Art Theft – How to Protect Your Images Online

Protect Your Images Online

Having an online art portfolio is basically mandatory these days if you want your work to be seen, whether it’s on an art community site like Foundmyself or on your own domain. Of course, because of the internet being all internetty as it is, the moment you post your work it’s immediately available not just for others to view, but to share and potentially steal.

Powerful tools for professional artists

3 MYTHS about protecting your images

Disabling right clicking - Does it work?

Myth #1: Disabling right-clicking will prevent people from getting your image

This particular myth, from the bubbling Precambrian Age of the Internet, just doesn’t seem to go away. In fact, I’ve gotten many requests from artists to enable this feature, but it’s like putting your art on the curb with a lock scotch taped to it – some people might be confused, but it’s generally pointless.

Why? There are so many reasons. Right off the bat, anyone with basic tech knowledge could simply disable JavaScript, which takes two seconds and would do the trick; they could look at the source code (including a “live” DOM view with the browser’s developer tools … sorry to get a bit technical) to find the link – hidden or not – to the image and then download it directly; they could find the file in their web browser’s cache, since to view your art they had to download it in the first place. Finally, if all else failed, they could just take a screenshot.

There's always the print screen key to snag images online

Myth #2: Using Flash or some other plugin to display your images will protect them

Again, while embedding your images into some third-party plugin might slow down the average image thief, it won’t really offer protection. Even if the original file is too tough to track down, which is unlikely, our thief can simply take a screenshot and be off. On top of all that, by piling different technologies on top of what should be a simple experience for the end user, you’re potentially limiting your viewership. Flash, for example, is rarely used anymore and not even supported by some big companies like Apple.

Image theft on the internet

Myth #3: People want to steal your images

Let’s put the ego on the back burner and really think about it … would anyone realistically benefit from copying your work? For stock photographers this is a real issue, since the medium itself has a proven commercial value online, but for fine artists it’s less of a problem. This, of course, depends on the popularity of your work, and the resolution of the images you provide (more on this soon). If you want to find out whether or not your art has been stolen and shared online, keep reading.

These things can help … a bit …

DMCA takedown notice

It’s not free, but it’s effective. If you sign up for the DMCA website, you can file complaints for $10/month (or pay more to have them handle it), and use their connections and prowess to help remove the stolen content.

You can also send your own threatening letter before you pay anything out of pocket, especially if the cost of pursuing the thief isn’t worth it. Also, depending on the type of theft or “borrowing,” you might even consider working with the person (I know … but seriously).

Digital watermark

Digital watermarking & image metadata

Digital watermarks are extra bits of hidden text embedded in an image that can be read with special software.

These, along with meta data, can be used to help prove ownership of an image, but they won’t stop people from taking it in the first place.

Also, digital watermarks are susceptible to degradation when saved as a “lossy” image type, like JPEG, limiting their use. Meta data too can easily be stripped from a file, sometimes unintentionally.

… And these steps are pretty decent at protecting your images

Low resolution images can help prevent stealing

Uploading lower resolution images

To make any decent-sized print of an image, you need one with a lot of pixels. Uploading images that are smaller – say 800 pixels on the longest side – can discourage other people from printing it. Regular visitors won’t be able to see the fine details of your work, though, unless you upload closeups or use a service that allows secure zooming. The latter is where a portion of the full-resolution image is cropped on the server itself, after which that small zoomed-in area is shown to the user. Even in this case, a savvy person with time on their hands could combine the zoomed-in areas for the full picture.

Example of a watermarked image

Watermarking your images

Slapping a graphic over the top of your image, whether it’s a logo, a copyright notice, your name or something else, is a good way to prevent malicious people from stealing your work, since it has less value to them when it’s branded. Unfortunately, watermarks can get in the way of the average person who just wants to see your creation, especially ones that run across the entire image. The more obtrusive you make the watermark, the safer your work, but the less it might be appreciated and responsibly shared.

If you do want to add a watermark, you can use an image editing program to add it yourself, or Google around for one of many free services. DMCA has one, incidentally, that just requires a free registration. You can find it here:

Your images aren’t 100% safe online, and that’s OK

As you’ve probably realized, there’s no way to completely protect your work online, and the more difficult you make it for your work to be stolen, the more difficult you make it for your work to be appreciated and shared by fans. It’s a balancing act, but if you’re posting art online, don’t you want people to enjoy it?

How to find out if your images have been stolen

Search with an image on Google

An awesome tool that you might have used before is Google’s reverse image search, where you upload an image and it scours the web for matches.

Just go to and upload an image you want to check. Sift through the matching links, and if you find that someone else has posted your work somewhere without giving credit, feel free to send the website owner that takedown notice linked to above.

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