of how the average person looks at photographs, especially now when you can access an unlimited number of pictures on the Internet. The average person sees a picture not as a product that took the photographer’s skill, creativity, time, effort and money to create. Instead, he sees it as something that’s just sitting on a website “for free,” which, of course, it’s not.

This misconceived view of things is only reinforced when anyone can take pictures on his smartphone, for instance. If he sees things as so “easy” or “simple” that he can do it himself, he takes for granted any specialized skill – that therefore has to be compensated – that’s actually involved in the process.

Image Theft: Here to Stay

Image theft is really the scourge of photographers everywhere, and it’s not going away, ever. Not as long as pictures are abundantly available and the average person’s view of them is so casual. So the best thing photographers can do is be proactive with their images and, as a backup plan, know how to spring into action if one of their pictures is ever misappropriated.

Do you have any image-theft horror stories? What do you think about the advice we dished out? Feel free to share your thoughts on image theft!

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