In 2013 my most popular article (by some distance) was the story of how my most successful image was plagiarised in a rather unusual way; a photographer had recreated the image from scratch. It seemed to me to be a bit of a grey area and I was unsure where I stood legally. The photographer hadn’t stolen my image and wasn’t selling his recreation, but he had stolen my idea and that is intellectual property theft. The problem was resolved rather quickly and painlessly in the end but in that regard, I was one of the lucky ones. It did, however, prompt me to write a comprehensive guide on the subject after I could only find very segmented information spread over several websites. I wanted the relevant information all in one place in an ordered fashion and as that wasn’t possible, I decided to create it myself.
This guide is in 3 major parts; prevention, detection and reaction. Firstly, how to prevent or deter plagiarism or theft of your images. Secondly, how to detect and identify any images or ideas that have been stolen – the internet is vast and finding your images where you hadn’t put them is a daunting task. Finally, the various ways in which you can react if you find one or more of your images or ideas have been stolen.
2. Plagiarism & Theft
2.1 Defining Plagiarism
It first important to know the different types of plagiarism and what does and does not constitute a case. The Oxford English Dictionary defines plagiarism as ‘the practice of taking someone else’s work and passing them off as one’s own.’ This is a little vague and requires unpacking further. The more legal definition is the following:
The act of appropriating the literary composition of another author, or excerpts, ideas, or passages therefrom, and passing the material off as one’s own creation.’ (Click here for source.)
So, taking someone’s work and passing it off as one’s own does not exclusively refer to the most obvious case: somebody uses a photograph you have taken and claims to have taken it themselves. This is obviously a case of plagiarism and despite how unsophisticated and easily detected it is, it’s still overwhelmingly common (click through for one of the more repugnant examples of late). This is exacerbated dramatically by both the transition of photographs to digital as its primary medium and storage, and the internet. That is to say, a photographer with only physical work and no online presence is far less likely to be plagiarised. However, the perks of the digital age far outweigh the cons as I would argue is obvious.
Direct theft of an image is not the only way in which a photographer is vulnerable to plagiarism as the quote above demonstrates. My personal experience listed in the introduction is an example of visual plagiarism and pertains to the theft of an idea or concept. (There is an interesting article on cases of visual plagiarism here.) As I eluded to in my original article of my stolen idea, the lines between similar ideas and theft of an original idea are almost blurry beyond distinction (note: ‘almost’). If I were to take a photograph of a woman in a red dress in front of the Eiffel Tower, I ought not be outraged when I see someone else’s image of a woman in a red dress in front of that particular landmark. However, if the details of an image are followed too closely then there is certainly a case for plagiarism.
Plagiarism is a deep and difficult problem in photography, now more than ever, and if I were to write a comprehensive paper outlining every aspect of what it is, it would be more of a tome than an article. So let’s move on to the most important step: prevention.
I list prevention as the most important step merely because prevention is invariably preferable to curing, and plagiarism is no exception. So here are some ways to deter image thieves:
This is one of the most obvious ways to deter potential thieves from your image and one of the easiest to carry out. A watermark is simply a logo or author name often accompanied with the date and the trusty ©. It is worth noting that images without the © are not unprotected by copyright laws – that is a myth. Below is an example of one of my own watermarked images:
This is a useful tool for two reasons: firstly it works as an aforementioned deterrent – the more work a thief has to do the more likely they are to try and find an easier alternative. Secondly, it has its promotional purposes.
The two most common and effective ways to add watermarks to your images are either Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. Here are few relevant tutorials:
Comparing watermarking between photoshop and lightroom
Watermarks are an easy option, but they are also easily countered. For example, the above image could have half an inch cropped off the bottom and it becomes nameless again. Also, it is not particularly difficult to clone out most watermarks in Photoshop. Again, I ought to stress that watermarks work as a deterrent and are certainly not a bulletproof method.
3.2 In-Camera Copyright
Another easy way to add a simple layer of protection is to add the copyright information in to your camera so that each image’s EXIF data contains the author, copyright information and so on. To do this you can follow one of the guides below:
3.3 Ease of Acquisition
3.31 Image Sharing Websites
To avoid your images being stolen directly, you must be vigilant and often one of the easiest and most important ways is overlooked. If a thief can find your image, right click and ‘save as’ the full-sized file you’re doing something wrong. The perfect case in point is most of the images on Flickr. A huge number of high quality images can be simply right clicked and the ‘original size’ selected for a full resolution and full quality copy to be downloaded immediately and hassle-free. Here is Flickr’s advice on this very topic:
Flickr provides some deterrents to discourage downloading. You can go here to hide your original sizes (Pro accounts only) and disable right-clicking. You can also go here and disable the share feature.
Understand that these are minor roadblocks, at best. Any photo that can be seen can be downloaded. That is the nature of the Internet. This is from the FAQ:
“We’ve made changes to the page to discourage casual downloading and make people more aware of image ownership …. by ‘discourage’ we do mean simply ‘discourage’. Please understand that if a photo can be viewed in a web browser, it can be downloaded by people who actively disregard our roadblocks.”
You can make your ‘stream private, visible only to a select few. Remember, however, that adding a private photo to a group will enable any signed-in group member to see it, and thus copy it.
If, despite these precautions and others (All Rights Reserved, watermarks, etc.) someone publishes your photos, you may want to pursue legal action.
In short, don’t post any photos online that you can’t afford to lose control over.
Although possibly true, I vehemently object to the closing statement of that advice. One ought to feel comfortable and protected in sharing one’s images online without having to accept that any control over that image has been not only jeopardized, but completely lost into the digital ether. Another tip regarding any image hosting website such as Flickr or similar is to not upload the full sized file. If you scale down the image to even 50% of its original resolution, the number of applications of that file are drastically reduced; one cannot print the image at a decent size, they won’t be able to sell the image to companies and it is likely to be rejected by most competitions.
Another common problem is a photographer’s portfolio. The same problem that I have highlighted with Flickr can sometimes be replicated – albeit to a lesser degree – on the photographer’s own website. If one’s portfolio allows the right-click and ‘save image’ of your photographs then you ought to review the method for sharing those images. This can be combated by using portfolios that disable the specific actions of right-clicking, or alternatively by using a Flash portfolio which has the same effect. For example, my portfolio which can be seen by clicking here is not only Flash but has right click disabled entirely. (Note: some image sharing websites – 500px for example – have this feature automatically enabled along with not being able to see the full sized image by default.)
As anyone even remotely au fait with computers will already be aware, this isn’t a flawless solution. There is nothing stopping the user of your portfolio simply pressing print screen on the image they want and then cropping the file to the parameters of the photograph they desire. However, as already discussed, this will be a low resolution version and is far less useful.
3.4 Paying for Rights
It is a sad realisation that for the best protection of your work, you must pay money to receive the full extent of the law, but so be it. There are two other effective routes for preventing plagiarism and they will unfortunately require one to dip their hand in their pocket.
The first is registering a copyright. For a full guide on how to do this, where to do this and what rights it affords the photographer, follow the links below:
Although registering the copyright for an image is certainly not inexpensive – especially if you wish to do so for a large body of work – it does have its benefits. It cannot stop theft from occurring, but it does mean that one is in a better position – legally speaking – if it should occur and there is allegedly a higher chance of larger fees for damages being paid to the photographer.
Of all the prevention techniques I have listed, Digimarc is probably the most thorough and effective. Here is Digimarc’s own description of what they do for images:
Digimarc® for Images allows you to embed imperceptible, persistent digital watermarks into your images to communicate ownership and other information — wherever the images travel across the Internet.
They offer a number of packages for anything from the small-time professional through to the photography tycoon. A succinct summary of what the service does is this: it adds a digital watermark to one’s images that cannot be removed or changed and means one’s registered images are tracked relentlessly.
The prices are reasonable, especially if you are not taking thousands and thousands of pictures per annum, but as with the other deterrents and ways of protecting your images listed in this section, it isn’t infallible. The registered images can still be stolen and your rights are the same as without Digimarc; the benefit lies in how quickly you can identify plagiarism and can act upon it. This brings me to the next section: how to find your images that have been plagiarised or stolen.
The prevention of plagiarism is certainly important and you ought to be as prepared as possible. Regardless, there is one glaringly apparent constant present in all deterrents: you can still have your images stolen. In fact, a photographer could employ all of the techniques in section 3 and whilst well protected, that photographer’s body of work is still vulnerable. So it is now important to understand the options available to a photographer for finding their work that has been plagiarised. Firstly, as mentioned in the closing of section 3, Digimarc is an excellent way to track your images and therefore is a successful detection system. However, there are other options that are free.
4.1 A Guide to Google’s ‘Search by Image’
Some time ago, using Google to find your images that have been stolen would be tantamount to dialling random phone numbers of anyone in the world and hoping to get through to a friend. The introduction of Google’s ‘Search by Image’ has put a halt to that almost fruitless task. Search by Image does exactly what it says on the tin: it allows the user to upload or link an image and have Google comb the internet for two things:
- Instances of that image
- Similar images
The application and uses of 1) is fairly self evident. By being able to browse every website that displays the your image, you can find instantiations of it which are theft and/or plagiarism. The benefits of 2) are with regards to the aforementioned visual plagiarism; the theft of an idea. It isn’t an exact science by any stretch of the imagination as it attempts to match up pixel by pixel similarities and it can result in wildly different images to the human eye. That said, it will unearth imitation or parody if the offending image is close enough to the original. So here is a step by step guide on how to use Search by Image:
2) Search by either pasting a link to your image (the url should end in a still media format file extension – i.e: https://farm6.staticflickr.com/5489/11448122345_fdb4c62850_z.jpg) or by uploading the image from your computer.
3) Browse the results to see where your image occurs.
As you can see, there over 10 pages of instantiations of my image on various websites around the internet. Of those near 300 occurrences of my image Adversity only a few are either my website(s) or uses I have signed off on, so to speak. A lot of the websites that use my image are people on forums discussing how I made the image or featuring as their image of the day. Some credit me and some don’t. There are even a few websites who feature it as one of their images of the day that do not credit me and are probably making money off of advertising from it, and I will be contacting them. The others I will leave be. This is perhaps a refinement of the Flickr quote from section 3.31, but if you want to upload and share your images online, stopping any uses what-so-ever without your permission will be a full time job. The cases to which I take umbrage with are ones where the ‘thief’ (I use that term rather loosely here) is making money either directly or indirectly (i.e via advertising) from my work without my permission.
As you can also see in that image, the ‘visually similar images’ section is hit and miss in the extreme; as lovely as that rather orange painting of Jesus is, it’s certainly not plagiarising any of my work!
4.2 Plagiarism Detection Sites
Google’s Search by Image is not the only website that offers plagiarism detection and there are sites that have been doing similar jobs for some time. Here is a selection of alternatives that don’t always dig up the same results:
- Tin Eye – By far the most famous among photographers and very effective.
- Copyscape – A text focused alternative.
- Picsearch – Similar to Copyscape except it is an index of over 3,000,000,000 pictures.
In my experience, if you’re not using Google’s Search by Image you ought to be using Tin Eye – the others are long shots.
Search engines are irrefutably useful for finding misuses of a photographer’s images but they can’t always find them and if you have a particularly successful image, it can be severely time consuming. One of the most effective and powerful anti-plagiarism approaches is to be a part of the photography community as a whole. The case of plagiarism that I experienced was in fact flagged up to me by a number of other photographers and it is these acts of kindness that prove invaluable.
Most photographers – or any worth their salt – will detest image theft and plagiarism. Therefore, in the interest of attacking this evil and in the hope that others will do the same for them, they will often alert you to the offender. In fact, there are community driven websites dedicated to this very task, namely Photo Stealers and I implore you to support them. Websites like Reddit (more specifically /r/photography), TalkPhotography, Petapixel and even photo sharing websites like 500px and Flickr all have communities within them. Being an active part of these communities will not only offer myriad benefits, it will act as a kind of anti-plagiarism device in and of itself. Furthermore, the communities tend to band together and plague the offender in to submission as they did in my case and as has very often been the case with Reddit and Petapixel. Blogger David Hobby of Strobist fame will testify to this fact as his wealth of fans rallied to his defence after finding an unauthorized use of his image.
If your methods of prevention fail and your methods for detection succeed, it is time for reaction.
5.1 Cease & Desist
Although you are not legally obliged to send this email or letter, it ought to be most people’s first port of call. It is simply making contact with the person responsible for the plagiarism or theft which asks for them to stop using the image in ways that breach the photographer’s copyright. Alternatively, if the offender is not using the image for financial gain, you could request appropriate credit and/or the image be hotlinked to your portfolio.
A lot of photographers appear to shy away from this in my experience. This route is most useful when a publication or news outlet uses one of your images without permission. These cases can range from minor settlements between parties in private, through to photojournalists suing media agencies in court cases that last years. The reticence of photographers to take this action stems from a lack of understanding of how the media and freelance photographers interact.
Sports photography is the most useful case to illuminate why this action is often the quickest and cleanest. The father of a close friend of mine has run his own sports photography business for many years and through this friend I learnt exactly how the process works. The photographer will attend a sporting event as press and will take a number of pictures. These pictures will be quickly edited and distributed to news agencies and they will either use them or discard them. The photographer (or someone working for him) will then sift through all the publications looking for any photographs that the photographer in question took, noting down any he or she finds and what size and where they were used. Then, using the photography pricing guides (like this one) the photographer sends an invoice to the publication for the usage and they pay the fee. So if a newspaper, news outlet or similar print your image (or use it digitally) without your consent, sending an invoice is by no means alien to them.
Not only do I suggest this method as an alternative to legal action in theory, I have experience carrying it out in practice. I once sold an image of the UK riots to a broadsheet here in England and they printed it and used it digitally. They credited me and deposited the correct amount of money for the image’s usage in to my bank account. Several months later the same broadsheet used another image of mine (presumably found on Flickr as that’s where I get approached the most by media) without asking my permission first. I spoke to the son of the sports photographer about it and he explained to me everything I eluded to in the above paragraph and told me to invoice them. I invoiced them for the usage and they promptly paid the fee without question. I need not highlight the merit of this particular course of action any further than that.
5.3 DMCA Takedown Notice and Legal Action
This subsection marks the beginning of the more legal side to things, of which I cannot profess to have any knowledge of in a professional capacity. So instead I will quote Sara F. Hawkins’ definition of what the DMCA is and prompt you to click the link below to visit her article on it should you require more information.
First, let’s define what a DMCA is. DMCA is actually short for Digital Millennium Copyright Act and it is a group of laws that protect copyrighted content on digital mediums. Signed into law in 1998, the DMCA has been the go-to source for many of the copyright infringement issues arising due to the proliferation of digital media. There are many aspects of the law, but the one most people are familiar with is the DMCA Takedown Notice.
The next step should the above three methods either not prove fruitful, or need to be skipped in a more serious case, I suggest seeking proper legal assistance in order to file a lawsuit.
6. Further Reading
- Legal definition of plagiarism for reference and angrily quoting at people.
- Advice for all creatives pertaining to managing copyright, trademarks and intellectual property.
- The ‘wall of shame’ for theft and plagiarism in the photography world. Website ‘Photo Stealers’.
- A video of advice for if you have found that someone has stolen your image.
- An article on Petapixel entitled ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal: There’s a Plagiarism Epidemic in the Photography Industry.
- Plagiarism by two big names in photography.
If I have missed any details you deem important or helpful, misinformed in an area or am inaccurate or require more depth for lucidity’s sake, please feel free to comment on this article or contact me directly. Any additions made to this article on the advice or submission of a reader will be properly accredited (as it would be unprecedented levels of irony not to) and the author thanked. I will keep this article updated where possible.
About The Author
Robert K. Baggs is a 26 year old photographer from Hertfordshire, England, he is currently a research fellow at Hertfordshire University studying for his MA in philosophy. Robert also runs Acufocal, a site dedicated to fashion, style and photography with a particular interest in portraiture and fashion photography. You can also follow Robert on 500px, twitter. This article was originally published here and shared with permission.