Identity crisis: protect yourself from image theft

For a photographer who makes a living licensing copies of our work, it’s frustrating to see how easily images can be downloaded from websites, shared on social media, or used without consent or compensation. Worse still, that one’s personal image and photos are fraudulently used to create a false identity. I myself have been a victim of image theft on numerous occasions; More recently, I discovered that one of my commercially available images was appearing on over a dozen websites and was even featured on a book cover…despite never having sold a single license for that photo.

Image theft has always been a concern, but the proliferation of technology has made it really easy to steal images, as easy as copy and paste. To prove my point: I simply stole the Getty Images website while writing this article. (No need to call the police… I stole my own work.) Getty has copy protection measures in place, and when you hover your mouse over the image, a larger version appears with a large watermark over it. I liked the non-watermarked version of the image better, so I simply hit the “Print Screen” button on my computer and pasted a screenshot into my graphics program (heck…a word processor would work just as well ). I cropped out the area I wanted and in about 60 seconds total… done! Free content. It probably would have taken even less time if I had used my iPhone.

For a generation raised on Facebook and Twitter, image theft is not a crime in their minds, nor is it done with malicious intent…it’s just a normal part of daily life to share and re-share content. The only way to truly prevent our work from being shared to death is to never post it online. But that’s not a realistic option in today’s internet-enabled, phone-mad society. So let’s assume the worst case scenario: you have posted your precious photos on the internet, and some anonymous person has maliciously taken a copy and used it without your consent. What can you do about it?


In the United States, you own the copyright to a photographic image from the moment you press the shutter button. This is good news, because federal copyright laws protect our works from image theft as soon as we create them. There are some exceptions to this rule, such as when a “work for hire” agreement is in place and a client pays the photographer for the royalties on the images. There shouldn’t be a legal gray area in that regard, as the photographer and client would have a formal agreement saying so.

The bad news is that copyrights automatically granted by Federal Law don’t come with all the bells and whistles, just the rights to protect our works and control usage. Nor does it allow remuneration: the right to sue for financial compensation. To take a copyright infringer to court and ask for money in the settlement, the image must also have been registered with the Library of Congress. There is a modest fee and paperwork that needs to be filed along with the copies of the images for which copyright will be registered… well worth the investment.

It is important to note that copyright law also places some limits on copyright holders. There are fair use laws that allow our images to be used and reproduced, without consent, where it is for the benefit of the masses. Fair use generally falls under the categories of news reporting, education, and other non-commercial uses. For example, a college professor can legally take an image from a website to use in a classroom presentation. But that same image, copied from the website and published in a textbook that is available for sale at the campus bookstore, is now a matter of copyright infringement.

A common misconception I encounter frequently, especially among the models I work with, is that being the subject of a photograph in some way also gives that person ownership of the copyright. In fact, being the person in an image does not offer copyright of any kind, unless you have a formal contract that states otherwise. However, you still have legal rights regarding matters such as slander, if the photos are used to intentionally misrepresent you or damage your reputation.


Don’t expect Facebook or Twitter to act on your behalf if someone steals your images and posts them there. Their Terms of Service agreements (those lengthy texts we all agree to when creating our user accounts) contain language designed to protect their companies from liability for copyright or intellectual property infringements. I would go a step further and suggest that the big social networks actually encourage image theft and copyright violations, under the guise of sharing and re-sharing content. Anything that gets users to repost, view, like and comment means millions more views on their pages and millions of dollars in revenue from all the blatant advertising they host there.

Where social networking sites will work on your behalf is in cases of identity theft. It is estimated that there are something like 80 million fake user profiles on Facebook alone, many of them used by marketing companies or “bot” software to spam us with advertising or to increase the number of followers. But some fraudulently try to impersonate someone they are not. In the modeling industry, it is unfortunately quite common for a model’s images to be stolen in order to create a fake online profile. The reasons vary: maybe it’s a fan fishing for private images of the model. Or a disgruntled person trying to slander another. I have also seen my model photography stolen and used on erotic escort websites; I have to imagine some customers are surprised when the girl who shows up at their door is not the gorgeous model they chose online. More ominously, fake profiles have been used to collect real-life contact information from models like phone numbers, addresses, passwords, and more.

As with all legal matters: if you have specific concerns, it is best to seek the advice of professional legal counsel. There are lawyers specialized in copyright issues, or identity theft. If you find a fake online profile with your name and identity on it, contact the site or hosting service immediately. Most sites like Facebook have a page in their help system where users can report a fake profile or identity theft.


It’s virtually impossible to truly protect your photos once they’ve been posted online. Using only small versions of low-resolution images can be a deterrent, but only for those who care about stealing high-quality images. Years ago, website coders developed “scripts” to prevent viewers from using the right mouse button to copy and paste an image from a website. But that’s easily circumvented with low-tech techniques like the screen printing method I mentioned above. Image tracking and digital rights management applications have been created in an attempt to allow copyright holders to track how and where their images are used online. But then again, these methods are defeated quite easily.

To date, the best and cheapest option to prevent theft seems to be the inclusion of large watermarks on images. Yeah, a semi-transparent logo on a photo makes our job a bit ugly. But it also seems to be a turnoff for many potential copiers. And it acts as a big red flag, letting website visitors know that someone is using an image without permission. It is not an infallible method; In my line of work, a lot of aspiring models just don’t seem to care if they post a picture of themselves with the words “Test Copy” all over it. And watermarks can sometimes be easily removed in Photoshop. I myself had one of my images stolen, had the watermark removed, and then the modified image was used in print flyers promoting one of the largest annual parades in Chicago. The matter was resolved privately and I will not reveal any names.


It used to be nearly impossible to track how and where our photos were being misused. But now, new technologies have made searching for images online as simple as right-clicking or copy-paste. Called “reverse lookups,” companies like comb the Internet and catalog the millions of images they find on websites. When a user uploads their image to Tineye, or provides a web link to an image for reference, the service checks its database and spits out any matches it finds. It’s free, it’s pretty nifty technology, and Tineye can see beyond the basics of direct image matching. You can also find examples where text and design elements have been added to the source image, such as a book cover design.

Google has also gotten into the reverse image search game and with great results. On a PC, all I have to do is right-click on an image I see in my browser, then select “Search Google for this image” from the options that appear. I have noticed that Google often returns more image matches than Tineye. But each search engine finds different sets of results, and I use both search tools all the time.

It’s a good idea for everyone to do an occasional “vanity search” on their own behalf. You will be surprised what you find online. You should not only check Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites, but also Google yourself regularly. Don’t stick with your name as you call yourself, try variations like your full legal name, last name (comma), first name, first name in quotes, etc. Different search engines produce different results, so repeat your search on Yahoo, Bing, etc.


Nothing exists in a vacuum. As photographers, if we don’t show our work to the public, we’re not advertising ourselves. The truth is that sometimes we just need to show our images, hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

Visit the US Copyright Office website at for more information and to register.

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