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Stop, Thief!

Strategies and methods for protecting your work and maintaining proper attribution

Polar bear with second-year cubs, Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.

Tech Trending: Photographs That Take Themselves

Q Have you noticed lately all those fine photographs floating around out there, seemingly unattached to any photographer? From the loftiest heights of commercial advertising to photo websites such as EarthPorn and, of course, social media such as Facebook and Google+, beautiful, professional images are everywhere. Have you ever admired one, thinking you’ve been to that location, wondering what other photographer saw what you saw, only to realize that the photograph you’re admiring—that orphan piece of creative work that’s so unimportant that no one will give it a name, nothing more than a well-organized bunch of pixels, a pleasing combination of ones and zeros—that photograph is yours?
Every Photographer
Almost Everywhere On Earth

A Well, actually, yes. Recently, our daughter “liked” an anonymous image from EarthPorn on Facebook. It was mine, and she didn’t even know it! That hurt, especially because I don’t know who posted my image there. Being old school (as distinguished from merely being “old”), I view every unauthorized use of my images as theft, and these days, the problem has me on fire all the time. That said, I don’t think it’s possible to keep your images from being lifted from the Internet unless you, your family and friends, your clients and any publishers of your work all live in the dark—meaning, somewhere without electricity. And there’s a harsh reality to be faced in the digital age: A gazillion photographs have been launched into the webosphere, drifting like pollen across the globe, sometimes taking root in a stranger’s blog, in another language—like the unauthorized little trip several of my images took to Spain just last week! How can anything so common and abundant as a photograph have commercial or artistic value? A photograph is like one poppy in a field of millions. It’s like one snowflake on Mount McKinley. It’s a grain of sand…well, you get the picture, no pun intended. Who cares?

Who Took (And Who Took) All Those Images?
I suppose that if you think of creative activity across the spectrum of human history, most art is anonymous, at least in the long term. But in the context of my history, photographs have artistic and economic value that is, rightly or wrongly, influenced by the reputation of the photographer and the body of work the photographer has produced. There was a time, not long ago, when an ad agency would call a professional photographer for a set of images on a particular subject or style, and the photographer would send them a batch of original slides. If the agency lost or damaged one, they owed the photographer $1,500 each, an industry standard. A well-known photo editor and appraiser actually argued in court that every time a well-known photographer snapped the shutter, the resulting image had immediate value of that same $1,500. I became a professional photographer in an environment that was intensely protective of images and their potential value. So, now, when I see a great image, I want to know who took it, who owns it, and who deserves the credit and whatever money it might earn. And if that image isn’t attributed to anyone, then I wonder who took it from the photographer and rendered it anonymous, and whether that photographer cares.

What’s Mine Is Mine, And Even If I Let You Use It, It’s Still Mine
If you’re still with me, you’re probably interested in what you can do to strike a reasonable balance between sharing your images (playing nice) and protecting your images from unauthorized or uncompensated use (often viewed today as selfish and greedy). I’ll start by saying that I don’t know any professional photographer who hasn’t experienced outrageous unauthorized uses of his or her images. And, clearly, I don’t have all the answers; if I did, I wouldn’t have any horrific examples of image theft to share with you. But, assuming that you value your connection to your images, there are basic steps you can take to minimize unauthorized “sharing,” emphasize attribution (ownership) and, if you want to go there, set the stage for litigation of photo thievery.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Here are two ways to put your brand on your images. Lepp’s preferred method places a standard copyright notice in a lower corner; it’s a little risky because an image thief could crop it off. Some other photographers prefer the image-dominating copyright symbol in the center of the frame, which definitely protects the image from both duplication and enjoyment.

Put Your Stamp On It
It’s way more fun to talk about a creative stamp, as in a unique photographic style and interpretation that’s identifiably yours, but in this case, we’re talking about something more concrete and nerdy: EXIF data. Just about every digital image file has data attached at the moment of capture; it records the camera and lens used, focal length, exposure, ISO. Many cameras offer the option of entering additional routine data—such as the copyright holder—at capture, as well, and some even allow automatic recording of GPS location and manual entry of other data by the photographer.

If ownership data isn’t entered in-camera, good practice dictates adding it (this can be done automatically or, with many files, en masse) when images are downloaded from the camera or phone into an editing program, such as Adobe Elements, Lightroom, Photoshop, Apple Aperture and others. We used to believe with some certainty that this information, the EXIF data, permanently stayed with the image file through format and software changes, wherever it went. We could be sure that any company that wanted to use the photograph could immediately access the ownership information and contact the photographer to make him/her rich when the fabulous creation was used in an ad. In this context, we could view “exposure” (as in, “I can’t pay to use your image in my blog, but it will give you exposure”) in an optimistic light, and work hard to get our images out there anyhow, anywhere—on Facebook, Flickr, Google+. Alas, this assumption is no longer valid. EXIF data is routinely stripped by some sites that post our images with our permission (e.g., Facebook) and by individuals who take our images without authorization via screen capture or unauthorized download. One way to limit the use of your images by thieves is to post only small files on public sites—about 300-400 pixels on the longest side and 72 dpi.

A less technical (and far less subtle) way to protect yourself and your photographs is to imbed a copyright notice right into the image, like a brand on a heifer. The placement of the notice (which includes a copyright symbol ©, name and year) is up to you. Some photographers blaze it in semitransparent fonts right through the center of the image; I prefer to put it somewhere that doesn’t destroy the image’s reason for being, so usually it’s in a corner. While placements at the perimeter can be cropped out quite easily, the very act of removal is quite convincing evidence of intent to defraud, a plus in subsequent litigation. I’ve also seen photographers simply add a large “©” smack in the middle of the image; I’m not sure what legal or attribution benefit is achieved there, but it certainly does scream the point: This image is claimed by someone and, therefore, it isn’t yours to take.

If you want to take more specific action to protect your work, I recommend the blog, DVDs and other training developed by commercial photographer Jack Reznicki and attorney Edward Greenberg at For copyright registration with the U.S. Copyright Office, see Another option that isn’t available to everyone is the placement of images exclusively with a traditional stock agency; as partners who market, license, grant rights and receive the lion’s share of the profits, agencies have a vested interest in protecting represented photos, and the power to locate and litigate against unauthorized use.

Safety Begins At Home
We’re having this discussion, remember, because you and I both care about our images, who uses them, how they’re used and how they’re attributed. We’ve taken and kept all those pictures because we think they have economic, historic, artistic or cultural importance for ourselves and our families, or even for the world. So I’ll close this discussion with a few notes about keeping your digital image files safe for posterity.

It starts in the camera. Use quality CF or SD cards you can trust, and treat them gently. I personally use Hoodman Steel CF and SD cards. I’ve never had a failure. Other companies like SanDisk, Delkin and Lexar, to name a few, have known qualities and can be trusted.

Organize. If your images are identified by masses of camera-generated file names in one enormous folder, they might as well not be there at all. Choose an image-management program, develop a logical strategy, and follow it religiously.

Back up! I work with a Mac Pro computer that has four 4 TB drives inside and four connected 4 TB external drives that back up on a continuous basis. Apple’s Mac has Time Machine for automatic backup, while other proven systems are SuperDuper, CarbonCopy and Carbonite, to name a few. Some external hard drives are already loaded with a backup program. Keep critical files in two locations; I rotate an additional set of 4 TB drives into a safe deposit box at my bank.

Follow George Lepp‘s exploits, see his latest photographs and be part of the discussion on his Facebook page:

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.