Protecting Images Online


Today’s Question: What’s your strategy to avoid others from re-using your images when they are shared online?

Tim’s Quick Answer: I suppose if I’m being honest, I don’t really have a strategy for “protecting” my images online. Rather, my view is that I’m accepting a certain amount of risk that my photos will be stolen, in the interest of gaining some benefit from showcasing my photography to others.

More Detail: When it comes to sharing photos online, the simple fact is that your photos can be stolen by others. There are some steps you can take to mitigate that risk, but you can’t eliminate the risk completely.

I think it is worth keeping in mind that while it is much easier to steal images in digital form when they are shared online, it was always possible to steal non-digital images in other ways. For example, you could take a photograph of a printed photograph hanging in a gallery.

From the very early days of online sharing many photographs have asked me how to protect their photos. Whenever I would share my answer in a public forum, I was sure to hear from photographers who had a solution. In response, I created a challenge a number of years ago, offering some prize (I don’t recall what that prize was) if anyone could show me a method of truly protecting photos shared online. The only “rule” was that the solution needed to, in my view, preserve a good experience for the viewer.

I had more than a few people point me to images they had shared online that they believed I couldn’t steal, and I proceeded to email them a copy of the image.

There are many ways to steal such an image, from screen capture to navigating to the actual image file by reviewing the source code of the web page, among other options. The point is that if an image is shared online, it can be stolen. So, the focus should instead be on getting a benefit from sharing, while mitigating the risk of theft.

In my view one of the best ways to help mitigate the risk of sharing online is to only share relatively low-resolution images. For example, if you size an image to about 600 pixels on the long side it will still appear at a reasonable size when viewed online, but the image can only really be printed at great quality at a size of around 4×6 inches. Another option is to add a watermark to the image. If the watermark is relatively small and inconspicuous, it can probably be removed relatively easy either by cropping or applying image-cleanup techniques. If the watermark is strong enough to render the image unusable by would-be image thieves, then the experience for those who view your photos is degraded.

The point is that photos shared online can always be stolen in some form. I believe there is value to be gained by sharing your photos online. So, to me the priority is to share photos, with a secondary goal being to take efforts to minimize the impact of someone stealing the photos you share.