2 Jul
Ian Plant By
Posted in: General, Namibia    43 Comments

Photography, Copyright, and the Internet

Every few weeks I get an email, Facebook note, or frenzied phone call informing me that some nefarious nogoodnik on the Internet has stolen one or more of my photographs. I’m sure many of you have also experienced Internet image theft at some point during the past few years. The questions that inevitably arise are: What can photographers do to protect their images from being stolen? Are there any effective legal remedies? Is it even worth the trouble? Being a professional photographer and a former attorney, I can answer a few of these questions with some authority. I’m not going to delve into all the boring legal nuts and bolts, but rather I will give you the highlights and a few things to think about. To spice things up, I’ve illustrated this post with some recent photos from Namibia, as a reminder to everyone why we are on the web in the first place: to share our passion for photography with others.

"Testing the Waters" - Dorob National Park, Namibia

For photographers looking to promote themselves online, it might be worth taking a moment to reflect on intellectual property issues before diving into the deep end of the Internet pool. (Greater flamingo, Dorob National Park, Namibia.)

The World Wide Wild West

In more ways than one, the Internet is like an old frontier town from a Spaghetti Western film—a crazy, lawless, every-man-out-for-himself kind of place where bad things happen to good people and puppies, and justice is a dirty word. Let’s face it: all of our quaint and old-fashioned standards regarding privacy and intellectual property rights are being swept away by the massive flood that is the World Wide Web. With young Internet users in particular, anything found on the web is considered “free stuff,” to be shared, repurposed, and memed in ways you can’t even imagine. By posting your work online, you’ve let it loose like a paper boat in a fast moving river, and the current is going to take it wherever the current feels like going. Some of the biggest social sharing sites, such as Pinterest, Tumblr, and StumbleUpon, allow users to post a photo they’ve found on the web without giving any sort of attribution to the original photographer, and from these sites the images get shared and copied to infinity and beyond—completely orphaned from their creators. And, by the way, it is more likely than not that this trend will get worse as time goes on. Is there anything you can do to stem the tide?

"Startled" - Etosha National Park, Namibia

Should the Internet make you as skittish as zebra at a waterhole? Nope—but be prepared to adjust your expectations regarding intellectual property rights. (Startled zebras, Etosha National Park, Namibia.)

The short arm of the law

I’m sure most of you have heard of a fanciful little thing known as copyright law. In the U.S., and in most other places which have similar laws, each and every photo you take, at the moment of creation, is automatically protected by copyright law (please note that I’ve dumbed things down a bit here to avoid getting into too much legalese). This essentially gives you the right to determine how and when your photos are reproduced, distributed, or displayed (if at all). You don’t need to put a copyright notice on your images in order to get protection; your copyright springs forth into existence the moment you press the shutter button. But here’s the catch: unless you officially register your copyright protected photographs, your legal remedies are limited (basically, you can only recover standard usage fees, which these days aren’t all that much). Registration is not too expensive, and you have the ability to batch register photos, at least to a certain extent. By registering your copyrights, you get extra legal protection in the case of infringement, and you can rev up your potential damages recovery. In some circumstances, we’re talking real money here—think Grover Cleveland and 149 of his friends (hint: Cleveland is on the $1000 bill). Yep, you heard me right, up to $150,000—that’s some serious scratch!

This all sounds well and good, but how much protection does any of this really offer when it comes to Internet theft? In most cases, probably squat, and here’s why. First, registration of hundreds (if not thousands) of photographs per year can be a burdensome process, and might get costly even with batch registration (which has its limitations)—so most photographers don’t even bother registering their copyrights, thus limiting their legal rights. Second, even if you do register your photos, a lot of the theft on the Internet is anonymous and/or untraceable—that is, very rarely is the true identity of the infringer known to you. With some tech savvy, a few subpoenas, a friendly judge, and some free time (or some money to hire professionals with the necessary expertise), you might be able to track down an infringer, but it seems to me that hiding your digital fingerprints is not a hard thing for most computer hacker miscreants to accomplish. Third, a lot of infringement occurs overseas—complicating, if not rendering completely impossible, any efforts to address the issue through legal process. Fourth, most infringers probably don’t have deep pockets, making them unattractive litigation targets. In a nutshell, good luck getting $150,000—let alone any money—out of HappyGuy64 from Kazakhstan when he steals your photos and uses them to help sell Roolex watches on Ebay.

"Faceoff" - Etosha National Park, Namibia

If you really want to protect your photos from theft on the web, be prepared to fight! (Dueling red hartebeest, Etosha National Park, Namibia.)

Water down theft with watermarks

Many photographers “watermark” their images, embedding a discreet (or not so discreet) copyright notice in their photos when they post online. Here’s the rub with watermarks: in order to be effective, they have to be prominent to give them a fighting chance against Photoshop’s many tools designed to remove stuff from images. If they are prominent, however, then the watermark interferes with the display of the image. So, most photographers who use watermarks opt for something discreet—but discreet watermarks are really easy to remove. Watermarks, of course, don’t offer any real legal protection, but they do serve to put people on notice that you’re vigilant when it comes to protecting your intellectual property rights. Of course, most wicked Internet photo thieves won’t be impressed. The watermark is probably most useful for the routine and “innocent” types of theft which happen all the time on the Internet, such as people reposting your photo on their favorite social media sites without proper attribution. In these cases, the watermark can serve to let everyone know that you took the photo, so at least you get some free advertising.

"Mud Bath" - Etosha National Park, Namibia

A watermark can put people on notice that you are serious about copyright infringement, but too much watermarking will just cover up your image—leaving viewers to see all mud and no elephant. (Elephant at a water hole, Etosha National Park, Namibia.)

Stop in the name of legal process

Okay, so you find out someone is using your photo without permission, what then? Well, rather than unleashing the incredible expensive and (as discussed above) likely ineffectual litigious hounds of war, you might want to send a simple, polite request asking the infringer to stop using your image (assuming their contact information is public). If you are nice about it, and the infringing use is innocent (some people just like sharing pretty pictures online and don’t have a clue about all this copyright nonsense), more likely than not the infringer will comply with your request. Chances are, they’re even a big fan of your work, and will feel absolutely horrible about the whole affair. Then again, many infringers are not innocent, and they will likely simply ignore you. If that is the case, you might still have a remedy, especially if the infringing use is on a social media or photo sharing site: often, you can complain to the relevant authorities and they will take the image down (for example, Facebook has a mechanism in place for reporting copyright infringement). Furthermore, under U.S. copyright law you can actually get Internet service providers to take down infringing material, but it involves sending them a legal demand letter.

"Motherly Love" - Cape Cross, Namibia

Complaining about image theft can be useful, but only if someone cares to listen. (Cape fur seals, Cape Cross Seal Colony, Namibia.)

Google walking the beat

All of this legal protection is entirely theoretical if you don’t know when and where your images are stolen. The Internet is really really big, so big that you probably won’t even notice that your images have been stolen unless you look very hard. Sure, every now and then you (or one of your online buddies) will stumble upon an infringing use, but you’re probably only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Luckily, technology can come to the rescue. There are a number of ways to search the web for your own photos, one of the best and easiest to use being Google Images. Just click on the “Search by Image” camera icon, upload your image, and hit the search button. Not only will Google find your image on the web, it will also show you similar images (I guess this is Google’s way of letting you know—whether you want to know of not—just how truly unoriginal your work really is). I doubt that Google finds each and every time your image has appeared on the web, but I suspect if ferrets out most of the significant stuff.

For example, a Google image search of my photo Dreamscape reveals that it has been posted to a lot of websites around the world—sometimes by me, but most of the time without my permission or knowledge. Luckily, most of those who have “borrowed” the image have given me proper attribution, but some have not.

"Morning Roar" - Etosha National Park, Namibia

Often, the only way to prevent Internet photo theft is to constantly be on the lookout—but who has the time? (Male lion, Etosha National Park, Namibia.)

Don’t be mad—be Mad Men instead

There is an entirely different way to look at this whole issue of image theft, and to turn a negative into a positive—and that’s thinking about it as free advertising. That’s why we post photos on the Internet, right? We’re all trying to share and promote our work, and when we post to the Internet we are deciding to let others view our work for free. If you adopt this attitude, whenever an image is copied and shared by others on the Internet, that just increases your free promotional reach. Of course, this doesn’t hold up when those doing the sharing don’t give you attribution, or if they are stealing your images for their own commercial purposes, but most “infringing” use is helping to spread the word about you and your photography. Think of Internet infringement as your own personal Don Draper.

"Flamingo Parade" - Dorob National Park, Namibia

A good image will be shared on the Internet over and over. If at least a few of those shares give you proper attribution, you’re getting a lot of free advertising. (Flamingos, Dorob National Park, Namibia.)

What do the pros do?

All right, all of this sounds wonderful, but what do working professionals actually do? I can’t answer that question for most of my colleagues, but I can tell you what I do—or, more to the point, what I don’t do. I don’t bother registering my copyrights, because I think opportunities for successfully suing someone over online theft are few and far between, and getting real money is extremely unlikely, so even limited time and money spent on registration fails my cost-benefit analysis. I don’t spend any time doing Google Image searches to see who is stealing my work. And I don’t watermark my images, as discreet watermarks are incredibly easy to remove, although when posting to social media sites I usually include a border around the image with the image title and my name, but that is mostly because I think it looks good. I actually think watermarking is a good idea, if for no other reason than to make sure that when your photo gets shared by others, people will know if belongs to you (I’m thinking of starting to watermark for this very reason). Overall, I tend to take the “free advertising” approach to most Internet infringement, and consider worrying about the rest as a waste of time.

Here’s a real world example which helps explain my attitude. One of my colleagues called me several years ago to let me know that an electronics store in Portugal had stolen a few of our images and was using them to sell computer monitors online (basically, they had superimposed our nature images on the photos of the monitor screens). His initial requests to the company had gone unanswered, so he spent several days organizing his Facebook followers to bombard the company with nasty messages until they stopped using his photos. He suggested I do the same. I asked him only two questions: How much time did you spend doing this? And did you make any money? The answer to the first question was “too much,” and the answer to the second was “nothing at all.” I decided to simply not bother. Instead of wasting time for nothing more than a moral victory, I instead spent my time productively building my business. Even if I had all the appropriate legal protections in place, the time and money invested in suing someone in another country, and the subsequent distraction and disruption this would have caused to my business, would probably have not been worth the eventual payoff. In short—to me at least—the juice is simply not worth the squeeze.

"Nap Time" - Etosha National Park, Namibia

Pardon me if all of this copyright talk makes me yawn, but I’d rather spend my time productively building my business than engaging in the fruitless pursuit of online copyright infringers. (Jackal waking from a nap, Etosha National Park, Namibia.)

Does that mean it’s open season?

Well, in many ways, yes, it is open season when you post your images on the web. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And maybe not all hope is lost. I’ve now employed the services of an Internet Photo Theft Prevention Specialist, a ferocious mongoose named Rikki (featured below). He may not look like much, but he cut his teeth (so to speak) for years doing top secret anti-cobra black ops before moving into the private sector, and basically if you can kill a cobra you can pretty much take on anything. So Internet pirates, be on notice—Rikki is defending my intellectual property perimeter, and you really won’t like him when he’s angry.

"The Valiant" - Etosha National Park, Namibia

Eternal vigilance is the price you must pay in order to protect your precious copyrights from online predators. Or, you could just not worry about it—eternal vigilance can make one eternally grumpy, which gets in the way of enjoying life. (Slender mongoose, Etosha National Park, Namibia.)

Of course, this is just my opinion. I’m curious to hear about experiences others have had with image theft on the Internet, how you handled the problem, and what was the outcome. Please keep the discussion general: this isn’t the place to be airing grievances or making specific accusations against those who have done you wrong. With that caveat in mind, I’d love to hear your stories!

But wait, there’s more to the story . . .

One of the commenters below brought up a company called Image Rights, which handles copyright registration, policing, and recovery for client photographers (for a fee and a percentage of recovered proceeds, of course). I don’t have any direct experience with this company, but I felt compelled to add this after-the-fact note. Having a third party take care of the administration of your copyrights and all of the infringer “wet work” certainly changes the whole cost-benefit equation. This is a really interesting option, one worth checking in to. If anyone else has direct experience with Image Rights or a similar company, please chime in. Who knows, it might even be better than having a copyright mongoose on patrol!

Ian PlantAbout Ian Plant (414 Posts)

World-renowned professional photographer, writer, and adventurer Ian Plant is a frequent contributor to and blogger for Outdoor Photographer Magazine, a Contributing Editor to Popular Photography Magazine, a monthly columnist for Landscape Photography Magazine, and a Tamron Image Master. Ian is also the author of numerous books and instructional videos. Ian leads photography workshops and tours around the world to help beginner and advanced photographers explore and expand their personal vision.


  • Ian,

    Great article. I agree that if someone is going to use your image off the web they don’t pay anyone anyway. So make it a positive and look at it as free advertising. Any credible entity with money to spend is going to contact you and pay.

  • A good read and mostly I agree….except for the watermark part. By putting my watermark on my images, people can find me if they wish to purchase my pictures. Thieves can take the watermark off, but if a person does an image search, they can find versions with the watermark on them, thus allowing them to find me. I keep my watermark simple….just the © symbol and my name. If people are sharing your images on other sites with no link to your page, then you aren’t benefiting from “free advertising” if your watermark isn’t on the image.
    I don’t go after people who are just “sharing” my pictures with the world. But I do go after those who remove my watermark and replace it with their own. Or if they are trying to sell my images for their own monetary gain. Generally, all that it takes is reporting the image to the site that it’s posted on and have it removed. I don’t bother contacting the person because it has never worked in the past. Usually they just get belligerent with you and/or block you.

    • Ian Plant

      Hi Paula, we don’t actually disagree about the watermark issue, I just haven’t been watermarking myself (mostly because I’m lazy) – but I actually have been thinking of changing my personal approach on this issue, for all the reasons you outline above. Actually, I think you have convinced me. Thanks for sharing!

    • I agree with this too. I was super opposed to watermarks until a friend argued to consider it instead as a signature of contact information once released into the wild. If this actually works is a different story but at least those that are honest, have a way of contact if they choose to do so.

  • Hi Ian,

    Interesting read. Been enjoying your thoughts on art and its business aspects. Great photographs. I really like the cape fur seals. Love to see the coastline and inhabitance from somewhere exotic, or more to the point far away from my own stomping grounds.

  • Great write-up Ian. Last year I got deeply involved in digging up those who had used my images commercially or otherwise without my permission. I spent about a 3 month period going through almost my entire public library of images, sending demand letters to those who I found infringing my copyright. About 35% of my images are registered. In the end, I collected approx $15,000 in settlements by sending these letters and the “conversations” that followed. Was it worth it? Some may think so, but aside from the money recovered, I had to become a jerk (nicer word than reality entered here) and those cases that I took personally began to take an emotional toll here and there. After playing detective, amateur attorney & enforcer for those 3 months, I decided I was tired of the struggle. I still watermark my images hoping those who see and appreciate them will track me down if they desire but I gave up on chasing the infringers. They just keep multiplying anyway. Unrelated to this decision the business side of photography has more than doubled for me this year from last so I am grateful for the time and the piece of mind that this decision granted me. Have a good one Ian! You continue to inspire through your imagery and your words.

    • Ian Plant

      Wow Aaron, this is a great story. Would you mind sharing some more details with us? I’m curious to know whether most of the infringers you pursued were in the US, and what types of infringements you went after. Was it mostly commercial infringers? $15,000 for three months of work is not a bad payday, and might even be more money than most would make selling their photography to clients directly (let’s face it, stock photography royalties aren’t what they used to be). It seems like you’ve come to the same conclusion I have, that the potential gains of pursuing infringers are not as high as the gains associated with spending that time building your business. Though I guess one could delegate all of the infringement policing to an attorney – with the kind of money you were able to collect, it would make it worth while for a lawyer to spend their time harassing infringers and collecting settlements. Anyway, thanks for sharing this!

      • Sure, no problem Ian. Right away I think it is valuable to mention that for my first 2-3 years as a photographer I did not watermark any of my images. In my personal experience, 90% of the infringement that I found was done using these images. Since I began adding them, this unauthorized use has dropped off sharply. As you mentioned, international infringement is rarely worth spending any time on so I did not bother with any of those. All of the cases I went after were in the US. I would say about 35% of everything I found were sites using my images to help generate click through revenue or to sell some kind of a product directly. Another 35% or so were websites or blogs where things weren’t being sold directly, but the site was supporting a service in some way. Some examples of this are a religious website, or a blog about inspiration with just one link to a website where they did offer a product or service. 20% were actual legitimate business sites. The majority of these that I contacted turned out to be the fault of a website designer who used images of mine telling their client that it was authorized. The last 10% were those that I truly felt used the images non commercially not knowing it was wrong or illegal. The trick was trying to determine who was who in all of this. That is the part that took a ton of time and energy. Of all the cases I pursued, about 5% admitted wrongdoing and paid the licensing fee I was requesting (see demanding) without too much trouble. The other 95% fought tooth and nail. Most would begin by praising my work, asking for forgiveness and offering to remove my image. The first few cases I let people off the hook before I saw a pattern forming and realized that most were just trying to get out of paying. It was at this point that I got much more aggressive. I actually started collecting a list of responses to commonly used excuses because they were so predictable. After the praise & promise tactic did not work for them, they would say things like “everything is free on the internet” or “how do I really know you are who you say you are” or the best one of all… “God created nature and you can’t copyright a photo of Gods creation. An email and/or phone conversation would go back and fourth over the course of a few days where I spent upwards of 2-3 hours of time knocking down every excuse they had and educating them on copyright law until I broke them. I wasn’t always nice about it. It is important to note that this whole process would begin with a very well written demand letter and would imply legal action directly or indirectly from beginning to end. Even when I was choosing to give up, I would leave them thinking I was opening a case with my attorney. Many times I got a call 2 days later asking how they could pay. Many people, when they felt like they had run out of excuses and I still was not letting them off the hook would get angry. I ended up on a couple legal message boards discussing demand letters in general and even me personally as well as factual and hypothetical copyright law topics. It was pretty crazy all in all. In the end, I stopped doing it because I started taking it personally and I recognized my time could be spent better elsewhere AND I had pretty much cleared out 3 years worth of cases. It was mentally exhausting. I did turn a few cases over to an attorney and learned a ton about copyright in the process. It is important that anyone who wants to pursue actions like I did, or especially actual legal action understands their rights and possible pitfalls of doing so. As you are well aware having a legal background, you can actually be counter-sued fairly quickly and find yourself on the defensive end of an expensive legal battle even if their case has no merit. There are attorneys who will take a strong case for you for a percentage of the damages they collect. They simply do the same thing I was doing using the weight of their degree of course as additional leverage. When it comes to an actual lawsuit…it is very rarely worth pursuing.The recoverable damages can be quickly out shadowed by the cost and the risk. Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts and for the email. You are a much more eloquent writer than I am so I will turn it back over to you. Have a great day sir.

  • I agree with the comments. I’m an amateur photographer, but I now add a watermark to the photos I post online. Easy advertising for those sites that ‘borrow’ my photos. And I’m lazy, so I have setup LightRoom to automatically include my Watermark every time I export a photo that is destined for the web, either directly to FaceBook, Flickr, etc, or that I’ll post to a web site manually.

  • Great post Ian, I love the humor.
    I feel better now that I’ve always felt the same way about copyright thieves as you do.

    See you in Namibia!

  • Ian Plant

    Everyone should read Aaron’s comments above – it is a fascinating read on what it is like to actually be involved in enforcing one’s copyrights online. Thank you so much Aaron for sharing your story. I think the one popular defense you quote pretty much sums it all up: “everything is free on the internet.” This is the prevailing opinion of many people these days, and this attitude will likely continue to grow over time. Welcome to the Wild West!

    • Fantastic (and ironic) timing on this article Ian! I’m currently putting together a presentation for the Charleston region CNPA at their July meeting on Copyright Registration. I’ve spent countless hours over the last few months researching the topic, primarily for my own knowledge but decided to share it with the local chapter. The mere decision to label something as published vs. unpublished determines the route that you need to take to register and the jury is still out on whether or not uploading to Facebook is considered “Published”. I’ve even gone as far as to rent a Kelby Training video on the topic which, by the end of it, had me thinking I’d need to abandon social media altogether (Not going to Happen!….too valuable) Yadda, yadda, yadda, my head is spinning and I’ve accomplished a whopping NADA! A foul character from Asheville on Facebook was caught stealing images from no less than a dozen pro photographers from the Carolinas…myself included. One of those folks who download, remove watermarks, and upload as their own and soak up the praise. I spent the better part of a half a day contacting him and getting blocked, spreading the word and answering messages regarding the theft. His page was eventually removed…likely by Facebook. It all boils down to what your time is worth. MIne probably would have been better spent scrubbing the bathroom tile! At least I’d have something to show for it! I watermark all my images…not because I think it will stop theft or provide some hypothetical bubble of protection, but simply as a notice that I claim this as my own…and yes it is good for some free advertising if the watermark isn’t removed. I look at registration as I look at Flood Insurance, I hate paying for it, I probably won’t ever need it…but it’s nice to have “just in case”. So, a couple times a year, I plan to throw my images into the copyright offices bottomless pit and forget about it. At least I can say to a potential infringer, “it’s registered with the US Federal Government, please take it down” instead of “hey that’s Mine…give it back, meanie!” I spend too much time with my preschooler! :)

      Great article…awesome images as always! Thanks for all your hard work!

  • Great read, very informative. After reading the article I tried doing the Google image search you mentioned. The second image of mine I searched showed up on a website that I’m not familiar with. I tried a few more of my photos and one actually showed up on a couple of foreign sites and a foreign Facebook page. I figure if a photographer of your caliber is not too concerned about it I won’t be either. On the bright side, in the cases where my photo showed up, my watermark was not removed.

  • “Eternal vigilance can make one eternally grumpy, which gets in the way of enjoying life”.
    Indeed, well said Ian!

    If someone is going to do something good or bad, I can not stop it from happening.


  • Hi Ian, have you thought of reducing the file size so on screen they still look good, but for reproductive purpose they will not take any enlargement.

    • Ian Plant

      Hi Kevin, that prevents people from printing your images, but that doesn’t stop web-based image theft. Virtually all of the images I post online are too small for enlargement or print reproduction, but even low res jpegs can be stolen and used by Internet pirates for things such as iPhone backgrounds, etc. (which, by the way, is something I see all the time). Smaller files certainly can limit the uses thieves might put the images to, but then again, it can also inhibit your ability to successfully share and promote your work online.

      • Ian, what is your file size limitation when you publish online?

        • Ian Plant

          Hi Sherri, I don’t have any particular file size limitation, although most of the images I post on the web are less than 1000 pixels on the longest end.

        • Thanks Ian, appreciate you taking the time to give comments back!

  • Fantastic article Ian! Made me laugh. It’s so true.

    Reminded me of Harlan Ellison…

  • Excellent article Ian, thanx for sharing as I’ve been wondering about this topic and my pics. Great pics too, not spoiled with those ugly watermarks

  • I used to think that low-res images on the web would be immune from theft, because they would be too low a resolution for print reproduction. But then what I hadn’t considered was the trend towards online publication actually becoming dominant over print media.

    When Google Image Search was launched, I decided to give it a whirl and chose one of my pictures, a studio shot of red wine splashing into a glass. I nearly fell over when it returned over 2,000 hits. Within three months it was up to 7,500!

    The picture had been lifted from Flickr. Though it wasn’t watermarked there was a copyright notice. These weren’t just bloggers. There were vineyards, restaurants, limo hire services, bars, pubs, hotels, newspapers, magazines, dentists, doctors, tourism offices; all sorts. I searched the net to see what possibilities there were for redress and came up with http://www.Imagerights.com. For a fee of 50% of whatever they collected they promised to do all the hard grind of collecting on the breaches of my copyright.

    To cut a long story short, Image Rights have done a great job on my behalf usually collecting around $1,000 and a month. From experience they are able to judge the most promising infringers to pursue and all I have to do is sign a release when agreement is reached. This month has been particularly good so far, with $2,000 being collected in the last couple of days ($1,000 to me). I’ve only licensed that photo once for a small print run book cover, but I’ve made far more out of it from copyright breaches than I ever would have as a stock shot.

    When I did a Google Image Search of the picture last weekend, it showed 60,500 uses of the picture. The majority of these are not worth following up, but a couple of hours trawling through URLs that are using my picture to generate an income, is invariably worthwhile.

    • Ian Plant

      Thanks for sharing Rob. Delegation of copyright policing to a third party certainly takes much of the headache out of this sort of thing. It looks like Image Rights even handles copyright registration for clients. The real irony is that one could potentially make much more from collecting settlements from infringers than from actually selling the licensing rights to the photo to end-users who are willing to pay!

  • Thanks Ian – entertaining and informative. I kinda came to the same conclusion a while back, although mine was driven by laziness more than anything else. Someone kept stealing my kids pictures and putting them on milk cartons – I don’t know what was up with that!

    • Ian Plant

      Bill, always good to see you pop up here – especially when you say something as funny as this!

  • Great article, very informative, and thought-provoking! I do share your thoughts to view theft as free advertising and have found that a simple watermark with my name and website have worked to redirect viewers back to me when they wanted prints or to see more of my work. It hasn’t been a lot number of people, but it is more than if I had no watermark.

  • Ironic, but I was somewhat disappointed to discover, using the aforementioned Google Image search, that no one has seen fit to rip-off any of my images. Perhaps my discreet “Copyright (Year) © Jerry Cagle watermark is a more effective deterrent than generally thought, or maybe they just aren’t worthy…. NAH…!

  • Ian Plant

    Thanks everyone for your stories so far. I’ve edited the post to incorporate new information raised by commenters, so please keep ’em coming! And keep checking back, this conversation is a really good one. In fact, it is so good, I might be changing my tune regarding copyright enforcement . . .

  • Yes, it´s not all about the money when someone steal your work but I feel a little bit responsible to my clients who pay for my work. But, I don´t really look for my images at the web, to much time. But if I stumble across one of my images I think the one which is using your work should know that you know it, even if you get no response.

    Greta post Ian

    Greetings from Austria

  • Great post Ian; didn’t know you were an attorney in a previous life. Amazing Namibia images as usual. I have heard that Flickr is easier to steal from than others, and I get more requests for free use of my images from Flickr than any other source. So of all the places I post photos, I’m most conflicted about Flickr. Well, FB too but for other reasons. I don’t understand the need to steal images when you can take decent photos even with an Iphone. Major lameness!

    Off-topic (sorta) I was curious how far north on the Skeleton Coast you guys got? I assume you went north from the image of Cape fur seals, but they do occur elsewhere of course. I turned east reluctantly into Damaraland when I was there. Would love to have had a 4×4 and went all the way up to the Angola border, then east. Anyway, if you did spend some time on the Skeleton Coast, would love to see the images. Thanks for the detailed post.

    • Ian Plant

      Hi Michael, with the exception of Warvis Bay and Cape Cross, we didn’t do the coast much. The Skeleton Coast seems amazing but it is tough to get into, needing 4×4 drive and a guide.

      • Thanks Ian. Yeah next time I’m going to explore the far south and far north. Need a 4×4 for sure, though not sure a guide is nec. I know a really good guide will help get you some genuine Himba and San access. But it would take a good one. I went maybe 4 hours north of Cape Cross. Now shooting in our deserts seems downright busy! Enjoying your Nam. pics for sure!

  • Really nice informative Blog…I’m just an amateur with a Point and Shoot, but have gotten a few good shots and wondered what would happen after I posted them on a few Websites I frequent…I have thought about a Watermark, but as of right now, I’m not really in the business of “selling” my Photos, although I certainly wouldn’t turn down an offer at this point…I’ve “heard” that you really don’t have to “label” your Photos to have copyright “rights”, so I haven’t been too worried…But as my Photos get better, it might actually be nice to get “my name” out there when one of my images is shared….Thanks for the Blog and Info Ian!!!

  • Great blog post Ian. I always find your writings interesting and compelling as well as your great images! The topic of image theft is always intriguing. I admit that I don’t bother checking to see if mine are stolen. I did find a few obvious ones and just notified the people who were at fault and it scared them enough to take them down. I was wondering if Aaron saw this post as I’ve followed his troubles with pursuing his stolen images. I like the idea of letting a company who specializes in image recovery spend the time and energy tracking your images so that it can free up your time to concentrate on growing your business.

  • I keep coming back to see what others are saying. Great thread here Ian!

  • Great article Ian, I promote heavily online and use it as my main way of targeting my audience. I have always tried to watermark my images and have come under fire from pro’s telling me its useless or it wrecks the image. Well if I listened to pro’s about marketing I would be broke and I feel it’s necessary to offer up some small mean of security for an image. Though the deterrent is small it’s still a deterrent for most, never all. Those people that have put my images on their false sites will always do this no matter what I feel. At least though they have to go to the trouble of removing the watermark in the first place, hence a deterrent to take this image in the beginning.
    Anyway too much time wasted here, lol, should be shooting, love your work mate.
    cheers ben

  • Great post, Ian, with your usual mirth as well. Is Rikki available for subcontracting?

    Your approach is actually very similar to my own. I do have the odd spat with these Facebook “aggregator” pages that never credit photographers but in general I don’t mind the “free advertising”. I actually started sharing most of my online work under “Creative Commons” last year and it’s done a lot for my own peace of mind (forcing me not to worry about the number of petty infringements. I do subtle watermarking, in line with letting people know it’s my work and allowing folks to find my website if they like what they see (regardless of where they saw it).

  • Ian, what a fantastic article (and yes, humorous too, always a pleasure to read your posts!). I’ve been wondering about this very topic for the past year. It’s amazing what a shift in thinking can do :)

    Great tip about Image Rights. Sounds like a win-win situation there!

    Hope to see you at one of your workshops again next year :)

  • It might be worth mentioning that when I first heard about Image Rights I signed up and placed approx 600 images in their archive for their crawlers to “keep an eye out” for. I thought the same thing…if someone else can find the infringements and do the wet work, I would be happy to share in the revenue generated from these cases with them. Unfortunately, the Image Rights software and/or service has never found one case of infringement with any of my images. I can do a simple Google Image reverse on one of my images and find 100+ results in a fraction of a second. I would be curious if anyone has had success with this company.

  • […] Professional photographer Ian Plant discusses legal copyright protection available to photographers. […]

  • Great blog Ian. I used to put up hundreds of images on Flickr and many of these have been stolen. Every few months I do the Google Images search and get really angry about it and write a couple of emails. Some people are nice about it, other people are complete d**ks. There are a couple of places where I’m still considering what course of action to take (one is a web-design company using one of my photos as an example of the websites it’s created, so presumably the client is paying for that photo?) but usually I’m too lazy and just forget about it (until the next time).

    I have started putting almost transparent watermarks in the middle of my images that I post on my blog, FB or Flickr (I post far fewer images now), and haven’t seen these reproduced anywhere. This seems to have calmed me down a bit (although not that much!). I have a website where the images are watermarked and 500pixel downloads are allowed but haven’t had a problem with theft from there. It’s mainly Flickr…

  • Great article….very knowledgeable…thanks for sharing us……!!

  • Ian – great blog. This ‘issue’ always weighs on my mind as I’m posting photos of my sports photography on a social media outlet. The free advertising take on it is the path I like to amuse myself along, esp. when my son’s teammates make one of my shots their profile picture for a while. I have gone through a few watermarks as I attempt to settle on one the reflects the person behind the lens rather the spirit within the soul – do I go for a more professional presence or let the “real” me and my passion reflect in the imagery rather than the watermark. Aaron Reed’s story was quite informative – a reflection of just how much WORK is involved to protect one’s work from “shared abuse”. At least he has presented the rest of us with the “What If…” scenario while agreeing that the “free advertising” positive approach allows the artist to further grow the business.