Disclaimer: I am not an attorney and cannot dispense legal advice. In this post I am simply sharing as-is my own experiences of learning about unauthorized use of my images and taking steps to correct this situation. You should consult with a qualified lawyer if you are facing theft of your intellectual property.
I recently traveled to London to receive an award and attend the opening of the Travel Photographer of the Year winners exhibition. When I returned from the trip, I performed a Google image search on my winning photograph to see if it had garnered more international press coverage in the wake of the show’s opening. The good news: there were dozens of new articles featuring my winning image, and hundreds of articles in total, spanning dozens of countries around the world. The bad news: I learned that my image was being used without my permission on dozens of sites. A winner of Travel Photographer of the Year and shortlisted for National Geographic’s Travel Photography Awards, this particular image is an important asset in my professional photography portfolio. And while I don’t always mind it being shared without authorization if it includes an attribution to me as the photographer, or at least includes my watermark, there were several quite egregious cases of my work literally being stolen. In some of these cases, other people were trying to pass off my image as their own, one fellow even going to the point of claiming he had shot the photo “with a black-and-white camera.” In a couple of other cases, my valuable intellectual property was being made available for download as a wallpaper image to the general public, without my permission. Every one of these illegal downloads takes away the opportunity for me to sell the image on my own site or to earn a royalty through the image being sold by my authorized agents.
It has never been easier to steal intellectual property–in the form of photos, videos, or the written word–than in today’s interconnected digital world. While it can be good for an artist’s reputation and business to have her or his work “go viral” on the web, the benefits only accrue when the work is attributed to the artist who created it. If other people are passing the work off as their own or distributing it widely to others without authorization, then we have a problem.
After consulting with an intellectual property attorney (who also happens to be my brother), I realized that I need to act promptly to protect my rights. I have started the process of identifying the worst cases of theft of my image and taking steps to stop the unauthorized use. If you also have had your photographs used without your permission, here are some steps you may consider taking:
- Search the web for all uses of your image and identify the sites where it is being used without authorization: The remarkable technology to search the vast Internet for specific groupings of pixels that resemble your image is actually very easy to use. Just right-click on your image and select “Search Google for image” from the drop-down menu. You’ll see a listing of all likely matches to your image throughout the web. From this listing, select the uses that are not authorized. My image, for example, matched several hundred occurrences on the web, but most of these were valid press outlets reporting on the image’s success with Travel Photographer of the Year and National Geographic Travel Photography Awards. I studied the list of sites to find the ones that were using my image without permission, and I further pared down this list to focus only on sites that were using my image without attribution to me and without my watermark.
- Identify the owners of the offending domains: Using a who-is directory search, you can often find contact information for the registered owner of the domain that is using your work illegally. You can first try https://www.whois.net/, although other directory lookup services may provide better information. Enter the domain (for example, reddit.com) from the URL of the site where your image is being misused, and who-is will provide some information on the domain owner. You’re looking for the contact info about the owner so that you can complain about the abuse. Look for a field like this one: “Registrar Abuse Contact Email: email@example.com”.
- Write and send DMCA Takedown Requests to the owners of the offending sites: The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA, is a US copyright law that also provides some protection of intellectual property rights in certain other countries. It provides for copyright owners (including photographers) to demand an unauthorized use of their property be taken down. There is a standardized form called a DMCA Takedown Request that can be used to notify the owner of a site that they are using work you own without your permission, and to insist they remove promptly remove the infringement from their site. There are numerous locations on the web where you can find sample Takedown Request forms. Tailor one of these sample forms with your own info, the info about your property, and the location of the infringement of your copyright. You will need to sign (electronically or physically) the form, including a statement that you swear under penalty of perjury that you own the copyright of the work in question.
- Follow up to ensure compliance with your DMCA Takedown Request: While the owner of the infringing site or domain is obligated to promptly remove the infringing post, frequently they may not do so in a timely manner, or they may ignore your request completely. Two days after filing seven takedown requests, I have received only two responses, and both of them were from ISPs who claimed they were not responsible for the content their subscribers posted (I have since identified the actual owners of the infringing sites and directly sent them new takedown requests). I plan to continue to follow up over the coming weeks to ensure compliance.
- Consider further legal action if required: So far, I have not asked for legal damages from the infringing site owners, but if they disregard my takedown requests and continue to either pass off my work as their own or propagate my photo in bulk to the general public, then I may choose to sue them for damages. I will publish a followup to this post to share how this situation progresses, but I do want readers to be aware that there are further actions that can be taken beyond a DMCA Takedown Request.
- Consider registering your most valuable images: A photograph, like other forms of intellectual property, may be registered with the US Copyright Office at https://www.copyright.gov/. Doing so it not required to initiate a DMCA Takedown Request, but having your copyright registered for your most valuable images may offer you more protection and give you standing for further legal action.
I hope that by sharing my own experiences with having my images stolen, readers may gain some context on the problem. In this digital and interconnected era, most working photographers will likely see at least a few of their images used without permission. We all need to be aware of the situation and how to deal with it. Please consult with a qualified lawyer about the specifics of your own situation. Nothing in this post should be interpreted as legal advice.
Have you had your images used without authorization? Please share your experiences here.
What to read other posts about sharing your images? Find them all here: Posts on Sharing Images.