Photographer’s Corner: Protecting your images on the world wide web

October 14th, 2013

Sharing your work online is pretty much a given for any serious photographer these days. Getting your work up and out there to the masses naturally allows you to reach a far wider audience than you could possibly dream of via traditional methods alone.

Despite the time, care, and effort that goes into crafting your images and protecting them as best you can, once the images are released online they are in many ways out of your hands and unleashed upon the whole spectrum of morality found on the Web.

There are obvious benefits to showcasing your work online in a variety of different places (some would say the more the merrier), not the least of which are the opportunity to learn from your peers and significantly grow the potential market for your work.

Social media sites, for example, have become a mainstay for online interaction between groups with shared interests, photographers very much included. Not only do we get to see a steady stream of excellent work we can learn from, but the benefit of sharing your own work is that your images have a mass appeal far beyond the photography community. With the potential for content to go viral, it’s perfectly possible for your latest prize image to reach all corners of the globe with a few clicks of a button.

Seeing all these stunning images flying through their news feeds probably makes your friends think you do nothing but run around with camera in hand, having fun. Part of the time, of course, it’s true. But as anyone running a photography business knows, shooting the images is only a small piece of the pie. Once you’ve shot that cover-winning image, you need to think about marketing it, and getting it out to the online masses is one of the most effective ways of doing this. Once it’s online, however, there will always be the chance that some dishonest soul is going to try to take it without your consent, possibly even for profit.

So how do you give your images their best fighting chance of remaining your images once they are online?

The first step is to use image management software before uploading. This involves tagging your images with appropriate metadata such as copyright, author, website URL, and contact details. A specific copyright notice that the images are unauthorized for use without licensing is also advisable so that anyone who downloads it knows that a) it is not free to use and b) they know where to find you if they want to see more.

As thorough as you may be at entering this data, though, many photo-hosting sites strip this from images during the upload process, making the efforts to protect the work before uploading fruitless. Should the downloader have honest intentions and want to follow up with you to make a purchase, they will find it hard to do so if the embedded metadata has been removed from the file and they are unable to find any other reference to the owner.

For UK photographers in particular, this is a poignant topic in light of the new UK copyright law regarding orphan works, which effectively serves to strip photographers of the standard copyright protection traditionally afforded to their work (“I created this. Therefore it is rightly mine.”) This proposal only made it into law after several previous attempts were protested and blocked by photographers rising up in outrage at the attempts to seemingly take their hard-earned images for free — and profit from them. The new law states that if a work is found online and the author is not apparent, a ‘diligent search’ must be performed to track down the rightful owner. If the owner of the image cannot be located after this search and if the image hasn’t specifically been registered, the work can be considered an orphan work available for free use for almost any purpose without the owner’s knowledge or approval.

With the potential for images to be separated from the embedded metadata (including copyright) so easily, a ‘diligent search’ may not actually turn up a whole lot, or even be possible. So for maximum security (as well as other benefits such as reinforcing your brand and letting people know where to find your work), it is highly recommended to include a watermark on any images you share on art communities and social media networks.

Watermarking your images can prove to be a controversial topic among photographers, with views ranging from those who believe it ruins the image, to those who wouldn’t dream of posting an image without one. Whatever your stance, there’s no denying that a stylish watermark consisting of your logo and website URL can benefit you in several ways – it helps to reinforce your brand, deters image theft, drives more traffic to your website, and is a visual way to determine ownership should the image ever be found out of context.

For those who prefer to upload their images watermark-free there is a much higher chance that under the new copyright law, the image may legitimately end up as an orphan work because any visual identifier of ownership will not exist.  Watermark-free images – regardless of how extensively the metadata has been filled out – unfortunately have very little to stand on in terms of being identified beyond the instances in which a photographer, acquaintance, friend, or customer recognizes the image and informs you. This is another great reason (beyond the marketing benefits and feedback) to be active in online communities.

As photographers and artists we are all in the same boat regarding the laws protecting our images, and this tends to be a close community that looks out for one another. Any photographer who has experienced image theft knows it’s no fun and wouldn’t wish it on any of their peers, so the more watchful eyes out there aware of your work, the better.

There are certainly steps you can take yourself to prevent your work from becoming orphaned; however, this involves registering every single image you upload online with a variety of different licensing bodies, which is a lot of additional work for no immediate return.

Should you decide to forgo this route there are technologies available to help with reverse searching images based on their visual content (such as Google image search and TinEye), but you should never expect that these will find all instances of an image’s use, especially when you consider that even small modifications may cause them not to be returned in search results.

The places you choose to share your images are also an important factor in their overall security. When you upload to larger online communities you are potentially reaching a far wider audience, but you also open yourself up to a wider range of would-be thieves. Since the security options are generally out of your hands for art communities, the protection of your images is at the mercy of the hosting site – so uploading your images at a lower resolution with a watermark in place is certainly recommended. Not only does this ensure that high quality prints cannot easily be made from the files, but it also helps to reinforce your brand and direct traffic to your website, where you tend to have greater control and customization over the security options. In this respect you should choose carefully, so as to ensure that where your images are showcased at their best, they are also at their most secure.

My personal choice of website host, Zenfolio, gives me peace of mind in this area. With a robust range of image protection options such as right-click saving being disabled by default, powerful access-control options, and the ability to watermark my images, it’s reassuring to know they are protected. Zenfolio provides an online backup to store my high-res files, and each image uploaded also generates several smaller Web-sized images that can be watermarked and thus ready for sharing on other sites. It’s reassuring to know that my website not only helps keep images protected on the website itself but also provides the necessary tools to help keep them safe elsewhere, too.

An established landscape photographer and UK-based Zenfolio customer support team member, Adam Edwards’ devotion and passion for scenic photography around the world began at an early age. As soon as he took hold of a DSLR, he began trading pillow time for early mornings on the beach learning his craft. Take a look at what he’s captured throughout his unique journey across the globe so far: