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Theft of images. A real problem!

A while back, the inimitable myrmecologist Alex Wild made a post about Google's reverse image search capabilities. Alex captures absolutely stunning macro images of ants and other small things at his blog, Myrmecos. He, like me, has a lot of money and time invested in his photography and equipment. Anyway, Alex's post was on his other blog, Compound Eye, and dealt with the frequency with which people steal images from other people's websites and use them without permission or attribution. It's a good read, and the post generated scored of comments about the issue of using others work without credit. Read it HERE. Sometimes, these thefts are fairly innocuous: people sharing them on Pinterest or on personal blogs. Other times, less savory types are trying to pass other people's work off as their own, or even attempting to sell it.

After reading Alex's post, I meant to delve into The Google's reverse image search, and see what photos of mine might have been pirated. But I am always busy, and never got around to it. Today, Kenn Kaufman made a post on our Ohio Birds Listserv regarding a Common Eider that was recently reported to eBird, with a photo. The eider would be a mega-rarity of high order in Ohio. Kaufman's reverse image search revealed that the photo was in fact taken several years ago by Cleveland birder Jerry Talkington, and was run with one of Jim McCarty's columns in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

This prompted me to finally dip into Google's reverse image search, and the results were depressing. I'm not naïve about this stuff - I know that people right click and snag photos from the web all the time. My images, like most posted to the web, are greatly compressed and I figure they're too small to reproduce on any scale. I've seen my photos appear elsewhere without credit a number of times, and that prompted me to post the notice about use of photographs that appears on the right side of this page. Interestingly, after putting that up a year or so ago, the number of requests to use photos sky-rocketed - I have probably received 40-50 over the last year.

But that warning wasn't good enough. The photo theft thing has been gnawing at me more than usual, as a couple of people have approached me in the last few months wanting high-resolution images that they could use for their own purposes. Trying to be a nice guy, I sent them the images on their promise that they would pay the agreed upon fee. Nothing. So much for being a nice guy. I've also had the same lack of payment issue with a couple of articles that I've written and were published. Guess one can't rely on "handshake" agreements anymore.

Anyway, tonight I picked one of my images that I thought might be popular, and prone to theft. It's below:

A particularly adorable Northern Saw-whet Owl that appeared on my blog in THIS POST way back in 2007. I dropped the image into the Google machine, and was stunned at the hits that came back! There were several dozen websites using the photo, from all over the place, nearly all unknown to me and with no credit. I certainly didn't provide these pirates with the image.

That was depressing. There's no way I'd ever have time to contact all these sites and ask them to remove the image. And that owl is the only image that I've searched on so far. Not really sure that I want to check any others, as I'm sure I'd find legions of other thefts. I've posted a lot of pretty cool original photos over the years, in 1,263 blog entries since I began using BlogSpot in 2007.

Some argue that once one posts a photo on the Internet, it's fair game. I disagree. I view it in the same light as plagiarism, particularly if the thief doesn't cite the source. After all, it's me, or Alex, or anyone else who has invested in camera equipment and made the effort to go afield and capture interesting images, who did all the work and paid the price.

As Alex Wild points out, there is really no way you can completely safeguard your image. Watermarks can be removed. Right click disabling software can be defeated. Even shrinking the photo doesn't totally solve the problem - it can still be used in many capacities.

I'm not the most tech-savvy guy in the world, admittedly. If anyone knows ways of thwarting photo thieves, I'd love to hear them.


KaHolly said…
How very disturbing. I've used pictures from other blogs a few times, but always give credit below the picture. That only seems fair. Certainly makes you stop and think.
Anonymous said…
Hi Jim. Before retiring 2004 was professional photographer. Nothing you can do about people using photos. Agreed they should not but that's the media. I for one don't want but the enjoyment of the free information and viewing of the internet. I do feel for you and hope you derive great satisfaction from the moment and capture of a fine photo. I enjoy your site you are a very talented knowledgable guy, thanks for being out there and sharing on your site. Gary Wayne
Junior Barnes said…
I have found some of my photos uncredited on other websites before. Very annoying.
Sue said…
I wouldn't have a clue how to do it, but I've seen sites where people have their name somehow superimposed on the photos. Though it does detract from the image, at least know one could use your photos.
Or , you could just take bad photos like I do---LOL!
Scott Hogsten said…
Unfortunately this is something I don't think you can ever stop. I know Alex spends a lot of his time chasing down sites using his images without permission. All of the common techniques to protect images can be beaten. A digital watermark across the image would slow casual users down but a determined thief wouldnt be stopped. FWIW I had someone use one of my images in a presentation and they had added their name right onto the image. T
Lilac Haven said…
It is plagiarism to steal images and use them without credit.
JafaBrit's Art said…
There is a hefty penalty for removing watermarks. Love the owl image and have seen it floating around fb.

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