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Protecting Your Images In The Digital Age

Value your work—and others will, too

As wildlife photographers, we know getting our photos seen by other eyes is paramount. It’s how we build community, make money, market ourselves and simply share our love of nature with others. This is true whether we are posting our photos on social media or licensing images for publication.

Image of an American flamingo by Melissa Groo.

Wild American flamingo in Great Inagua, Bahamas.

With the proliferation of online visual platforms, along with forums devoted to the love of wildlife photography and countless Facebook groups and Instagram hubs, getting your photo “ripped off” is extremely common these days. Perhaps it’s happened to you: A photo of yours was shared without permission or without your watermark because you’d neglected to put it on there, or someone actually cropped it out. And maybe, perhaps worst of all, an image of yours was shared by someone implying—or even claiming—that they took the photo!

These situations are, sadly, all too frequent. I have a particular photo of a least tern mother on the beach, two chicks hidden under her wings, that continually makes the rounds on social media. A few years ago, someone cropped out my signature on the photo, and that version is the one that circulates. Each time it’s shared on Facebook, it then gets reshared thousands of times—all without my name attached. It’s extremely frustrating, particularly as this image is one of my personal favorites.

So how can we best protect and best value our work?

Copyright Registration & Watermarking

Just by taking a photo, you establish certain rights to that image, even if you don’t add a copyright symbol. However, enforcing those rights is another thing altogether. Although you can legally collect damages, it will be at the “market value,” meaning actual damages rather than statutory damages. But if your image is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, you can be awarded up to $150,000 for a willful infringement, along with legal costs.

The U.S. Copyright Office provides a fairly straightforward and relatively inexpensive online process. You can find countless tutorials online on how to navigate it. You’ll need to fill out an application form, pay a filing fee, and provide a digital copy of each photograph, as well as a list giving a title, file name and publication date for each photo. You can submit as few or as many as you would like, up to 750 total. 

Short of registering a copyright, simply placing a watermark on your photo does at least ensure that no one can claim ignorance of your ownership. And it may very well keep people from using the photo. Note that the official copyright notice has three parts: the © (“c” in a circle), the year when the work was first published, and the name of the copyright owner (e.g., ©2022 Melissa Groo). If being extra careful, you can place the watermark in such a way that cropping it would really detract from the image. Reducing the opacity of the watermark can be a great way to soften its presence. 

Tracking Your Work

There are many ways to search for the instances where your images appear online. The two most popular are Google Image Search and TinEye. You simply upload the image you’re interested in tracking, and both services do a quick scan and create a list for you to look through. It’s a good idea to regularly search for uses of photos that you particularly prize and have copyrighted. One advantage of TinEye over Google is that it doesn’t save your image searches, and you can add a browser extension for it.

To capitalize on the need for image searches and legal action, image protection services like Copytrack and PhotoClaim have sprung up that will do the work for you, including fighting copyright infringement through legal channels. If infringement is proven, these companies typically take a healthy portion of the compensation—almost half.

Charging For Your Work

One of the greatest banes to our existence as photographers is the offer of exposure rather than payment for the use of a photo. In what other artistic—or any—field is this such a chronic problem? Maybe you’re not looking to earn money with your photos. Perhaps wildlife photography is your hobby, and you’d love nothing more than to see your work shared or published. The consensus out there is that it is an ethical responsibility we all hold to the profession to charge a fee for any use of our images, certainly to all for-profit companies and to most, if not all, nonprofits. Giving away images is severely harmful to the profession of wildlife photography because it causes consumers of our work to undercut and undervalue what we do. Why should anyone buy a photo if they can get it for free? At the very least, request a token fee.

Knowing how to price your work can be a tough one. There are a couple online tools that can give you industry rates for a vast array of uses. Perhaps the best-known one is the well-respected fotoQuote, which does require a one-time payment. As far as a freebie, I find that stock agency Getty Images can be helpful for a very specific usage. I simply go into the site as if I’m a client looking for a photo. I choose a random photo, plug in the terms of usage, and see what the going rate is for that specific scenario. That can at least provide a ballpark figure.

You could always go with what my friend and conservation photojournalist friend Doug Gimesy will sometimes say: “If the people working where my work is to be used are on a salary, or anyone in the organization wanting to use my work is on salary, or indeed other suppliers are getting paid, then I feel it is only fair that I should also be paid something for my work, as I hope you are for yours.”

Is there ever a time that we should donate our photos? I believe that there are but that one must be very judicious about it. Try selecting just one or two organizations whose mission you are passionate about. If it’s a nonprofit that has absolutely no budget for licensing images, consider asking for an in-kind exchange, such as access to private land or special events. If appropriate, offer to do an Instagram takeover if they have a large following that will then be turned on to your photography. This kind of organic exposure may result in paid work down the line.

Image of a red fox kit in rehab by Melissa Groo.

Red fox kit in rehab, Janet L. Swanson Wildlife Health Center, Ithaca, New York. Donating photos to a worthy cause is one exception for which you might decide not to charge for your photography.

I volunteer at a local wildlife hospital, and in exchange for my donated photos of the wild patients that come in, I’m able to tell conservation stories that I care deeply about, and if the patients recover, I am welcome to attend the animal’s release to the wild—an occasion that’s one of my greatest joys to document.

Crafting Careful Licensing Terms

Get the important details in writing once you’ve agreed to an image use. Craft a simple licensing agreement that states the exact usage you’re agreeing to, the date, and the fee to be paid. If it’s just for a one-time use, make sure you state that. Recently a snowy owl photo of mine resurfaced in a Connecticut newspaper that I had licensed it to years ago. I had neglected back then to create such a written agreement, and that was sloppy of me. They had simply added it to their photo database and then reached for it again when they had a need for it.

In sum, it’s up to you to care for your hard work and artistic vision. It’s your responsibility to the profession, but most of all to yourself, to do your best by it. I direct this partly to myself as I need to follow through with some of the advice I offer here. In fact, I have moved copyright registration of some select images to the top of my to-do list.

Melissa Groo is a wildlife photographer, writer and conservationist. She believes that photography can be both fine art and a powerful vehicle for storytelling and education, and considers herself a “wildlife biographer” as much as a wildlife photographer. Passionate about ethics in nature photography, Groo is represented by Nat Geo Creative, a contributing editor to Audubon magazine and an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. She advises the National Audubon Society on ethical photography, and has also counseled National Wildlife magazine and NANPA (North American Nature Photography) on guidelines for ethical wildlife photography. She also serves as a member of NANPA’s Ethics Committee. In 2017, Melissa received the Katie O'Brien Lifetime Achievement Award from Audubon Connecticut, for demonstrating exceptional leadership and commitment to the conservation of birds, other wildlife and their habitats. She also received the NANPA 2017 Vision Award, given to a photographer every two years in recognition of early career excellence, vision and inspiration to others in nature photography, conservation and education.