Image Copyright

Photo Copyright 101: The Ultimate Guide to understanding and enforcing Image Copyright

This guide provides an all-encompassing rundown about Copyright, including why understanding the legal aspects of a photographer‘s job is extremely important. We also give some tips on protecting your images on the web and suggestions on detecting image theft and enforcing your copyright in case of copyright infringement.


As Intellectual Property rules are a constantly moving and complex target, you have to stay up-to-date and be well informed about your rights as a photographer. Here you find essential information about Copyright that may be handy in your daily work.

1. What is Image Copyright and how does it work?

The short answer: If you created the image, you own the copyright on it.

The longer answer: When a person creates a picture - or any other type of intellectual property - copyright in that work is automatically assigned to its creator. The creator does not necessarily have to place a copyright notice or register their work with a copyright authority. However, such registration can help protect images online and may provide additional protection in some countries, including the right to statutory damages.

According to United States copyright law, the copyright owner of an image has the exclusive right to:

1. reproduce copies of the copyrighted work.
2. create derivative works based on the copyright-protected work.
3. sell or distribute copies of the copyrighted work.
4. to publicly exhibit the copyrighted work.

So the goal of copyright law is simple: to protect creators from having their works exhibited, stolen, copied, or reproduced without their consent. It is also good to know that copyright covers a form of material expression (such as a photograph) but not the ideas, techniques, or facts about the work. So if you try to recreate an already existing photo by using similar poses and composition, it won´t be considered an infringement of the original photographer's rights. The same applies if one uses similar techniques of editing a picture, for example, the same color combination.

It should be also mentioned here, that the Copyright protection of an image is not unlimited. The duration of copyright varies from country to country. In the U.S., for example, copyright lasts for your entire life and 70 years after that if you created your photo after 1978. In some countries, the duration is slightly different; for example, it is only 50 years in China. See this Wikipedia article for an overview of the situation in various countries worldwide.  After the copyright expires, there are typically no more restrictions on the use of your images. 

2. Brief History of Photography Copyright.

Copyright is not a new idea. The first copyright law was signed in the United Kingdom in 1709, and the concept of recognizing and protecting the creators' work has been influential ever since. The Berne Convention of 1886 was the first international agreement on the global administration of copyright. The basic concept is still recognized internationally today, although the degree of enforcement may vary across jurisdictions.

Although the digital age facilitates access to all forms of digital content, it is essential to remember that the principle of copyright has remained the same around the world - copyrighted works cannot be used without permission.

3. Terms to know: Image Theft, Image Protection, Copyright Infringement & Co.

Here are some terms we suggest you get a look at for a better understanding of the topic:

  • Image Theft arises when someone uses an image without permission or a valid license from the image owner and the copyright holder. For example, a travel blogger might use a picture of the Eiffel Tower that he or she found in a Google search without obtaining a license or permission from the copyright owner.

  • Unauthorized Use of an Image - usage of a photo without the image owner's permission or outside the terms of a license. For example, the image owner has only authorized its use for print, not digital use; therefore, publishing the image online is a violation of copyright law. Similarly, the image owner may allow non-commercial use. Therefore, commercial use of the picture would be an unauthorized use or a breach of contract.

  • Copyright Infringement takes place when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or transformed into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner, which means his copyrights were violated.

  • Image Protection are mechanisms that help secure an image from being misused and avoid image theft or unauthorized use. This is especially relevant in the digital context and there are several techniques and tools that help to protect images from being stolen.

  • Copyright Notice - a notice placed on the work or displayed in the context of the work that provides information about copyright ownership.

  • Personality Rights  - a set of rights of a photographed person. Although photographers own the copyright of their work from the moment of creation, they may not have all rights to publish or distribute the image. Depending on the country in which they operate and intend to use the picture, they may need permission from the person shown in the picture. 
  • Image Licensing - giving someone permission to publish your photograph or create a certain number of products with your photo within a specific period, and importantly, compensating you accordingly. At the same time, selling a license does not mean giving up your copyright to an image. 

Learn more about Fair Licensing


4. Main Types of Picture Licenses.

Before we get into the practical tips that will help you protect your photos online, let's look at the main photo licensing types you surely need to know about:

Rights-managed (RM) license. In this case, a license fee must be paid to use the image. The conditions of licensing can vary and are controlled by the copyright owner. Restrictions may apply for editorial or commercial use, region of usage, and platform-based limitations are also common regarding online or offline use.  The price for the use may depend on the medium where the image is posted, the print run, the time of use, and even on the positioning of the picture. All details should be specified in the agreement between the image owner or copyright holder and the prospective user of the image. The process of entering such an agreement is often facilitated by photo agencies that offer rights-managed content.

Royalty-Free (RF) License. The name of the license is somewhat misleading. The royalty-free images are not license-free and are usually not free of charge. The use of the photos may also be restricted, but the licensing is often broader in terms of time and space if limited at all. Often only a one-time payment is required for unlimited use. Compared to the rights-managed license, a photo with an RF license can often be purchased relatively cheaply. The picture agencies try to sell their pictures as often as possible. Therefore, the distribution of images is high. RF pictures are usually not distributed exclusively by one agency but the photographers often sell the same pictures through multiple channels. The vast majority of photos available through online stock agencies are under the RF license model.

Creative Commons (CC). Under a Creative Commons license, the copyright holder allows images to be used and distributed for free under certain conditions. Creative Commons licenses make it easy for the person who owns the copyright to specify how interested parties may use their work. Images with Creative Commons licenses can usually be used freely, but you must credit the copyright holder. There are different types of Creative Commons licenses. Some specify that the work can only be used for non-commercial purposes. 

Public domain/ free license. When an image is in the public domain, it means that no one owns the exclusive copyright to it and that it is not trademarked. It belongs to the public, and anyone can use it. Common reasons include the photographer's death or relinquishment of all rights to a photographer's work. However, attribution of the image may be needed depending on the requirements posed by the platform through which the picture is distributed.

5. Five effective Ways to prevent your Images from being stolen.

Publishing photos on the Internet inevitably carries the risk of someone taking them without permission. Below is a collection of tips and best practices to help you prevent your images from being copied or stolen online.

1. Include a Copyright Notice

If you're publishing an image, it's essential to add a copyright notice. For example, you can use the standard © 2022, Your company or name. Such copyright notices serve as a preliminary warning to those thinking of using your images without consent and significantly reduce the chances of your work being stolen.

2. Watermark Your Photos

Another way to protect your photos is to watermark them. Watermarks are often used by stock photography providers and are often seen in the "preview image" section. Adding a small piece of text, or a logo, to the corner of a photograph is a great way to demonstrate ownership of your pictures. However, more efficient would be to use a semi-transparent watermark all over the image, making it difficult for others to crop or clone out the watermark. It can be pretty distracting when someone views your photos, but it is a great protection method nevertheless. There are providers of "invisible" watermarks. An invisible watermark does not affect the viewing experience but serves as evidence that a picture belongs to you. Naturally, the deterrence effect is higher with visible watermarks.

3. Don´t share High-Resolution Photos

Low-resolution images are less in demand than high-resolution ones. Low-resolution photos load quickly but are difficult, if not impossible, to use for commercial purposes due to their compressed formats. Where possible, try and upload your images in a low-resolution format. Such picture size is often enough for the intended purpose.

4. Disable Hotlinking/Crosslinking

Hotlinking, sometimes referred to as Crosslinking or Framing, is the practice of linking or embedding images hosted on an external server. Not only do many people think that embedding a picture from another service is not wrong - it is even legal under certain circumstances, for example in the European Union.

There are several ways to disable hotlinking: 1. Disable hotlinking in the settings of your domain host; 2. disable it in the .htaccess file of your web server; 3. if your website is created on WordPress, you can apply plugins like, for example, the All In One WP Security & Firewall plugin. If you don't want to play around with coding yourself, many content delivery networks (so-called CDNs) also offer help with disabling hotlinking. Depending on the solution implemented, hotlinking can be entirely stopped, or a warning message can appear to alarm the user if someone wants to embed your image.

5. Disable Right Click

The quickest way to download photos online is to right-click and select "Save image as," which immediately downloads the image to your computer. One way to prevent your pictures from being saved and used is to disable the right-click feature on the webpage. Some website tools support this feature, or you can disable it via JavaScript or HTML codes, but keep in mind that this merely disables the right-click feature - people can still download images via direct links or take screenshots. So another protection method could be disabling screenshots.

For getting specific instructions, please read our Blog Article.

6. #Tips and #Reminders for Searching Images on the Internet.

It is pretty challenging to find out if your photos have been used online unless someone tells you about it or you find it yourself. There are also paid services that will help you manage to do that. But first, let's look at how you can handle this issue without any help. Here are some ways to do an image search on your own:

Image search via Google.

For a reverse image search via Google, you need to go to Google Images and click on the camera icon in the search box.

You can then use the URL of the image from your website or upload the photo from your computer using drag-and-drop.


You can then use the URL of the image from your website or upload the photo from your computer using drag-and-drop.

Google will then display a list of images similar to the picture you uploaded.

In this way, you can efficiently perform an image search for your work. However, keep in mind that manual searches require time and effort. It is especially true for those who have a large number of photos. The important point is that images should be checked separately and at regular intervals of time. It would be the best way to protect yourself from image theft and receive compensation.

Direct image search.

Another viable approach is not to start the search from the image but to put potential users at the beginning of the investigation. For example, operators of online stores can regularly visit their competitors' websites and search for their images there. In this context, it is often worthwhile for professional photographers to periodically check the online presence of old licensees and customers or even former prospects with whom no license agreement has been concluded.

To learn about the other possible ways to find your images on the web, read the article "5 useful Tips on how to find your Stolen Photos online".

7. How to enforce your Image Copyright?

If you find out that your photos are being used without your permission, it can be very frustrating and upsetting. Deal with the situation calmly by taking the following steps:

  • Request To Remove

If you find that your images are being used on a third person's website, first take screenshots for reference and evidence. You will need to find out the website owner's contact information and contact them via email. The contact information can usually be found in the "Contact Us" or "Legal Notice" section. You may need to check the social media pages or do a Google search if you don't find it on the website.

  • Request To Pay

If someone is using your image and even wants to continue doing so, you can ask them to pay for the photo. If you request to remove the image and pay for it, be professional by introducing yourself as the photographer or rights owner and attach all the necessary proof, including an invoice.

In any case, follow up a few times if you do not receive a response. If the person does not respond even after repeated emails, you may need to take legal action oruse special Copyright Enforcement Services. 

Learn more about Fair Licensing

  • Take Legal Actions

If someone uses an image on a website, it can cost you a lot of money to take legal action. However, it may often be beneficial for you to pursue the case. For this issue contact a specialized lawyer or use legal tech services for Copyright Enforcement.

8. Analysis of Copyright Tracking Solutions/ Pros & Cons.

There are several companies that help photographers and agencies identify and resolve copyright infringement. Here we list some of the most popular providers in this field. The notable service providers include PIXRAY, Image Rights, PicRights, PIXSY, Copytrack, Lapixa, and ImageProtect.

Most of these copyright tracking services work similarly.

  1. You sign up for their online service.
  2. You upload your photos to their platform.
  3. Their service searches for your photos on the Internet.
  4. You identify the images that you believe are infringing copyright.
  5. The copyright enforcement company, a collection agency, or a lawyer contacts the infringer and asks them to pay fees or damages for the illegal image use.

While the image tracking technology used, the web portals provided, and the approach to collecting money from copyright infringers vary in detail; all leading tracking providers follow the rough pattern described above.

Advantages of using Copyright Enforcement Services

They conduct a regular search of your images, which spares you a considerable amount of time and is usually much more efficient than a manual search.

Most photography copyright enforcement companies operate on a contingency basis, charging only a percentage of payments collected from copyright infringers. So you pay only in case the infringement was detected and pursued.

You don´t have to go search for a suitable lawyer on your own as most legal tech companies have their own legal partners.

Cons of using Copyright Enforcement Services

Some of the Copyright Tracking Services have high base fees. 

It may happen that a company doesn´t have a legal partner in the residence country of the infringer.

 Sometimes such companies send a lawyer after persons who took your image by mistake.

Working with some Copyright Enforcement providers, you may have to assign your claim to a third party for enforcement purposes, which means you may give up control of your case to a certain degree.

For the best Practices in Copyright Tracking as suggested by Picture Industry Organization CEPIC check out this article.

As you see, it seems to be enough reasons not to use a classic Copyright Service to resolve your infringement. The strongest argument is that more and more photographers and photo agencies realize that sending a lawyer after an infringer is not always the best solution. In many 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, what  Fair Licensing does. 

Sign up for our newsletter to learn more about the future of copyright enforcement:

Learn more about Fair Licensing


9. Key Takeaways

Almost all the images are copyrighted. "Copyright-free" images are infrequent. However, there are copyright-protected images (CC) that can be used for free under certain circumstances.

If you publish your pictures online, there is always a risk of copyright infringement. You can minimize this and prevent image theft by taking some measures before publishing a photo online.

It is possible to detect copyright infringement on your own using a Google reverse search or by monitoring the websites of potential infringers.

Otherwise, there are several copyright tracking companies that may help you to enforce your image owner´s rights. They have a similar workflow, but it is important to check their specifics to choose the right one for you.

Fair Licensing offers an alternative way to deal with Copyright infringements.  It helps you to make licensing offers to copyright infringers and turn them into customers, not legal opponents. With Fair Licensing you eliminate the middle man and have full control over the communication with your new customers.

Related Articles from our Blog.

Fair Licensing is the tool to settle copyright violations the fair & friendly way.


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