Having your work stolen is a photographer’s worst nightmare. Seeing your work sold on t-shirts or greeting cards, or used on websites without your authorization, isn’t something that anyone wants. Particularly if the other party is making money, or using your images for something that you consider to be totally inappropriate, it could be very upsetting for you. Here are some tips to prevent it from happening in the first place.

Tips for Protecting Your Work from Unauthorized Use

photo by Mauro Meinberg / CCo

Add metadata

The first step is to make sure that anyone who uses your images knows for a fact that they belong to you. You can do this by adding metadata to the files that you upload anywhere online. Metadata is data hidden within the properties of the file itself, which can include a range of information: who the photographer is, who holds the copyright, where the image was taken, when and why it was taken, what settings were used, what camera took the shot, what the image contains, and so on.

To add metadata to your files in Photoshop, you have to click on ‘file’ and then ‘file info’ in the menu. Here, you can add as much or as little data as you like. It’s a good tip to include at least one way in which people can contact you to use your images – use something you know isn’t going to change any time soon. This way, if your image is used without authorization, you can argue that the other party had all of the information that they needed to contact you and get permission.

Metadata won’t prevent someone from saving, downloading, or using your image. However, it will give you a good basis to ask them to cease using it, and will also provide legal proof that you are the owner of the image if you need to take it further.

Use watermarks

Tips for Protecting Your Work from Unauthorized Use

photo by David Zydd/CCo

Watermarks aren’t always effective, and they don’t always make your work look good, so a word of caution on this point. Many photographers don’t like to use watermarks for the reason that anything covering the most important part of the shot will ruin the viewing experience, and anything that is off to the side can be cropped or cloned out, meaning that there’s not really a good middle ground for their use.

However, if you do choose to use watermarks, you can think of them in a different light. They might not be able to prevent your work from being stolen, but at least if it is, there’s a chance that it will still be attributed to you via the watermark. For example, if your image is reposted on Instagram without your permission, users might see your name and go to seek your account out if they think the work is good.

In essence, watermarks are a good way to increase your chances of getting credit when your work is used. They can also be very good for forcing thieves to take down or stop using your work, as they will have no defense when your name is clearly written right on the image itself.

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Disable right-click

If you want to show off your portfolio without it being downloaded by anyone with a computer, you can use a plugin on your website that will disable right-clicking, thereby effectively stopping users from being able to save the image.

However, there are a number of flaws with this approach. Firstly, your images can still be screenshotted, and someone with knowledge of coding will be able to dig into your site and grab the images all the same. Secondly, it will prevent all right-clicks – for example, if someone was trying to right-click your email address to copy it over to a new email message. Therefore, it might end up working against you just as much as it could help to discourage theft.

Tips for Protecting Your Work from Unauthorized Use

photo by Gerd Altmann / CCo

Add a copyright notice

When using your website for portfolio purposes, be sure to add a copyright notice to the bottom of the page. This will remind users that they images are legally your property, and that they cannot be used without permission. Again, this is more of a deterrent than something that will physically prevent theft. However, having these copyright notices wherever possible will also help you to build a case if you feel that your images have been used unlawfully.

Use reverse image search

From time to time, you might want to check up on your images and ensure that no one is using them without your permission. But how would you be able to find them, if nobody told you that they were being used? One method is to do a reverse image search. This can be very effective, and will help you to find a number of matches in a short period of time.

Tips for Protecting Your Work from Unauthorized Use

photo by Pete Linforth / CCo

Google offers a reverse image search for free: just drag your image file over to the search box in Image Search mode, then drop it when the search bar changes to a larger box and prompts you to do so. Within a matter of seconds, Google will produce all of the pages where it can find the same image. The search isn’t perfect, so it may miss some instances, or turn up images which are not actually related at all. However, it’s certainly a good place to start.

Another search engine you could use for images is Pixsy. This site allows you to upload all of your images either from one website – such as your portfolio, or Instagram account – or from your computer. You can then search for everything at once. What’s more, the site will continue to search for image matches while you are away. You can mark searches as irrelevant if the photo was matched incorrectly, or you gave permission for the image to be used. You can also use their tools to initiate takedown requests and even begin legal action.

The best way to prevent people from using your images may well be to make an example of those that do. With searching, you can send invoices or takedown requests to anyone who uses your images without permission, so it’s a good way to send the message that you won’t tolerate theft of your work. You can use the same methods to take down future unauthorized uses, and if your work is very popular with those who like to steal images for commercial use, you may even end up retaining a lawyer or legal team to work on it for you.

Though the only foolproof way to stop your work from being stolen is not to share it at all, you’ll certainly prefer to try these methods of prevention and then stop those that slip through the net.

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