Fighting Back Against Online Copyright Violators

[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.

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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?

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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.

 

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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?

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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.

Any mashup site must rely heavily on an API from another company, for the content it needs. The mashups pay other sites to feed them content. These sites that the mashups pay for content are more respectful of copyright, and may suspend or cease the delivery of the content vital to the mashup’s business, if the mashup is violating copyrights. For example,  Flickr licenses its API to many mashups; it’s a large part of Flickr’s business model. Some Flickr members mark some of their photos with certain creative commons usage licenses which allow those pictures to be used by corporations for free; Flickr licenses it’s API to many corporations, such as mashups, making these creative commons pictures conveniently available for the corporations to use. However, if a mashup (or any other corporation licensing Flickr’s API) misuses the Flickr API, by using the pictures marked with all copyrights reserved, then Flickr can suspend providing their API, for violating Flickr’s API terms of use. The mashup will be greatly harmed if Flickr cuts off the API the mashup relies upon for its business. You can complain to Flickr when any company licensing their API infringes on your copyrighted picture hosted on Flickr, and Flickr will warn them, and either get them to take down the copyrighted picture, or – ultimately – Flickr will suspend or cease licensing their API. In many cases of copyright infringement, complaints to Flickr, or even threats that you may complain to Flickr, can be very effective in gaining compliance from the infringers.

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.

 

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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.

  • Larry Spinak - Another method is to use the power of the internet and social media to shame the infringer into playing ball. This doesn’t always work, but an extreme example would be the entire cooks source scandal. I had some trouble finding one good link that sums it up, but this is a good place to start (at the end): http://consumerist.com/2010/11/magazine-that-stole-writers-story-likely-shutting-down-blames-author.html

    With hope this may at least make some infringers think twice before appropriating an artist’s work.ReplyCancel

  • Sandra Sentieiro - Excelent and very useful article Mike, thank you. Me myself I never noticed infringments, but never really looked it up properly anyway, you gave me the tools to do it now, going to check it up. Thank youReplyCancel

  • naturography - You’re welcome, Sandra. I hope it helps.ReplyCancel

  • QT Luong - Those are all good, but how about trying to collect from the infringer, which shouldn’t be that hard if they are large enough and your images are registered.ReplyCancel

  • naturography - QT Luong,

    Definitely try to collect from the infringer!
    Note this sentence:
    “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.”
    It makes clear that you try to collect from the infringer, first. This article is largely about what to do, if attempts at gaining remuneration and cooperation don’t work; but it assumes that you try, first.ReplyCancel

  • Theresa Z. - Your article is so informative and so helpful. Thank you for all of the information. I will subscribe to keep up with updates.ReplyCancel

  • naturography - You’re welcome. Theresa. May this information serve you, well.ReplyCancel

  • Pam McCall - Wow. This is really good info.

    My daughter just had this happen to her locally. She went to the gym in her town and the gym posts on a bulletin the businesses that are online that attend the gym so other members can check them out.

    To her shock there was a local concrete company using her image from a concrete blog she built online for someone else. They had it on their business card and everything!

    good Info here.ReplyCancel

  • naturography - I’m sorry to hear that happened to your daughter. I hope this article helps.ReplyCancel

  • Sue M - As a complete amateur of photography, I have mixed feelings about copyright issues. I obviously don’t think it’s right for someone to use a photo for profit if it is not theirs and they haven’t paid the professional to use it. If you make your living off of photography, I can see why it would be an issue to some extent; on the other hand, it may also bring more people in to view your work if someone sees it and it may lead to people who may actually PAY for your work. As a complete amateur myself, if someone were to ever use a photo of mine that I posted somewhere online, I would be flattered, not upset. Would it be nice to get paid for it? Of course. But overall, it just depends on the situation, in my opinion. There are also sites out there on the internet that ‘say’ they are using ‘safe’ photographs, when they are not. Some people might not know they are ‘stealing’ a photo.ReplyCancel

  • Tim - I’d like to clarify that the role of copyright-holder means you get to set your acceptable terms of use in the form of a licence. They can be whatever you like (“no printing this for display in cinemas, but oil-rigs are OK”), although mostly it boils-down to combinations of display, derive manipulations, propagate, sell and use, in commercial or non-commercial settings. This is where the Creative Commons licenses come into their own – nice and simple to choose.

    FWIW I use CC, non-commercial, no-derivatives, share-alike; the point is, this means that when I detect one of my images Out There somewhere, I have to check against those stated terms.

    The one that really annoys me is that I had a Ts&Cs page on my website saying “no deep-linking, it wastes my bandwidth” and what happens? All these idiot left-Pondian religion-intoxicated teens on MySpace start using me for their backdrops… and you’d think they’d know better when they claim to be “Christian”, wouldn’t you? The irony was not lost on me.

    OTOH the good news is that there *are* still people out there, looking for images, who want to abide by the law and photographers’ wishes – I’ve sold a handful of photos as “opt-out from Creative Commons” over the last few years. (And, ethical person that I am, I’ve even *rejected* a request to use one on a weapons-trading shop site…)ReplyCancel

  • naturography - For the moment, I’m going to just give this link. Later, I’ll come back, and fix up the section in my post, adding material about doing a Google image search. http://www.guidingtech.com/7359/reverse-image-search-guide/ReplyCancel

  • Ellis Vener - “…on the other hand, it may also bring more people in to view your work if someone sees it”

    Dear Sue,

    That is one of the biggest, hoariest, most self-blinding, misleading and silliest myths in the world of photography. No one will ever look for you if you don’t put your name in the photo.

    “As a complete amateur myself, if someone were to ever use a photo of mine that I posted somewhere online, I would be flattered, not upset. ”

    Now let’s substitute the word camera for photo and the word theft for infringement
    for photo. Bo h the camera and the photo are your property. if you really feel that way about things, instead of locking your front door when you leave your house or when you’ve gone to sleep, just leave the door open or leaving your camera in plain view on the front seat of your unlocked car.

    Would you do either of those things?

    If someone steals something from you they have to pay a price if and when they are caught.

    Regardless of whether you think your photos have any value, obviously who ever “appropriated” it from you feels otherwise – or else why would they do it? And you have do idea of how valuable it is to the person(s)/ ad agency/ company that tried to get something for nothing.

    Remember: “amateur” is just the label you have applied to yourself; “professional” is the term used when other people want to use your photography.

    Ellis Vener
    http://www.ellisvener.comReplyCancel

  • Picture Stolen–Watermark–Register Copyright - Anette Mossbacher - [...] in a comment on Mike Spinak’s post in G+ about all this. Mike has also has written a blog post about this. Worth checking out as [...]ReplyCancel