Protecting Your Images in the Digital Age

This is a scan of the original 35mm negative of the scene in question, shot in the summer of 1997.This is a scan of the original 35mm negative of the scene in question, shot in the summer of 1997.
This is a scan of the original 35mm negative of the scene in question, shot in the summer of 1997.

How do you protect your images, which are your intellectual property, in the age of the internet? The short answer is that the only way to keep your images from being used without your permission is to keep them off the internet. A good rule of thumb for would-be image grabbers is that if you can see it, you can steal it.

There are various schemes for protecting your images, but none of them are very effective. They include:

  • Using text in the image area that says ©Copyright 2011 John Jacob Jingleheimer, All Rights Reserved. This has the decided disadvantage of ruining the look of images on your web site. It’s also not as hard as you think to use the rubber stamp tool in Photoshop to remove it.

    Some years later I decided to play around with its colors in Photoshop. I don't recall which filter or gradient created this effect, but it doesn't change the story.
    Some years later I decided to play around with its colors in Photoshop. I don't recall which filter or gradient created this effect, but it doesn't change the story.
  • Embedding a watermark in Photoshop. These too are fairly easy to work around, using filters for example.
  • Including html code that causes the image to be blocked or covered by a message (like “Click here to buy this image”). All you have to do is take a screen shot and open it in an image editor to steal those.
  • Making your images so small or so compressed that no one could use them. The trouble with this is that if they look bad to would-be image thieves, they look bad to everyone, and no one wants to show off bad-looking images.
This is the page where I found this image tonight. The text indicates she found the image on someone else's blog.
This is the page where I found this image tonight. The text indicates she found the image on someone else's blog.

I meant to talk about this sooner, and I always explain the situation to my students because they always ask. The reason I am addressing it now is that I ran across an amusing example of one of my photos migrating through the web. Shot in 1997 in downtown Norman, Oklahoma, this black-and-white image was made with an Olympus rangefinder pocket camera, and depicts one of the funniest pieces of graffiti I have ever scene: “Your Plan is Puny” on a wall in spray paint.

I was thinking about it today for some reason, so I entered “You Plan is Puny” into a search engine. I found that I wasn’t the only one who had photographed it, and I also found that my image of the puny sign, one which I had colorized in Photoshop, appeared in the search. The first hit was a blog entry (it has since disappeared) explaining she found the image from another blogger. The other blogger didn’t say where they found it, but both were members of Blogspot.com, which is what I used years ago before migrating to WordPress, and she might have found it there.

In any case, this example points out that anything you produce and share on the web becomes vulnerable to intellectual property theft the moment you upload it. The real trick is not minding that it gets pinched. In fact, unless the perpetrator is claiming to have created it or is making money from it, it’s almost a weird form of flattery.

Also consider this and let it blow your mind: what if taking this picture in the first place constituted theft of the intellectual property of the graffiti artist?

On one occasion just a week or two later, I observed that the graffiti had been modified to say, "Your planet is puny," followed a week after that with "Your planetarium is puny."
On one occasion just a week or two later, I observed that the graffiti had been modified to say, "Your planet is puny," followed a week after that with "Your planetarium is puny."
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1 Comment

  1. I have a copy-and-paste response for Help Forums, when people ask “How can I keep others from downloading my images.”

    Basically, it says what you said here. If you can see something on the internet, you can save it. There is nothing that anyone can do about that.

    Depending on the browser one uses, you don’t even need a screenshot. For example, Internet Explorer caches the image files exactly as they were downloaded for viewing. The image is already saved on your computer if you’re viewing it.

    As you said, learning to live with it is the only way to go. Anymore, the only times I’m bugged is when my pictures show up in advertisements. Fortunately, many companies respond quickly to DMCA take-down notices. 🙂

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