[Updated on 5 January, 2011, to include information about how to find and contact copyright violators, and how to send notification to Google, Amazon, and Flickr.]
If you’re a good photographer, and you show your pictures online, then – sooner or later – your photos will probably get grabbed and misused by copyright violators. It happens to me often.
Some people recommend that you place a watermark on your photos, to prevent this. But, at what cost? It’s a “damned if you do; damned if you don’t” situation. Relatively unobtrusive watermarks are distracting, and they perhaps somewhat negatively impact the viewing experience, while still being easy to remove, and while not deterring potential picture thieves. Larger and more obnoxious watermarks probably deter most picture thieves, but they quite negatively impact the viewing pleasure, worsening people’s “Wow!” experience. They can even obscure the picture, making it difficult to see, and decreasing sales. Are you going to base your picture displaying policy on deterring wrongdoers, at the expense of those who pay, and those you want to see your pictures well?
I won’t try to influence your decision. There is no right answer for all. What’s right for one business model and one person’s priorities may be wrong for another’s.
For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume your photos are at risk of copyright infringement. Sometimes it’s an innocent elementary school kid who doesn’t know about copyrights, and you’ll handle it kindly. Sometimes it’s someone in a country which is not bound by any treaties to honor your copyright, and you may have little recourse. Other times, it’s someone who should know better, or even a corporation hoping to profit from your picture while cutting you out of the deal.
It might seem like copyright infringers can act with impunity. If they put your pictures up on their websites, how will you ever find them, among the quarter-billion websites online? And even if you do find them, what can you do if you ask them to take down your pictures or pay for them, and they say “no”?
I’ve always gone after copyright violators, as much as I can. My circle of friends have, too. You often have more methods available to you than you might think. This post is a brief overview of some of the things we’ve learned, in dealing with online copyright infringement. Learning how to handle copyright infringement is an ongoing process, and I will come back and add more to this post, as new discoveries are made.
To begin with, you should be registering your copyright for your pictures. If you’re in the U.S.A., you can do that here . (It’s best to file electronically; it’s quicker, less expensive, and easier. Also, some people are reporting problems with sending in CDs and DVDs, such as this.) It is true that you own your copyright for any works you create, from the instant you make them, without needing to file anything; nonetheless, you are better entitled, and have a stronger position – should it come to a court case – if your work is registered. Hopefully, you will be able to handle it through other means, long before it escalates into a court case.
How do you find your pictures being displayed without your permission, on unknown websites?
First, there’s TinEye. While TinEye doesn’t comprehensively cover all pictures on the internet, its “reverse image search” capability is still a powerful tool for finding your pictures where they don’t belong, online. TinEye basically makes it so that people posting your pictures, without your permission, can’t hide from you. UPDATE: Google now also offers the ability to search by image.
Second, you can add a Digimarc watermark to your picture. This is a paid service, which embeds a digital signature into your picture files – which is not visible when you look at them – which allows you to track your pictures on the internet. This, too, makes it so that people posting your pictures, without your permission, can’t hide from you.
Third, if you host your pictures on your own site, there are a number of good web analytic tools available, such as Google Analytics, StatCounter , and Mint. Your web host probably provides analytic tools in your control panel, too. These tools can give you some kinds of information about visitors to your website, such as letting you know the search terms used to find your website, and letting you know the referrer to your website. If you go through the information that these sites make available, looking for things which seem unusual, you can often pick up good clues, which can lead you back to websites where your pictures are being used without permission.
Fourth, if you host pictures with a third party picture host, some of them, such as Flickr, offer referrer data in a convenient format. Again, going through this information can often provide leads back to copyright infringers.
Last (and oddly), sometimes you can find copyright infringers by using search engines, looking for your name. For example, I might do a Google search for some term such as “Mike Spinak posted a picture”. Try this kind of search; you might be surprised what you find!
OK, let’s suppose you’ve found one of your pictures posted online, without your permission. The first thing you want to do is take screen captures documenting the copyright violation, in case you need to refer to the violation after content has been removed, or perhaps need to eventually prove the violation in court. With Apple Macintosh computers, you do this by simultaneously pressing the keys: command+shift+4. With a computer running Microsoft Windows, press the Print Screen key to capture a shot of the entire screen and save it to the clipboard.
Now let’s suppose that the website posting your picture doesn’t tell you who owns the website, nor how to contact the owner. How do you find and contact this person?
You can do a WHOIS search, to get the information you need. Most registrars, like Godaddy, offer WHOIS searches for those registered through them, like this. There are also many WHOIS search options which search all domain registrars, such as this. Through doing a WHOIS search, you will find out the name of the person who owns the domain name, and will find out their email addresss – unless they did a private domain registration. So what do you do, if their domain registration is private? No problem. If it’s private, then the WHOIS search will tell you the registrar, such as Godaddy. You just contact Godaddy (or whoever the registrar may be), and send your email to them. It’s their job to pass it on to their private domain registrants. Your email will still get to the person who owns the domain, regardless.
Now, let’s further suppose that you’ve contacted the person infringing upon your copyright and requested to be paid or have your picture removed; and let’s suppose that the infringer replied uncooperatively. What can you do about this? What effective options do you have which are faster and less expensive than taking the violator to court?
First, you should know that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is on your side. Most web hosts are very respectful of the DMCA. What does this mean? A couple things.
• If you contact a web host, and tell that one of the host’s accounts is violating your copyright, most web hosts will promptly investigate your claim. If they find your claim valid, they will either remove the offending picture, or they will take the offending website down. Those that are within the United States, or in countries that have treaties with the United States to honor U.S. copyrights, have to remove pirated material when notified, or be held liable.
To learn how to send a DMCA Takedown Notice, click here.
• Many web hosts also charge the violator a fee for the web host’s investigation. This means that, even if the violator avoids a takedown, by voluntarily removing the content, they might still have to incur a financial hit, creating a dis-incentive from future violations.
Not all copyright infringement cases involve small websites with web hosts. Sometimes, it’s a large enough corporation to have its own web hosting. What can you do, then?
The second thing you should know is that many of these businesses have to deal with other businesses which are more respectful about copyright, and you can sometimes gain satisfaction through the businesses they deal with.
To send Flickr (or YAHOO!, which owns Flickr) a notice of copyright violation, go here.
And then there’s Amazon. What company doesn’t have to deal with Amazon, these days? Amazon carries many companies’ products. Amazon also stores many companies’ products, and ships them. Amazon provides various types of content to other companies. Amazon tries to have a finger in every pie, and to some extent, they succeed. Amazon doesn’t like when “associate” companies violate copyright. In section 5 of Amazon’s contract with their associates, it says the following:
• using the Content, your site, and the materials on or within your site in a manner that does not infringe, violate, or misappropriate any of our rights or those of any other person or entity (including copyrights, trademarks, privacy, publicity or other intellectual property or proprietary rights);
If an “associate company” of Amazon infringes your copyright, you can complain to Amazon, and Amazon can wield a big enough hammer to get something done about it.
To send Amazon a notice of copyright violation, write a letter to Copyright Agent at Amazon.com Legal Department. All the information you need is at the bottom of this page.
Last, and best of all, there’s Google. At the beginning of December, Google vowed to do a better job weeding out copyright violators on the internet. What does this mean? 1) Google may de-list copyright violators from having their links displayed by Google’s search engine; 2) Google may ban copyright violators from advertising their website through Google; 3) Google may also ban copyright violators from using the Google AdSense program (thereby killing the website’s revenue stream, in many cases); 4) Since Google owns Blogger, they honor DMCA takedown requests for Blogger blogs violating your copyright; 5) Since Google owns Youtube, they honor DMCA takedown requests for Youtube videos violating your copyright. Google is promising to gets its response speed to copyright violation complaints to within 24 hours.
To send Google a notice of copyright violation, go here.
A lot of businesses will add your name to a list of people whose pictures they can’t use, when they remove your pictures from their website – ensuring that you won’t have this problem from them, again. Many companies, fearing the consequences from Google, Amazon, Flickr, and others, will straighten up, after getting a warning or a taste of the consequences. Similarly, small businesses soon learn that copyright violations will cost them investigation fees from their web hosts, lost time with their sites taken down, or worse.
The situation may not be perfect, but you do have available ways to find copyright violators, and ways to effectively gain their compliance. One person, alone, may not be able to stem the flood of copyright violation across the internet, but it takes fewer people than you may think, to make the critical mass capable of eliminating the bulk of online copyright infringement. You can make a real difference, not just for yourself, but for many.
Please join me and fight back against infringements of your copyright, and help bring this problem under control.
Go get ‘em!
Wandering Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans ssp. vagrans), Mount Diablo, California
All pictures and text are © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. All pictures shown are available for purchase as fine art prints, and are available for licensed stock use. Telephone: (831) 325-6917.