Disbelief, anger, a sick feeling in your gut. There are a lot of reactions to finding someone has stolen your photographs online. Unfortunately, it is becoming a very common occurrence for many photographers, both amateur and professional. While no one broke into your home or office, it is still theft and a violation of trust as well as a violation of the law. Thankfully, there are things you can do besides drown your sorrows in the alcoholic beverage of your choice.
Step One: Verify it is Your Photo
You must absolutely take this step first when you find a photograph that looks like yours online. There are many very similar images online now as the popularity of photography continues to rise. Be absolutely sure the photo you found is the photo you made before proceeding. Doing more than a cursory glance and jumping to conclusions is required, as found out by Marisol Ortiz Elfeldt, a reporter who forgot the first rule is to check your facts, when she publicly accused a contest winner of theft. In that case, it truly wasn’t hard to see the images were slightly different when viewed with a cool head instead of through the lens of anger.
If you are satisfied beyond a shadow of a doubt it is your image then check your records to make sure there isn’t a licensed sale or a license grant you have forgotten about. Remember many contests take sub-licensing, resale, and transfer rights when you enter a photograph.
Step 2: Contact the Website
A polite (but to the point) email informing the website that the photo is not in the public domain or otherwise free to use is often all that is required for a website to remove a photo. If you need help finding contact information remember sites such as whois.com let you research domain owners. Remember to remain calm in your first email at the very least. If you challenge the website owner/publisher personally they will be less likely to do what is right simply because of the way you demanded it.
Unfortunately, some websites will still respond negatively to your request (or just not reply at all). Some will take down the photo but send a threatening reply. Others will try to publicly shame you for wanting to defend your property. Don’t respond to negative emails or public attacks without taking a moment to compose yourself and being very sure of your facts.
Step 3: Contact the Webhost
If the website operator is being difficult you still have a course of action to “go over their heads” as it were. Webhosts (doing business in the US at least) have to act on legitimate claims under the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act). Fill out the DMCA form for the webhost and the stolen content is usually removed very quickly.
Step Four: Legal Help
If you wish to receive payment for the unauthorized use of your photos in addition to, or instead of, them being removed from the unauthorized site you will most likely need a lawyer. While you can submit a bill, it is highly unlikely to be paid without some legal scare tactics. Sometimes a letter from a lawyer is enough, but often to actually collect any money you have to sue. If you registered your photos with the copyright office you can sue for damages but if you did not register you will be limited to actual losses.
If you do consult a lawyer, be sure to find one very familiar with intellectual property and copyright law.
Step 5: Preventing Future Theft
There is no way to guarantee an image will not be stolen but there are steps you can take to mitigate the risk of theft.
Use watermarks on your photos. They are a simple way to deter casual photo thieves and can help identify a photo as yours in cases where the thief doesn’t bother to remove the watermark. Also, consider an image tracking service such as PicScout that monitors the web for you for your images. Some services also arrange legal action and collect payments when violations are found. Upload low resolution images. Low resolution and small images make your photos less attractive to photo thieves.