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Why You Need to Stop Worrying About People Stealing Your Images

Image courtesy of David Goehring

I have a feeling this post may cause some controversy, because I know from experience that a lot artists spend a lot of time trying to prevent people from ‘stealing’ their images.

My view is that it’s largely a waste of time and effort, and some of the preventative measures can actually be detrimental to you as an artist.

So how can you prevent people from stealing your images online?

The simple truth is, you can’t. There are certain things you can do to try and deter image thieves, but the fact is, if they want to use your images, they will.

When I worked as a web designer, clients used to ask me to disable the right-click context menu on their sites using Javascript, so that people couldn’t download the images from the site.

They have clearly never heard of screenshot browser extensions, or the simple ‘Print screen’ key on every keyboard, which allows you to take a screenshot of the whole page simply by pressing a key.

Disabling the right-click function only serves to annoy regular visitors who want to use it for innocent purposes such as opening links in a new tab.


Another popular deterrent is the infamous watermark, which a lot of artists will stamp over their images in varying degrees of obtrusiveness.


One of my old paintings, sporting an ugly watermark

The idea is that your watermark tells people who the image belongs to, so that they know where to find you in the event that they see your stolen image on some random site.

The other thing about watermarks is that people are less likely to steal an image with a watermark on it simply because they don’t look great.

The problem is those images don’t look great on your site either. Your artwork or photography won’t be nearly as impressive if it has a huge copyright message stamped across it.

I used to use watermarks myself, but I abandoned them in favour of nice looking images.

If you really feel the need to use a watermark, I would suggest a discreet line of text along one edge of your image, simply stating your website URL, and not actually covering the main part of the image.

Sure, someone could crop this out of the image if they want to steal it, but it’s more likely that they won’t bother, and besides, the benefit to you of having great looking images is likely to far outweigh the cost of someone else using your image.

Some artists also make sure that all their web images are really low-resolution and fuzzy, so that they can’t be stolen and reproduced as prints, for example. But again, the cost of having shoddy images on your site far outweighs the cost of someone getting a free print. (And even if you use really large images on your website, they still won’t result in a great print at anything larger than postcard size.)

What does it cost you?

For me, this is what it comes down to. What is the cost to you of someone using your images without your permission?

You could argue that they are benefiting from your images, possibly financially, so that is a loss of potential earnings. But then if they’re stealing your images in the first place, they were never likely to have paid for the privilege anyway.

And weigh this up against the time, stress and money you could spend trying to keep your images secure. Legal fees aren’t cheap if you decide to sue for copyright infringement, with no guarantee that you’ll win, and surely your time could be better spent creating more amazing art.

Big Fat Disclaimer

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m absolutely NOT saying that it’s ok to steal images on the web. Copyright infringement is bad and wrong! If someone is really making a packet by passing your work off as their own then you should probably do something about it.

But if a small-time blogger has used your image in a blog post that hardly anyone is going to see anyway, is it worth your time to send him a cease and desist letter?

I’m just suggesting that you weigh up the costs and benefits of spending so much time and effort trying to protect your copyright, and maybe you’ll find that you’d be a lot better off if you just concentrate on your art, and leave the petty image thieves to their own devices. They’ll be exposed for the frauds they are eventually anyway.

Where do you stand on protecting your images from copyright infringement? Is it something you spend time policing, or are you happy to live and let live?

20 Comments on Why You Need to Stop Worrying About People Stealing Your Images

  1. linda says:

    A very timely topic for me! I’m interested to hear what others think.

    I believe that we can spend time to ensure we are protected to a certain level, such as registering official copyrights. But I think that watermarking and labeling in some way is more for the general public. With new technology and ways of sharing such as Pinterest, I think it’s important to embed a link or name on images, just so people can trace it back to the original source. It’s not about stopping scammers, it’s just being organized and clear in presenting your work.

    Ultimately, those scam artists (funny how we say artists…) they will find a way to beat any system. I don’t think it’s worth spending time on something that might not even happen… And I think it’s correct to assume that those scammers weren’t going to be your potential customers anyway.

    I remember some statistics posted by Kate Harper – Puts the fear into perspective!

  2. kara rane says:

    Hi Dan-
    Stealing images / ideas is always a hot topic among artists. Currently there are plenty of watermark removing techniques so I agree that watermarks are not useful except to annoy viewers.
    As an artist that has dealt with theft, I handle each situation according to the degree of violation as it occurs. I also make every attempt to create art that is not easily copied. I share ideas and images freely, knowing that the good ones will grow and the so-so ones will just be free to go.

  3. Helen Aldous says:

    Totally agree Dan. It’s easy to spend so much time and stress on this and make your work look bad. The stats above on Kate Harpers site are a brilliant way of getting it into perspective. On my new personal site {in the pipeline}I aim to have large bright bold screen filling images, but they still wont be good enough resolution to print from.

    Good to see you like Jeff BTW. One of my favourite albums of all time. Top choice 😉

  4. hi Dan and well said. The fact is that we can’t stop anyone from grabbing and using our stuff online so… I’ve made sure my name/signature(instead of a watermark) is embedded and easy to read in all of my new images online.

    I’m at a point where I encourage people to use my work in wallpapers, calendars, ecards, blog posts, etc… and if anything, it’s brought me more traffic and sales than copyright violations. Embrace the inevitable. 😉

    • Dan Johnson says:

      It’s a good point Marti. Having your images used without permission may well be in your favour if your website address is visible on them. If people like them, they will want to see more, and they’ll know where to go.

  5. Lori says:

    I’m a jewelry artist and we have a similar problem with copycats. I had someone favorite one of my items and sure enough they copied it and put it up for sale on their site. They even used the same description and wording in the title and the same price as mine. The thing is their’s wasn’t the same quality and you could tell that. At that point I decided you can’t spend your time worrying about what other people are going to do. You make the best artwork you can and live your life and your customers will see that you have the best art and will come to you. People who steal or copy aren’t your customers and I don’t believe they are going to steal away your true fans or customers.

    • Dan Johnson says:

      Exactly. Anyone who would buy the cheaper knock-off version probably wouldn’t have bought yours anyway.

      It sucks, but it’s not worth getting upset over.

  6. Daniel Sroka says:

    The value of using watermarks is not just as a deterrent. In this social, sharable, Pinterest-able internet we now have, images very often find themselves in new places. A subtle watermark with your name and URL will ensure that people who see your art out of context will know whose it is, and how to find you.

    • Dan Johnson says:

      I agree. A subtle watermark is probably a good idea. It’s the huge ugly obtrusive watermarks I have a problem with.

  7. Chad says:

    I have never been able to understand this fear of being copied. There is something to be said for someone who has the ability to influence others. Many of the artists I’ve encountered are just short of ideas themselves so are perhaps fearful they will neve get anymore. Additionally, they fill their creative block with fear of their one idea being stolen and they prevents them from creating anymore.

    I’m all for an arts culture where ideas, techniques, and theories are shared. Sharing feels so much better than being possessive and it ultimately leads to be better art.

    • Gwenn says:

      Yes yes yes.

      Artists who are afraid for their intellectual property don’t seem to make the connection that they steal from others regularly as well. Copyright smells a little dishonest to me coming from anyone, but especially from artists–the remixers of culture.

  8. Philip says:

    Not convincing at all. If you spend years honing skills, imagination and technique and your art ends up being ripped off by some multi billion dollars making companies – oh, and yes, this happens all the time – you should be concern and certainly take legal action.

  9. Graeme says:

    Nice article. I agree with you completely.

    But, what do I do about it?

    I simply “Hide” things in my artworks and photography.
    I’ll photoshop in my name some where, some where clever.
    Or web address.

    But usually, I don’t bother.

  10. This is an excellent article and reflects very much how I feel about it. I’ve come across my poems in places where I haven’t given permission for them to be used, but my attitude is that as long as no-one is making money out of my work, if I’m credited then it’s fine, even better if there’s a link to my blog. It’s all free publicity. I was more annoyed when I saw it happen to a poem by someone else that I had published in the poetry journal I edit, I felt it was part of my job as editor to protect my poets’ rights.

  11. Jake Doe says:

    I don’t watermark my images anymore and even told the media (since it’s usually about severe weather landscape photography or Auroras) they can use it whenever they like. If my photos don’t generate more than 5 likes on FB when I post them obviously that tells me they are not that great. I never seen my images turn up in a reverse picture search and it’s to the point that hey if you steal my photos, I would be FLATTERED. I shoot for the memory of the even rather than to profit off an event. If it was not fpr night photography, lightning, and Auroras, I would not even own a camera and still be using my camcorder and cell phone. I will put my name on my Aurora photos as a signature that lets people know that I got to actually see the Aurora personally and that I did not copy someone elses work.

  12. Unfortunately, there seems to be a common belief that it’s OK to use other people’s work. That’s why I always take some action against copiers, and I advise my clients to do the same. A cease-and-desist or a DMCA takedown request costs nothing and takes only a few minutes, but it may cause the recipient to think twice about copying in the future.

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