Not so long ago, I wrote a mini-series on graphics explaining the importance of using them to improve your reader’s experience (see I will need graphics!). After going through the many ways to get custom ones (see I will need graphics – part 2), I decided to create them myself. Budget-wise, the DIY route stood out as the only viable solution. Needless to say that the unauthorized use of images (i.e. just downloading them without prior written authorization from their owners) is out of the question! But what about the converse? How to protect your own graphics? This post covers various strategies against image theft.
A common misperception is that works published on the Internet, including on social media platforms, are in the public domain and may therefore be widely used by anybody without the authorization of the right owner.WIPO
Literally, copyright is the right to copy and means that only the original creators (or anyone they give authorization to) have the exclusive right to reproduce their work.
- The exclusive and assignable legal right, given to the originator for a fixed number of years, to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material.
According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), this legal term is used to describe the rights that creators have over their works. In fact,
there are two types of rights under copyright2 – economic rights and moral rights – that give the owner the right to authorize or prevent certain uses in relation to a work:
- its reproduction in various forms,
- its public performance,
- its recording,
- its broadcasting,
- its translation,
- its adaptation.
Importantly, the copyright protection covers original creations whatever the mode or form of expression. However, while this includes
a wide range of intellectual creations2, there are some limitations:
Copyright protection extends only to expressions, and not to ideas, procedures, methods of operation or mathematical concepts as such. Copyright may or may not be available for a number of objects such as titles, slogans, or logos, depending on whether they contain sufficient authorship.
Since the Berne Convention3,
acquisition of copyright protection is usually automatic once your work is fixed in some material form2. Yet, there is the possibility, and sometimes still the need, to register copyright. In keeping with the idea of making copyright automatic, the copyright notice – using the symbol © – is
no longer a legal requirement2. Nonetheless, it remains a good practice
as a highly visible way to emphasize that that work is protected by copyright2.
In the majority of countries, and according to the Berne Convention, copyright protection is obtained automatically without the need for registration or other formalities.WIPO
As for the duration of the copyright, lengths vary by country and jurisdiction. Still,
in those countries which are members of the Berne Convention, the time limit should be equal to or longer than 50 years after the creator’s death2. In practice, duration of copyright is a complex matter. For example, here is an excerpt from the Copyright Basics circular by the U.S. Copyright Office:
In general, for works created on or after January 1, 1978, the term of copyright is the life of the author plus seventy years after the author’s death. If the work is a joint work with multiple authors, the term lasts for seventy years after the last surviving author’s death. For works made for hire and anonymous or pseudonymous works, the duration of copyright is 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.
Once the copyright terms have expired, the work goes in the public domain. Hence, it is no longer subject to copyright or other legal restrictions. However, as suggested by the aforementioned complexity, it is not straightforward to know if something is in the public domain. For instance, a work may be subjects to rights in one country and be in the public domain in another. Fortunately, Creative Commons (CC) has developed the Public Domain Mark in an effort to improve access to these works.
Using their own word,
Creative Commons is a global nonprofit organization that enables sharing and reuse of creativity and knowledge through the provision of free legal tools. Their tools
help those who want to encourage reuse of their works by offering them for use under generous, standardized terms; those who want to make creative uses of works; and those who want to benefit from this symbiosis.
For example, in addition to the aforementioned Public Domain Mark, they offer the Create Commons Zero tool4 (CC0 Public Domain Dedication)
for rights holders who wish to put their work into the public domain before the expiration of copyright. In practice, this tool revokes the automatic copyright protection (see above), allowing creators to forfeit their rights and release their work into the public space.
They also provide six Creative Common licenses – CC BY, CC BY-SA, CC BY-ND, CC BY-NC, CC BY-NC-SA and CC BY-NC-ND – based on combinations of four conditions:
- Attribution (BY): requires that users provide attribution to the creator.
- ShareAlike (SA): requires adaptations of the material be released under the same license.
- NonCommercial (NC): prohibits commercial use of the material.
- NoDerivatives (ND): prohibits the sharing of adaptations of the material.
As long as you respect the conditions associated with the license, you can reuse and distribute the work free of charge and without asking permission.
Methods to help protect your graphics
In order to use a work protected by copyright, people should seek permission from the copyright owner. Since copyright protection exists automatically from the moment the original work of authorship is fixed, there should be no reason to implement any additional protections to your graphics. In theory! In practice, despite the threat of prosecution and payment of damages, copyright infringement is a commonplace. I am not talking about fair use5,
a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances. I am talking about image theft!
Images are a particularly vulnerable part of your site. They’re easy to copy and, consequently, steal through right-clicking, screenshotting, Google searching, and site scraping.Brenda Barron
One of the best technique to deter thieves from copying your images – at least for images with monetary values – is to add a semi-transparent watermark on the image itself. The watermark can be anything, from your site’s logo to your website address, but
should be consistent across all images6. According to Brenda Barron, doing so can indeed
increase your brand’s awareness since it’ll clearly have an element of your brand’s identity (a logo, signature, or icon) stamped on it6.
Watermarks like this are typically extremely difficult to remove so they can be quite effective, but they are rather distracting for people looking at your photos.Tom Ewer
While this approach seems to be working great for many stock photography websites, it’s not applicable in many cases – being too intrusive to the image. An alternative is to add a watermark in the bottom left corner of the image. This might prevent casual downloads; however, crooks can easily cropped it out.
Often, you will see that it is better to use low-resolution images on your website – the infamous 72 PPI web resolution. The claims are generally as follow: 1) these images will look best on screen, 2) will load faster, and 3) will be of no use to thieves who want to make large prints of them. Wrong, wrong, and wrong! Images with small PPI will NOT display differently (than those at higher resolution) on your website, they will NOT load faster (i.e. the file size is not different either), and they do NOT protect you from image theft by offering up a lower quality image.
The thing is, when working with web images, you don’t need to worry about the resolution (in PPI). In fact, a digital image has no inherent resolution. Clearly, there is some mix-up between dimension – measured in pixels – and resolution – measured in pixels per inch (PPI); hence the 72 PPI myth. What matter, here, are the pixel dimensions of the image (i.e. the total number of pixels along the image’s width and height), NOT THE PPI.
PPI vs. DPI
While both terms define the resolution of an image, they refer to separate media. PPI (pixels per inch) is first and foremost a measurement of the pixel density (resolution) of a monitor; still, it can also be used to describe the resolution of a digital image – if it were to be printed. On the other hand, DPI (dots per inch) describes the amount of ink dots on a printed image; it actually refers to the resolution value of a physical printer.
Importantly, the PPI is only meaningful when printing the image. Specifically, it tells (the printer) how many of the pixels in the image to squeeze into an inch of paper. The PPI value determines indeed the print size (hence the quality of the image); the latter being equal to the image pixel dimensions (in pixels) divided by the resolution (in PPI). Counterintuitively, a low PPI resolution image will produce bigger prints (than a high PPI one) – the fewer pixels per inch, the larger (printed) pixels indeed. For example, a 1000 x 1000 pixels image will give a 13.9 x 13.9 inches print at 72 PPI, but a 3.3 x 3.3 inches print at 300 PPI.
So, why is it best to use high resolution (in PPI) when preparing files for printing – 300 PPI being considered industry standard quality – if the outcome is such a small print? The more pixels you squeeze per inch, the higher the print quality. Granted! However, if you want a high-resolution, large print, you need to use an image with very large pixel dimensions. In keeping with the previous example, in order to have a 13.9 x 13.9 inches print at 300 PPI, you need a 4167 x 4167 pixels image.
As stated above, PPI is only meaningful when printing the image; it does not matter on screen. The image resolution will not influence how the image looks on your website; a 72 PPI image will appear the same as a 300 PPI (and the same as a 1 PPI for that matter). What governs the size (and quality) of the image is its pixel dimensions. Even if pixels don’t have the same size from one device to another (i.e. different monitor resolutions), it remains, that each pixel of the image occupies one pixel of the screen. On screen, pixels are pixels!
It is the picture size – the physical number of pixels along the length and width – that changes how the image looks on a particular display screen, not the image resolution.Elizabeth Gray
Now, back to the image protection matter! Decreasing the pixel dimensions – and not the resolution (in PPI) – of images can be a good strategy. While this will not affect how they look on screen, when printed they will be of no use for the potential thief. Any image with pixel dimensions small enough to display correctly on the web page (e.g. 1000 x 1000 pixels) would be indeed too small (e.g. 3.3 x 3.3 inches) for anyone to print (at high resolution). Icing on the cake, since the file size is proportional to the pixel dimensions (and not to the PPI), this will also produce images with smaller file size, resulting in faster loading time for your website. This alone should be a compelling reason to upload only smaller versions of your images.
While this method is especially useful for photographers as they can showcase their work and provide people with a good viewing experience (i.e. without distracting watermarks), it will however not make any difference if the (stolen) image is to be used on screen (e.g. on a website).
While it’s still easy enough to download images in other ways, if you disable this capability, you’ll put off less web-savvy image thieves and people who can’t be bothered with the hassle of looking at your HTML or searching the browser cache.Tom Ewer
In keeping with right-clicks, it is incredibly easy to find the URL of an image – select Copy Image Address from the contextual menu that opens and voilà. What the point you may wonder? Paste the address into a new browser tab and you can take a nicer screenshot. Even better, now that the image is off the website, it instantly loses the protections that were in place there (e.g. screen capture protection). In fact, once you know the URL of the image, there is an even vilest way to steal images (than downloading them illegally):
Hotlinking, the process by which someone displays your images on their website by embedding them.
Why is it viler than grabbing a copy of the file?
Because they’re loading the image from your server and not storing it on their own, they’re actually using your bandwidth. So not only is this illegal because of the copyright violation, it’s also extremely unethical since it’s costing you money to host that image for them.Brenda Barron
Actually, the consequences can be worse than just increasing your server load and bandwidth usage. While this is apparently
common practice for new bloggers who don’t realize they’re doing anything wrong7, the image, and what is more the link to your site, could be on a website that performs malicious activities.
Fortunately, you can prevent hotlinking by editing your .htaccess file, or as with everything WordPress,
there are also plugins available to do the job for you7. Beware; this is only effective for embedded images and does not stop people from downloading or copying them.
More advanced tricks
While the aforementioned methods can help protect your images, or at least discourage most people from stealing them, they cannot stop web-savvy image thieves. In fact,
nothing can stop the determined crooks from stealing your content8. Yet, you can make it much harder for infringers to download and misuse your images. Providing an exhaustive list is beyond the scope of this post; still, here are few tricks.
There is no way of stopping people from using your images entirely (short of not uploading them in the first place) . . . Whatever measures you take, nothing will ultimately stop someone from stealing your content and photos if they really want to.Tom Ewer
I first read about this technique in this Computer Hope article. The idea is to set the image as the background of a one-row, one-column table and to add a transparent foreground (e.g. transparent.gif) in the table. According to the author,
if a user was to right-click the image and save the image, it would save the small, [transparent.gif] image, instead of the image you want to protect. Even the smallest transparent image would do, as long as it
stretched and overlaid in front of the image [you] want to protect.
If you know how to use HTML, this method sounds appealing; the author of the aforementioned article actually provides a piece of code to implement it. However, at the end of the day it’s no different than disabling the right-click feature in the sense that it will not really protect your images from users who know how to locate the image URL in the source code. Check the next post, if you want to know more, though!
This approach is a little bit more involved. The idea, here, is to section the image into pieces and to reassemble them online for the image to be viewed as a whole. There is different way to achieve that (including an HTML table), but it can be extremely time consuming if not automated. In addition, there is no guarantee that every browser will display the images as you wish.
Clearly, the idea of painstakingly reassembling the image will put off many tech-savvy thieves. However how elaborate (and intricate) this approach is, it will not protect your images from being screenshotted by ordinary people. A workaround, though, could be to interlace the pieces, as suggested in this article by Patrick Wied. Yet, as acknowledged by the author, this is
definitively not worth all the hassles.
Blocking access to the media folder
Among the many solutions put forward by Brenda Barron in her article6, there was
blocking access to the Media folder with a password – a solid way to prevent access to image files according to her. However, the article falls short on explanation, and honestly, I do not fathom how this could protect your images, while still displaying them publically on your site.
A more practical approach would be to hide, or encrypt, the URL of the images – in order to make it harder to find in the source code. However, this would require the skills of a web designer; this method is way out of my league.
Graphics are an investment of time and money – not only for graphic designers and photographers who rely financially on them, but for any content creator. Certainly, it is important and necessary to protect your hard work. However, as briefly alluded, none of the methods listed above is 100% foolproof; even the semi-transparent watermark can be defeated by some algorithms. The only way to guarantee the safety of your images is by not uploading them – not an option, of course! Yet, combining some of the aforementioned techniques can make it more difficult for people to steal your graphics.
Now, it is also important to understand that not every theft is intentional. Thus, it is worth informing users (who would have stolen your images accidently) that your graphics are copyrighted. As explained earlier, the copyright notice is
no longer a legal requirement2; yet, displaying this information might
discourage and deter would-be-thieves from stealing [your graphics] in fear of potential repercussions8.
Image theft sometimes occurs because people are unaware of copyright law and don’t understand that it’s illegal and unethical to use someone else’s photos without permission.Brenda Barron
Typically, copyright notices are placed in the footer of a site (more on that in a coming post). While such notice encapsulates all content on your website, it might be a good idea to add an extra notice directly to your images. Adding the info in the corner of the image or in its lower margin makes it clear who owns the image. This holds true even if the image is displayed somewhere else than your website (e.g. Image Search). It is also a good practice to include this information in the image file itself by populating the metadata. Granted, the copyright notice can be cropped out and the metadata over-written9; yet, these extra steps are worth the added effort.
Putting a copyright notice on your website is not the same as registering copyright but it can act as enough of a deterrent to prevent casual downloads and may cause people to stop and realize they’re not actually allowed to download your pictures to do with as they please.Tom Ewer
Coming next: the HTML table technique
1 Copyright (2010) Oxford Dictionary of English – Third Edition. Oxford University Press. ^
2 See Frequently Asked Questions: Copyright. ^
3 The Bern Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works is an international agreement governing copyright. First accepted in September 9, 1886, the agreement was lastly amended on September 28, 1979. Essentially, it introduced the concept that a copyright exists the moment a work is fixed (i.e. automatic), rather than requiring registration. Importantly, it also enforces a requirement that countries recognize copyrights held by the citizens of all other parties of the convention. Good to know: the United States became a party to the Berne Convention only on March 1, 1989. As of today, only few countries are not yet signatories to the Berne Convention. ^
4 Here is what they specify on that matter in their FAQ page:
Please note that CC0 is not a license; it is a public domain dedication. When CC0 is applied to a work, copyright no longer applies to the work in most jurisdictions around the world. ^
5 Here is the definition from the Oxford Dictionary of English1:
(in US copyright law) the doctrine that brief excerpts of copyright material may, under certain circumstances, be quoted verbatim for purposes such as criticism, teaching, and research without the need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder. ^
6 Brenda Barron (2016) 9 Ways to protect you WordPress blog’s images from theft. WPMUDEV. ^
7 Tom Ewer (2017) How to protect your website from image theft. Graph Paper Press. ^
8 See 10 Ways to Protect Images From Being Copied. ^
9 Actually, WordPress will not keep any of the metadata when automatically generating the small-medium-large versions of your media. Indeed, its default behavior is to strip metadata from images when they are resized. WordPress 4.5 introduced a filter – image_strip_meta – to fix this; however, it only applies when resizing is done via the Imagick editor (not the default editor, apparently). ^