The Best Free Guide on How to Protect Your Images from Online Theft

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The Best Free Guide on How to Protect Your Images from Online Theft

With the dawn of the world wide web, a new kind of thievery has begun:  image theft.  In this post, we’ll talk about image theft.  What is it, who does it affect, and how can you prevent it?  Let’s dig into an important subject:  how to protect images from copyright infringement.

What is Image Theft?

Image theft occurs when a user copies an online photo (or drawing or other artwork) without permission from the person who holds the copyright, most often the photographer or artist who initially created the image. 

Image theft looks a little different than it used to before the web existed.  Bad guys no longer require dark clothes, smoke and lasers, and a dastardly plan to storm the facility to steal an image.  And get this, some bad guys don’t even know they’re “bad” and have no idea they’re up to no good.

How can that happen?  Many people, and I think it’s fair to say most people, believe that if they do an image search and a photo pops up onscreen, it’s free for the taking.  But they couldn’t be more incorrect.  A piece of artwork belongs to the person who created it, and they own the copyright and decide who gets to use the images and how.  It is the law.

If you are interested in learning more about copyright law, look at the U.S. Copyright Office’s overview

Protecting your images as a professional photographer or artist is critical, especially if your livelihood comes from that work.  You can’t protect your photos from every single thief, knowingly or unknowingly, but you can do a few things to help protect yourself before it happens and in case it happens.

When Sharing Images Via Social Media

If you like to share your photos on your social media accounts (and who doesn’t?), you’ll want to make a few adjustments to how you display them.  No technique is foolproof, but the following tips can help.

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Use A Watermark

One of the most obvious ways to protect your online photos from theft or unauthorized usage is to watermark images.  A watermark is a simple way to identify who created the image and owns the rights.  Semi-transparent watermarks often cover a whole image, while smaller, opaque pictures or words in one of your photo’s bottom corners also work.

However, know that using a watermark is not foolproof.  There are many ways to remove it.  Plenty of apps and plug-ins exist to help users remove a watermark.  So beware!  Even the best watermark isn’t going to stand a chance against the thief, er, person, who sets out to steal your image.

I have delved into the topic of watermarks before, so read How to Protect Images with a Watermarked Photo – Everything You Need to Know

Change Your Metadata

If you are an artist like me, then the metadata thing might sound intimidating, but don’t worry – I’m going to spell it out for you, and it’s way simpler than you might think!

When you take a photo, the data saved with the image is called metadata.  EXIF (Exchangeable Image File) data is part of that data and captures the information about the image.  Take a look at your editing software (I use Lightroom), and you will find information such as shutter speed, the camera and lens used to capture the image, image dimensions, and the capture date.

A screenshot of Lightroom showing a photo's metadata

The IPTC (International Press Telecommunications Council) data contains information about the images’ content, legal status info, rights, licensing, and ownership of the image.  The IPTC sets the standard for collecting and using this information.  This standard is supported across the board by almost all editing software and web search engines such as Google.  For more info on EXIF and IPTC data, check out this great article from Smartframe

Now that you know the importance of a photo’s metadata, you need to take a couple of steps to put the information in place.  The easiest way I’ve found is to import your copyright information when you import your photos into Lightroom.

Steps to Change Metadata

A screenshot from Lightroom showing how to create a new Metadata Preset for import.  An arrow pointing at the word NEW

When you begin an import, look for the “Apply During Import” drop-down menu on the right.  Click on the Metadata drop-down and then New.

A screenshot showing the window that pops up in Lightroom where you can fill in data for a new metadata preset

A new window will show you all the metadata options that will import into Lightroom with your photo.  Now you decide what you want to include with your images.  After you finish filling in the information on the various drop-down menus, give your preset a name (I use “Metadata Copyright” for mine) and click “create.”

Next time you import, ensure that the preset you just created is selected in the “Apply During Import” drop-down.

A screenshot showing the dropdown to enable the Metadata Preset for use on import.

When you see an image online, you don’t see all of the information embedded within the file, but it’s there and stays there as the image moves around the web.  Of course, just as watermarking is not foolproof, neither is Embedded metadata.  Some hosting platforms and social media outlets strip the metadata from the image.  And some dastardly thieves will also do just that.

Do Not Post Hi Resolution Images

Although it is tempting to put your best work online and show off the crisp details of a high-resolution image, don’t do it!  High-resolution files are much easier to manipulate seamlessly than low-resolution images.  Also, a high-res photo in the hands of a thief makes it harder to prove you are the original owner because they have the same quality image.

Pink background with "Hip Grandma Merch" available on front

There is an exception to this general rule.  If you’re using a service to sell your images online or using them to create goods, the site you’re using may request a high-resolution image.  Double-check the fine print when you agree to their terms, but in most cases, they request the highest quality image to produce the best product, but they showcase a lower-resolution photo on their site.

So what size is a good size?  I shoot for 1600 pixels on the long edge when I export.  That allows for a solid view of your image without being good enough for image thieves to reprint it at a decent quality.

A screenshot showing a Lightroom window with how to change dimensions of your image on export.  Image sizing is circled and long edge and 1600 have arrows pointing at them.

Compress Your Images H3

Uploading low-resolution images is a step in the right direction, but you can take one more action when safeguarding your images.  When you compress your photos, you are reducing the overall size of the file, therefore reducing print quality.  If you reduce quality to about 60% of the original image, your image is still lovely but much less likely to be swiped for printing purposes.

But how do I do that?  Great question!  Simple.  When you export from Lightroom, go into the “File Settings” option in the export menu and select quality 60%.  It’s as simple as that!

A screenshot showing how to reduce quality in Lightroom before exporting an image

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If you’re using your Images on a Blog

If you are a blogger and using your images in your blog posts, you can take a few additional steps to help protect your images.

Disable Right-Click

One option for making your images a bit less accessible and, therefore, theft-proof, consider disabling the right-click option.  Most modern computer users know that a simple way to use an image found on the web is to hover over the image, right-click on the mouse, and click on “save image as.”  This feature is so readily available that I wonder if it contributes to the notion that all images online are fair game.  Hmmmm?

You can turn off the right-click feature using one of many WordPress plug-ins available for your WordPress site.  I prefer the No Right Click Images Plugin.  By using Javascript, this plug-in disables the ability to save an image by right-clicking, but it still allows other right-click features, such as “open in a new tab,” etc.  Additionally, you can show a copyright message when someone attempts to right-click your image.

Disabling right-click “save image as” may slow down a user intent on taking your image, but as with any of the options we’re discussing today, it is not foolproof.  A user intent on using one of your images can always take a screenshot or disable Javascript to stop the plug-in.  However, if it slows down a would-be thief, all the better.  Perhaps they will move their shady ways to someone else’s site!

Block Screenshots

Just as you can block right clicks, you can also use a plug-in to prevent screenshots of your page.  Several plug-ins are available for WordPress, and once again, they can slow down a would-be image thief but won’t stop them if they are dead-set on using your image.

Every blog should have a copyright notice.  Go ahead and scroll to the bottom of this page to see mine.  It will look like this: ‘© 2023 The Hip Grandma.’  Most WordPress themes come with this option built-in to the footer.  If your theme doesn’t update the year automatically, be sure and update that each January.

Although not a legal necessity, posting your copyright serves as another layer of protection if you find yourself in a situation where you need legal evidence that the content is, well, yours.  Copyright infringement is more common than you would think, and every effort to prevent it is important.  The last thing you want to do is take legal action against someone who steals from your website.  As the old saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  The best way, and most effective to give yourself copyright protection is to stop it before it happens!

You can take this copyright notice one step further and add it to your images.  Adding the notice to your images is quickly done with a watermark or as a caption under each image.

A copyright notice should include either the copyright symbol (©)or the word “copyright” and a statement of rights, such as “all rights reserved,” and your name.

Attaching a copyright notice to photos has not been required for over 30 years (the law changed in 1989). But this practice will discourage those who don’t know the law or don’t care from using your images.  In addition, if you have labeled them with a copyright notice, you have given yourself that extra bit of legal protection.

This article from the Legal Beagle explains how to register your blog with the United States Copyright Office.  Handling this chore is not expensive, but it will discourage those who may steal your content for their use without your permission.

Add A DMCA Badge To Your Site

Consider a DMCA badge if you are looking for a paid protection plan.  What is that?  Great question!  The DMCA, or Digital Millennium Copyright Act, is a private company that assists content creators at all levels in protecting their content from theft.

You can register with DMCA for free, which allows you to use a “badge,” in the form of a graphic, on your site.  This badge shows that you are “DMCA Protected” and shows a warning that your content is protected under copyright.  In addition, this notice promises unauthorized users a hefty fine if they continue.

To use the service beyond the free badge, you can sign up for levels of protection and tools that will assist you in removing content that has been swiped from you and helps you follow through with legal action.

The DMCA serves two functions: a prevention tool and a resource for help when you need it after the damage has been done.

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How Do I know if My Image Was Stolen?

Google Images offers an easy way to check for online image theft using their free tool.  Go to images.google.com and click on the small camera icon in the search bar.  Then you can drag your image into the search area.  Google will run a search and find any photos on the web that are similar to yours.  Scroll through the pictures and if you see yours, click on it.  Once you’ve determined where it’s being used, you can contact the user and proceed from there.

The Google Image Search online tool is not a fast process and requires individual searches for each image, so it may not be the most practical way to determine if your intellectual property is being swiped.  Nor is it the only way.

If one-by-one searches seem too tedious and you post many images, consider an image monitoring service, such as Copytrack or Pixray.  These services monitor the web for unauthorized use of your images, notify you when they find incidents, and help you handle those incidents when they happen.  This option is one of the most effective ways to protect files and is a good solution if you find this happening to you frequently.

My Images Were Stolen, Now What?

So what do you do when your image is stolen?  I prefer to begin with kindness.  Reach out to the person or company using your content and let them know you’ve spotted it and that you are the copyright holder.  Ask them to remove the image or give you appropriate credit, including a link to your website if applicable.  If you don’t hear back or get an unfavorable response, let them know that you’ll be taking legal action if they don’t comply within a specific period.

Then, if you are not using an image monitoring service like the ones mentioned above, now is the time to contact the DMCA for assistance or find a lawyer to advise you on moving forward.  May I suggest Rachel from The Law Tog?  Of course, legal representation will not be inexpensive, but Rachel is a friend, and she is worth every penny.  Tell her the Hip Grandma sent you!

Wrapping It All Up

Like a good Scout, be prepared with the above image protection techniques in the first place.  But also, be aware that even the best preparation cannot eliminate the risk of someone stealing one of your works of art from one of your web pages. 

How do you keep your content and images protected?  Do you have any stories of content theft?  I would love to hear about it and how you handled it.  Please leave a comment, or let’s talk about it in my Facebook group, Friends of the Hip Grandma.

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PIN image for Protect Image post showing a woman touching the copyright symbol with her finger and the title

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