Let me start by saying there’s no way to really protect your photos online. If you post them to a website where they can be viewed then a knowledgeable person can download them. Period. Having said that, there are some things you can do to provide a measure of protection and I’ll discuss those here. And I’ll also ask whether we should even worry about photo piracy. Top photographer/blogger Trey Ratcliff doesn’t think so. Check out his post Five Reasons Why I Don’t Care if My Stuff is Pirated – A New Way of Thinking.
Why Photos Can’t be Protected Online
There are variations on this theme of protection and evasion like showing only a small window on a photo, say 400 x 300 pixels, but still showing detail by allowing the visitor to zoom in and pan around. But a patient pirate can simply pan along the image from left to right, top to bottom, collecting panels as he goes, and then paste them all together in Photoshop.
Protecting Photos Online
Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer and this is not to be construed as legal advice.
Even though there is no foolproof protection for photos online (or offline for that matter) there are some things you can do to achieve some level of security. First, put a copyright notice wherever your images are displayed. Simply asserting copyright is all you need to do to copyright your work. For an extra level of protection you can register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office but that takes too much time and money for most of us. But if you’re so inclined check out this article: Why You Should Copyright Your Software and Online Applications at nolo.com. The article is about software but the same concepts apply to photos.
Next, make sure your photos contain metadata identifying you and including your copyright. Software tools such as Lightroom, Bridge and Aperture all contain features that allow you save your name, website URL and copyright information with each photo. You can add lots more info if you like but if you at least identify yourself and state that your images are copyrighted then you have a legal basis for asserting your copyright.
Protecting Your Photos by Sizing them Correctly
Your best means of protecting your photos on the web is to publish only low-resolution images. A low-res photo of say, 600 x 400 pixels, is generally not worth much money. An exception would be a popular stock photo which might sell hundreds or thousands of copies. If someone does steal your photo and sell it as stock then you should contact the stock agency and demand that it be removed. You can also request that the person who posted it be banned from the stock photo site which they will probably do anyway.
But the real money in photos, to the extent that there is real money in photography today, is in prints. For a good quality print you need a high resolution image. So, if you don’t post high-res images online it’s not likely your photos will be stolen. A high quality print requires at least 200 pixels/inch so a 5” x 7” print would require an image of 1000 x 1400 pixels or more. That’s about medium size in terms of today’s monitors. A high definition monitor is 1920 x 1080 which is the typical resolution for a 24” monitor. If you want people to see as much detail in your photos as possible online this is a good size to use—but now a larger print becomes possible. Larger monitors with higher resolutions are available but they get pricey. A Dell 27” UltraSharp monitor with a resolution of 2560 x 1440 is $600 or $700.
So, if you limit your online image resolution to about 1500 pixels on the longer dimension the best that a photo thief could hope to do is make note cards. Selling fine art prints from an image this size isn’t really an option. (It is possible to upsize photos these days and the results are not bad. But there won’t be any increase in the amount of detail.)
You can watermark your photos and that will slow pirates down. A little. But it’s pretty easy today with the healing brush, the clone tool, and content-aware fill to remove most watermarks. I could do a credible job of cloning out the watermark in my photo below in less than a minute. And, personally, watermarks distract me from fully appreciating an image. I think lots of other people feel the same way. Klaus Farbspiel has developed a technique of creative watermarking that minimizes the distraction while perhaps also making the watermark harder to remove. Or a photo thief might not even notice that a watermark is there. But this is a lot of work because each photo needs special handling.
And, if this argument against watermarking doesn’t convince you check out Trey Ratcliff’s article Why I Don’t Use Watermarks.
What, Me Worry?
I was tempted to grab an image of Alfred E. Neuman to go with this section but then I considered the copyright implications and thought better of it. 🙂
The title of this section is intended to pose the question: why worry about photo theft? Is it really worth your time and trouble? Are your images really that valuable in the first place? For fine art photographers who make a living selling prints the answer is, of course, yes it’s worth worrying about. But if you sell an occasional print at the swap meet or at an arts and crafts fair the answer is “probably not.”
Have you looked at flickr, 500px or any of a number of other photo sharing sites lately? A huge number of really amazing photos are being posted every day, some of them in relatively high resolution. For photo pirates there’s a wealth of material to choose from. Unless your photos can match the best of those it seems unlikely the pirates will be interested. If you’re going to steal you might as well steal quality. It’s no extra work.
But what if you do have some photos that compete with the best of the best? If you’re worried about those photos then keep the online resolution low. But it’s still worth asking whether it’s worth worrying about. The photostream is a fire hose and there’s so much material out there that the chance of your photos getting pirated in a big way are minimal. And don’t forget about art books. If a crook wants high quality material for prints it’s an easy matter to buy (or steal!) a book and make high resolution scans.
Can Sharing Actually Work for Me?
Coming back to Trey Ratcliff again as a sort of proponent of free-range photos have a look at his article Why Photographers Should Stop Complaining About Copyright And Embrace Pinterest. Trey argues that he’s been sharing freely for over five years and it hasn’t hurt him. If anything, it has helped propel him to great heights in the online photography world. His argument is that putting your photos out there is a form of free advertising. Whatever revenue you may lose from piracy will be more than made up for by the recognition and other opportunities that can come from online sharing.
This can be a difficult argument to accept and I have to admit to some reluctance to posting my best photos online at full resolution. But consider this. Scott Bourne, the originator of photofocus and a fine art photographer, has aggressively protected his works with copyright for decades. But I remember hearing Scott on a podcast a while back saying that he had accepted a challenge from Trey Ratcliff to start posting his photos online freely. He was going to try it for a year and see what happened. I don’t know the outcome of Scott’s experiment but if a notable photographer like Bourne, with many valuable copyrighted photos, is willing to consider the argument then maybe it’s an argument worth considering.
Creative Commons Licensing
Still not convinced? Maybe you want to try a Creative Commons license. These licenses allow you to give away some rights while retaining others. For example, you can choose to make images available for personal use while reserving the rights to commercial usage of your works. Again, I’m not a lawyer and I don’t know the legal status of Creative Commons licensing but lots of people are using it these days.
Protecting photos is a lot like security in general. Whether in the physical world or online there is no such thing as complete security. There are only degrees of security and with each increase in the level of security comes increased inconvenience. If you get an alarm system, then you have to arm it when you leave and disarm it when you return. False alarms become a concern. Too many false alarms and your city may charge you for the wasted police effort. Worse, the police could show up at your door with guns drawn while you’re inside.
The same is true about protecting photos. You can spend a lot of time and money trying to protect your photos, searching online for illegal copies, and pursuing the miscreants when abuses are found. Or, you can go with the flow and get a boost from having your work be seen far and wide. Not to mention the nice feeling that comes from sharing your work with others and getting their feedback.