Copyright Education

What is Image Theft and how to deal with It?

This article highlights issues that confront image creators/ copyright holders when they become victims of image theft.

Image theft on the internet is a significant problem for rights holders. Billions of information pieces are disseminated in text and image form and made publicly accessible every day. However, when using third-party content, people often forget that the internet is not a legal vacuum and that rights, especially the copyrights of third parties, must be respected. 

If you are faced with the question of how - if you can't avoid image theft - you can at least effectively enforce your rights - feel free to read on.

1. Image theft on the web - legal situation

2. Who is affected?

3. How can a photographer/ copyright holder go against copyright infringement?

4. Legal tech services as a possible solution

5. Is there a better way to deal with Image Theft? 

Imagine you are in the supermarket. You pack your shopping cart to the top. Then you leave the store with the goods without paying. Only very few people can imagine doing that. They know well that it would be theft and, therefore, a criminal offense. Unfortunately, such a sense of injustice hardly seems to exist in the digital world. In a self-service manner, everything that is not nailed down is stolen without restraint: photos, graphics, music, texts, videos, and other digital media.

Why would people who would not steal in the supermarket steal digital content? Probably because in the supermarket, it is clear that whatever you steal is no longer available to the supermarket. Stealing digital content from a website is different: You "just" make a copy, but the original remains on the website. That's why many people do not seem to be aware of the legal consequences of what they do.

Photos, in particular, are often used without the author of the image knowing about it, having authorized this, let alone being paid for it. The stolen images then end up on websites, blogs, forums, social media, and even in advertising brochures, magazines, books, or postcards.


1. Image theft on the web – legal situation.

There is a widespread misconception that you can just take whatever you like on the internet. The permanent and open availability of media on the web and also the image searches of search engines reinforce this false impression. Many people are not aware that image theft is a legal offense. But companies also often fail to recognize the seriousness of the situation or ignore this fact. Image theft is deliberately tolerated and dismissed as a trivial offense in some cases.

But far from it, the legal situation is quite clear. Using other people's photographs (and other works) without the copyright holder's permission is a clear violation of copyright. Every copyright holder is also entitled to appropriate remuneration for using their images. As a photographer, you are also entitled to be mentioned as the creator. Image theft is not a trivial matter but an offense that can result in hefty fines.

Anyone who uses photos on the internet without the necessary consent or license from the author (photographer) or the rights-holder (e.g., photo agency) is committing a copyright infringement. The photographer can defend himself against this copyright infringement, for example, in the form of a warning letter and demand a cease-and-desist declaration with a penalty clause, deletion, damages, and claim attorney's fees from the user.


2. Who is affected?

In principle, anyone who posts their images on the internet can be affected by image theft: As an artist, product photography, or just in the case of a privately taken snapshot. Conversely, anyone whose images are used without permission on the internet - or in any other way - is also protected by copyright.

First of all, professional photographers should be mentioned here. A photographer has excellent opportunities to present his work and thus his skills to people on his homepage or another platform such as Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter. By publishing the photos on the internet, they make it also possible that their copyrights will be violated. Many users still believe in the myth that any image you find on the internet can be used freely. It is simply wrong and very annoying for photographers.

In addition to the cost of technical equipment, the amount of work required for each image is high. The preparation for shooting is time-consuming, and the post-processing of photos with the appropriate programs, such as Photoshop, involves time and intellectual resources. The time, effort, and own creativity have to be rewarded accordingly. Therefore, the rights violations also represent a significant economic problem for professional photographers. After all, their photos are products that go through the digital counter for free.

But not only professional photographers are affected. Online-shop operators also have to deal with the consequences of image theft. If you take photos for your business or have pictures taken by third parties to advertise your products the best way possible, you may find out: Competitors use the images for their advertising purposes. Such image theft is annoying in two respects: The competitor saves a considerable amount of time and money for working on his product and benefits from the images taken without permission for its own sales promotion.

Besides professional photographers and online-shop operators mentioned above, photo agencies and news agencies also have a genuine interest in protecting themselves against unauthorized usage of their images. However, these are not always the original owners of the copyright but derive their respective rights from the individual authors, as do store operators in some cases.


3. How can the photographer/ copyright holder go against copyright infringement?

Image theft must first be researched and detected to protect your images. First and foremost, this means that you should regularly conduct image research on your works. There are two approaches for doing that on your own:

1. You can use the function offered by search engine giant Google. Google's reverse image search engine is mighty and can find many of your pictures' usages on the web. The image you want to look for can be uploaded to Google and added to the search box. Alternatively, you can copy the image URL into the search field. Google will then show you identical and similar images and web pages on which they appear.
However, keep in mind that manual search requires considerable time and effort. First of all, for those who have a large number of photos. The point is that the images should be checked individually and at regular intervals. It is the only way to ensure optimal protection against image theft and obtain compensation.

2. Another viable approach is not to start the search from the image but to place the potential users at the beginning of the investigation. For example, online store operators can regularly visit their competitors' websites and search for their images. In this respect, it is often worthwhile for professional photographers to look periodically at the online presence of old licensees and clients or even former interested parties with whom no license agreement was concluded.

For more information, read the article "5 useful Tips on how to find Stolen Photos online".

The same applies in both constellations to any profiles in social networks.

If it is clear that there has been image theft, the work owner should firstly secure evidence of the infringement. Evidence is essential at the latest for possible legal proceedings. Screenshots are ideal for this - save them with a field of the Internet address, date, and time.

In order to subsequently enforce the existing legal claims, the following path may be an option in many jurisdictions:

  • A warning letter may be issued for image theft. It can be done by the author himself or by a lawyer.
  • The warning letter contains a cease-and-desist declaration with a penalty clause. The recipient is obliged to sign and return it.
  • If no signed cease-and-desist declaration is obtained, the author can get an injunction using summary proceedings in court.
  • A lawsuit in court is also conceivable. Here, it will also be helpful to work with a lawyer specializing in copyright law. 

4. Legal tech services as a possible option.

Many affected copyright holders wonder how to make the most efficient measures against image theft on the internet. Experience shows that one's resources are often too scarce to deal with research and consistent follow-up of image theft and the actual work, at least in the case of more extensive image inventories and long-term legal prosecution. Therefore, many photographers decide to delegate the problem to an external third party.


For some time now, specialized companies, so-called legal tech services, have been addressing the problem outlined above. These are mainly teams of software developers, account managers, and lawyers whose goal is to protect photographers' work online. They help photographers, stock agencies, and other rights holders to track down and re-license illegally used photos. Sophisticated matching software and forensic techniques are used to locate images. As these tools work at the pixel level, the search engines are pretty accurate and find pictures even if they have been heavily edited, distorted or collaged. The best-known providers include PIXRAY, Copytrack, Pixsy, and Plaghunter. You can learn about the other options from our article "An overview of Copyright Tracking Solutions for Photographers“.


For instance, PIXRAY effectively puts an end to image theft. If you want to enforce your copyrights, they will also connect you with copyright lawyers to take legal action for you.  The international network of lawyers will work locally to ensure that you receive appropriate compensation for copyright infringement and image theft. It allows you to focus on your creative work because the entire process is handled 100% securely via the PIXRAY account with little effort.




5. Is there a better way to deal with image theft?

Unfortunately, there is no perfect way for every image creator to deal with the phenomenon of image theft on the internet. In the end, everyone must decide how to approach the problem.


But the fact is that more and more photographers and photo agencies realize that sending a third party after an infringer is not always the best idea. Often infringers just did not know better and would immediately buy a license when the issue is pointed out to them. In those cases, it would be beneficial for you to communicate with the infringer directly, establish a positive relationship with them and turn them into a customer instead of an opponent. If this seems to be right for you, check out Fair Licensing.



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