So you have just taken this beautiful photograph. You are so proud of it. Perhaps you even spent 2 hours waiting for just the right light to arrive. Then you snapped it at just the right moment. And now you are ready to share its beauty with the world.
But then you start to worry. You wonder if you put your great photo out there for people to admire on the internet if someone is going to copy your image and use it for commercial purposes without rightfully paying you for it. So should you really be concerned?
Krabi Province, Thailand
My short answer is “No”. Is it possible though that your photo might be copied from your web site and turn up on another web site somewhere else without your permission? Maybe. And, if this does happen, should you get really upset about it? The answer is again no, it’s not worth the stress.
You might be surprised with what I just said, but the reality is that people that are in the business of using photos for commercial purposes are also in the business of paying for them.
Businesses, advertisers, publishers, book companies, newspapers, magazines, professional photo-buyers, art directors, and photo editors all have budgets to pay to license usage rights for the photos they need. They also have reputations to uphold in the business and are not about to use a photo without paying for it. So you can put your worries at ease.
Nan Province, Thailand
Now let me ask a more important question. Is there a reasonable chance a low-res photo you put on a web site is going to be copied without your permission and used for a major advertising campaign and/or printed on a billboard somewhere? The answer categorically is no. Plus, photos published on web sites are normally at a resolution which is too small for most printed usage types anyway. So your beautiful photos on your web site are safe. If your photo contains a person you are even safer because companies aren’t going to use a photo of a person for commercial purposes without having a model release signed by the person in the photo.
But let me stop here for a second. If you put a beautiful photo on your web site there is a chance that someone might copy it, save it, forward it, publish it, or even print it out at a small size and display it somewhere for personal use. But given the vast number of people using the internet today, together with the tremendous amount of digital media out there on the Internet, it is hard to prevent something like this from ever happening.
Is it wrong though if it does happen? Yes, it is wrong. You shot the photo, it is your copyright material, you own it, and no one has the legal right to publish your photo in either digital or print form without your permission. But the only way to ever fully stop this from happening is never to share your photos with anyone via the internet ever again.
Phuket Province, Thailand
If you do that though then I assure you the opportunity loss of people not being able to admire your work, not being able to buy photos from your web site, and not being able to see your work online in order to hire you to be their photographer is a far greater loss than someone printing out a low-res photo from your web site and sticking it on the cover of their notebook.
But if someone does publish your photo on their personal web site, in an online gallery, or something of the like without your permission then they probably aren’t in a position to pay a lot of money for a photo in the first place. And the purpose they would most likely be using your photo for wouldn’t have a lot of commercial value either. This means you aren’t missing out on a big payout even if you were able to charge the person for their use of your photo. So rest easy.
So what can you do to at least try to prevent this from happening in the first place?
1 – The easiest thing to do is to put a digital watermark on your photos before you put them online by placing your name over the image. This way, if the photo is published online, at least everybody will know the source of the photo was you. And if someone happens to see your photo on another web site and wants to buy a copy of it without the watermark on it then they will most likely contact you. So consider it free advertising if someone puts one of your photos online somewhere with your watermark on it.
The downside to putting watermarks on images though is that they can destroy some of the beauty of the image. So you have to weigh the pros and cons of doing this and I would spend some time to develop a watermark that does not overly hurt the aesthetic quality of the image. Perhaps lay it over the image with only a 25%-40% opacity to cause less disruption to the image. In my case, sometimes I watermark my images and sometimes I don’t.
2 – You can also post images in a very low-res quality to begin with so that it makes it more difficult to make much use of your photo elsewhere. It is a tricky issue though because you do want to put a high enough quality image out there for people to be able see how beautiful your work is. So you need to find a suitable middle ground. I found that usually if you post an image at a resolution of no more than 650 pixels on the longest side it is still high enough resolution for people to enjoy the image, but also low enough resolution that people won’t be able to make much use of it commercially.
Koh Samui, Thailand
What kind of action can and should you take though if you found someone published your image without your permission?
1 – If you see your image on a web site being used without your permission there is a possibility that the person using the image did not know it is your copyrighted work to begin with. So bear that in mind before you start to get upset about it.
First, I would assess if the image is really being used in a commercial way. As I said, in most cases it won’t be any serious commercial use if even any at all. Most likely it will be being used on a small and/or personal web site.
So if the person is only using it for personal use I would think about what action you want them to take at this point. Would you like them to pay you for use of the image, remove the image from their web site, give you credit on their web site for the image, or a combination of the above?
Generally most people have good intentions. So if you write them a polite email and explain to them that you are the owner of the photo, that they are using it without your permission, and then instruct them what you want them to do, then you probably have a reasonably good chance for success.
I think it will be fairly easy to achieve if you ask them to kindly remove the image from their site or to keep the image online, but at least credit you on the photo and perhaps add a link to your own web site as well. If you want them to pay you though then they might be less willing to cooperate since they hadn’t expected to pay for use of the photo in the first place. So perhaps they will choose to just remove your image from their web site and look for an alternate photo to replace it with instead.
2 – If you see your image being used in a commercial way though without your permission then you can write to the company (again, in a polite way is always best), explain the situation, and tell them you would like to discuss payment for commercial use of your photo.
If however you watermarked your photo in the first place then there is almost no chance of this happening. But as I said in the beginning, most people in business aren’t going to surf the internet looking for photos they can wrongfully use without the owner’s permission. It just isn’t worth the risk for them.
But if this really does happen, you want to be paid, and the person who has infringed upon use of your photo is unwilling to cooperate, then you have to think about what you are going to do next.
The truth is in most cases it won’t be worth either the time or the cost to pursue them legally and you are best to just chalk it up as the cost of being a great photographer. Of course you can take legal action if you want, but that will be at your own effort and expense and in the end you will most likely be the one to lose. One simple thing you can do is to notify their web hosting company and the web host might help to get the wrongfully used image removed from their web site.
Khamphaeng Phet Province, Thailand
So what do I do personally? From time to time I have found my images being used on web sites without my permission. And to be honest, I have done nothing about it. I haven’t even bothered to contact the web site owners. In one case it was a foreign newspaper I found using one of my images and I just decided to forget about it knowing that the editorial value of publishing my photo as part of an online newspaper article is small and not worth the effort to try to get paid for it. A photo credit would have been nice, but I can also live without it. So I usually take it in stride when it happens, but that’s just me.
One thing you can do though to find out if people have used any of your images illegally (and which is free) is to use Google Images or TinEye to upload a low-res copy of an image of yours and search for any web sites where the image may have been published. At least this would help to put your mind at ease knowing if any of your images have been used online without your permission or not.
So in short, watermark your images if that puts you more at ease, don’t worry unnecessarily, search for your images online from time to time, and do publish your images online as much as possible. Because people being able to see the beauty of your work online will certainly lead you to bigger and more exciting things in photography in the future.
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