Identity Crisis: Protecting Yourself From Image Theft

For a photographer who makes his or her living from licensing copies of our work, it’s frustrating to see just how easily images can be downloaded from websites, shared on social media, or otherwise used without consent or compensation. Even worse, to have one’s personal likeness and photos fraudulently used to create a fake identity. I myself have been the victim of image-theft numerous times; most recently I discovered one of my commercially-available images appearing on over a dozen websites, and even published on a book cover… despite never having sold a single license of that photo.

Image theft has always been a concern, but the proliferation of technology has made it really easy to steal images – as easy as copy and paste. To prove my point: I just stole right off the Getty Images website while writing this article. (No need to call the cops… I pilfered my own work.) Getty has copy protection measures in place, and when you hover your mouse pointer over the image, it pops up a larger version with a big watermark over it. I liked the un-watermarked version of the image better, so I just hit the “Print Screen” button on my computer, and pasted a screen shot into my graphics program (heck… a word processor would work just as well). I cropped to the area I wanted and in maybe 60 seconds total… voila! Free content. Probably would have taken even less time if I used my iPhone.

For a generation raised on Facebook and Twitter, image-theft isn’t a crime in their minds, or done with malicious intent… it’s just a normal part of daily life to share and re-share content. The only way to truly prevent our work from being shared to death is to never post it online at all. But that’s not a realistic option in today’s web-enabled, phone-crazy society. So let’s assume a worst-case scenario: you’ve posted your precious photos on the Internet, and some anonymous person out there has maliciously grabbed a copy and used them without your consent. What can you do about it?


In the United States, you are the copyright owner of a photographic image from the moment you press the shutter button. This is good news, because Federal copyright laws protect our works from image theft as soon as we create them. There are some exceptions to this rule, such as when a “work for hire” arrangement is in effect and a client is paying the photographer for the copyright to images. There should be no legal gray area in that respect, as the photographer and client would have a formal agreement saying as much.

The bad news is that the copyright automatically granted by Federal Law does not come with all the bells and whistles, only the rights to protect our works and control usage. It does not also allow for remuneration – the right to sue for financial compensation. In order to take a copyright violator to court and ask for money in the settlement, the image needs to have also been registered with the Library of Congress. There is a modest fee, and paperwork to be filed along with copies of the image(s) to be copyrighted… well worth the investment.

It is important to note that copyright law also imposes some limits on copyright holders. Fair Use laws exist that allow for our images to be used and reproduced, without consent, when it is for the benefit of the masses. Typically, Fair Use falls under the categories of news reportage, education, and other non-commercial uses. For example, a college professor may legally grab an image off a website, to use in a classroom presentation. But that same image, copied off the website and published in a textbook which is available for sale at the campus book store is now a matter of copyright violation.

A common misconception I encounter frequently, especially among the models I work with, is that being the subject of a photograph somehow grants that person copyright ownership as well. In fact, being the person in an image offers no copyrights whatsoever, unless you have a formal contract stating otherwise. However, you still have legal rights with regards to issues like slander, if the photos are used to intentionally misrepresent you or damage your reputation.


Don’t expect Facebook or Twitter to act on your behalf if someone is stealing your images and posting them there. Their Terms of Service agreements (those long-winded texts we all agree to when creating our user accounts) have verbage in them designed to protect their companies from liability due to copyright or Intellectual property infringements. I would go a step further and suggest that big social media actually encourages image theft and copyright violations, in the guise of content-sharing and re-sharing. Anything that brings users back for more posting, viewing, liking and commenting means millions more hits on their pages, and millions of dollars in revenue from all the blatant advertising they host there.

Where social media sites will work on your behalf is in cases of Identity theft. It’s estimated there are something like 80 million fake user profiles on Facebook alone – many of these used by marketing companies or “bot” software to spam us with advertising, or to boost numbers in a fan base. But some are fraudulently attempting to play themselves off as someone they are not. In the modeling industry, it’s unfortunately rather common that a model’s images are stolen to create a fake online profile. The reasons vary: maybe it’s a fan who is fishing for private images of the model. Or a disgruntled person attempting to slander another. I’ve also seen my model photography stolen and used on erotic Escort websites; I have to imagine some clients are surprised when the girl who shows up at their door is not the beautiful model they picked out online. More ominously, fake profiles have been used to collect real-life contact information from models like phone numbers, addresses, passwords and more.

As with all legal matters: if you have specific concerns, it’s best to seek the advice of professional legal council. There are lawyers specializing in copyright issues, or identify theft. If you do find a fake online profile with your name and identity, please contact the hosting site or service immediately. Most sites like Facebook have a page in their Help system where users can report a fake profile or identify theft.


It is virtually impossible to truly protect your photos once they have been posted online. Using only small, low-resolution versions of images can be a deterrent, but only for those who care about stealing high-quality imagery. Years ago, website coders developed “scripts” to disable viewers from using a right mouse button to copy and paste an image from a website. But that’s easily circumvented by such low-tech techniques as the Print Screen method I mentioned earlier. Digital Rights Management and image-tracking applications have been created in an attempt to allow copyright holders to follow how and where their images are being used online. But again, these methods are fairly easily defeated.

To date, the cheapest and best option for preventing theft still seems to be the inclusion of large watermarks on images. Yes, a semi-transparent logo across a photo does make our work a little ugly. But it also seems to be a turn off to many potential image copiers. And it acts as a big red flag, letting website viewers know that someone out there is using an image without permission. It’s not a fool proof method; In my line of work, many aspiring models just don’t seem to care if they’re posting an image of themselves with the words “Proof Copy” all over it. And watermarks can sometimes be easily removed in Photoshop. I myself have had one of my images stolen, watermark removed, and the modified image then used on print flyers promoting one of Chicago’s largest annual parades. The matter was resolved privately, and I won’t disclose any names.


It used to be nearly impossible to track how and where our photos where being misused. But now, new technologies have made searching images online as simple as a right-click or copy-and-paste. Called “reverse searches,” companies like comb the internet and catalog the millions of images they come across on websites. When a user uploads their image to Tineye, or provides a web link to an image as a reference, the service checks it’s database and spits back any matches it finds. It’s free, it’s a pretty slick technology, and Tineye can see beyond the basics of straight-forward image matching. It can also find examples where text and design elements have been added to the source image, such as in a book cover layout.

Google has gotten into the reverse-search image game as well, and with excellent results. On a PC, all I need to do is right-click on an image I see in my browser, then select “Search Google for this image” from the options that pop up. I have noticed that Google often returns more image matches than Tineye does. But each search engine finds different sets of results, and I use both search tools all the time.

It’s a good idea to for everyone to run an occasional “vanity search” on their own name. You may be surprised what you find online. Not only should you check Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites, but also Google yourself a regular basis. Don’t just stop with your name as you call yourself, try variations like your full legal name, last name (comma) first name, name in quotes, and so on. Different search engines produce different results, so repeat your search on Yahoo, Bing, etc.


Nothing exists in a vacuum. As photographers, if we are not showing our work to the public then we are not advertising ourselves. Truth is, sometimes we just need to put our images out there, hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

Please visit the US Copyright Office website at for more info and registration.

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