Art Law

Six Steps to Safer Image Sharing

Photo Sharing
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Once work has been released on the Internet, it’s very hard to maintain control over it. And yet, for most visual artists, putting work on the Internet is an essential part of creative entrepreneurship today.

In my book, Copyright Workflow for Photographers: Protecting, Managing and Sharing Digital Images, I call it “the paradox of ‘getting it out there”:

“Among aspiring professional photographers, and even those who don’t intend to profit from their work, it has become a mantra that to be successful (however you might define that term), you have to “get your work out there.” You do so by uploading it to social networking sites, blogs, personal websites, and photo sharing sites. Sharing images has never been easier or cheaper, which has enriched the experience of photography for hobbyists and professionals alike and, perhaps most important, created a new sense of community among those with a passion for photography.

On the commercial side, marketing, distributing, and licensing photography has never been easier, at least from a technical perspective, as faster connection speeds and a proliferation of platforms on which to license works have brought image buyers and sellers closer together. (Of course, the business of marketing photography has become substantially more difficult than it once was because of increased competition and market fragmentation, which has resulted in downward price pressure on the industry.)  The necessary implication of “getting it out there” is making it available for others to infringe upon—whether intentionally or unintentionally. A recent post from a participant on a photography-related web forum summed it up nicely: “My quandry is between having Internet exposure to a broad audience and protecting my copyrights.”

To most visual artists, the Internet represents the proverbial double-edged sword.  On the one hand, the ease with which digital images are created, shared, and distributed offers photographers—professionals and amateurs alike—more opportunity than ever before to expose the world to their work; on the other hand, that work is now more easily stolen or otherwise misappropriated, and artists can very quickly lose control.

Despite the unfortunate reality of image sharing on the Internet, there are some steps that visual artists can take to minimize the risks or, at the very least, generate some benefit from downstream uses of your work. What follows are my top six suggestions for sharing work online in a way that helps protect your copyright interests as much as possible:

1, Register Your Works with the U.S. Copyright Office

Lawyers always sound like broken records on this point, but it’s tough to overemphasize the importance of copyright registration. While registration is not required to have copyright protection, it is required (for U.S. works) if you want to sue for infringement, and timely registration – that is, registration made either before an infringement or within three months of publication – is required to be eligible for statutory damages and attorney’s fees. Many lawyers won’t take infringement cases unless the work at issue was timely registered because the actual value of any infringement is typically so low that it cannot justify the cost of bringing suit – a fact which is especially true in the case of online infringement, where actual damages can be difficult to prove, and even when they are provable, they’re typically not particularly high.

The copyright registration process can be a little daunting at first, but it’s actually pretty straightforward once you get the hang of it. An earlier article, Planning for the Copyright Registration Process, is a useful starting point.

See also
Is My Copyright Internationally Protected?

2. Understand Metadata Practices

One unfortunate characteristic of many web-based distribution platforms is that they often strip out the metadata of uploaded images. It’s unclear why they do this – I’ve heard that privacy may be a favor, which makes some sense, although it doesn’t explain why they would remove critical information about the image’s copyright, such as the IPTC’s various copyright and creator fields. While a number of the major image-maker advocacy organizations have lobbied major web services on this point, it remains true that most still strip out, at least, some of the metadata.

The International Press Telecommunications Council, the keepers of the global standard for image metadata, maintains the Embedded Metadata Manifesto, a website that rates a number of popular image hosting websites on various metadata-related parameters. The organization first launched the site in 2013 and recently updated its results. In addition to reviewing the site, you may want to perform your own tests by downloading images of work that you have previously uploaded to see how the metadata fields have changed.

Image Sharing

It’s probably not realistic to entirely avoid websites with bad metadata practices, but knowing about them can help you think through what type of work you’re willing to post on which sites.

3. Limiting Size and Resolution

The terms of service for a particular website only apply to work that you upload to that particular site. Thus, the only true way to keep full-resolution files from getting away from you is to not post them at all. Instead, you can post low-resolution images that aren’t particularly useful for anything other than casual web viewing, and link to a larger version on your own website which wouldn’t be subject to the same terms of service.

This approach used to make a lot of sense, but today, high-resolution displays are becoming increasingly ubiquitous, and many of the websites that you may share your images on are starting to accept full-resolution (or at least very high resolution) images, which means that low-resolution images may not be very visually appealing in comparison.  Like some of the other techniques discussed here, this is one of those areas where you’ll need to balance your need for image protection against aesthetic considerations.

4. Watermarks and Borders

Some photographers assert that watermarks ruin the artistic integrity of the image; others believe that without watermarks, their images will end up all over the web. Some even believe, wrongly, that without a watermark, the image isn’t protected by copyright.

Landscape photographer Nate Zeman has an outstanding discussion of why watermarks work for him on his website. “I just see it as free advertising,” he wrote. Interestingly, Nate also observed that for the most part, “it’s only photographers who don’t like, or even notice, watermarks” and because his business focus is on selling limited-edition prints to art collectors, the fact that other photographers tend not to like watermarks is largely irrelevant.

If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of watermarking your images, you might consider adding a border around the image that includes your logo, copyright, or additional information. This approach is not as intrusive to the image as a watermark, but it still attaches your name or logo to the image file itself.

Image Sharing


5. Use Registries and Portfolio Platforms

Although the U.S. Copyright Office operates the official registry of copyright ownership for the United States, its system presents significant challenges for photographers, the biggest of which is that its database is entirely text-based. Because of that, you might consider registering with a private registry which, while not a substitute for the legal protection afforded by copyright registration (see paragraph 1 above), will help in circumstances where a would-be image licensee is trying to find you, or your images, and can’t because of the limitations on the information that the Copyright Office is able to provide.

See also
Why Copyright Infringement is Hard to Prove for Artists

The PLUS Coalition, a nonprofit organization representing the interests of all imaging industry stakeholders, has developed its own registry that will provide more robust information about visual art, the artists who create it, and the individuals and companies that license it. PLUS also developed its own metadata standard for communicating image rights information, including ownership and licensing details, so if you want, you can embed the terms and conditions of a particular image license right into the file.

In addition, adding your work to reputable portfolio sites and artist search & discovery platforms such as the newly launched Adobe Portfolio (included in the Creative Cloud suite of offerings), or the one that Orangenius (of which Art Law Journal is a part) is developing, will help ensure that people looking for you, or your work, are able to track it back to you. As image search tools such as Google Images become more prevalent, ensuring that your work is easily indexed by search engines will be essential. Proper indexing will help ensure that even if your work ends up on websites or services that you never intended, someone can still track it back to its original source.

Finally, you can also use image search and identification services to track where your work appears online. Websites such as Tineye and Google Images can help you find where your work shows up online, and services such as ImageRights can, for a fee, crawl the web for you on a routine basis, alert you to possible infringements, and allow you to follow up as appropriate.

6. Develop an Image Security Strategy

Armed with information about metadata practices, knowledge about where your images may be found, and a sense of how risk averse you are, you can begin to develop what I call an image security strategy. The name probably makes it sound a little fancier than it needs to be – essentially it’s a list of where you share your work online, and the parameters for sharing it. Here’s an example of such a strategy:

Image security

Notice that the “rules” are different depending on the commercial value of the image at issue. In this scenario, the so-called “grab shots” that aren’t likely to have any significant commercial value get more liberal treatment than final images with extensive post-processing investment, which presumably have more commercial viability. Keep in mind this isn’t intended to be prescriptive – it’s merely an example of how the various parameters discussed here shake out for one particular photographer. Your own strategy might look very different depending on your own goals, the platforms you choose to use, and the degree of risk you’re willing to take with your work.

Portions of this post were excerpted from the book Copyright Workflow for Photographers: Protecting, Managing, and Sharing Digital Images, and the seminar Understanding Copyright and Building a Copyright-Centered Workflow. Information about each can be found at

About the author

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a Los Angeles-based photographer and lawyer. He practices copyright law in the  media and entertainment industries and is the author of <a href="">Copyright Workflow for Photographers: Protecting, Managing, and Sharing Digital Images</a> from Peachpit Press.

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