How to Protect Your Images Online - The Complete Guide

Amrish Mudgal - Author Amrish Mudgal on Jan 28, 2018

If you are a photographer and publish your work online, then chances are, that you have faced the unfortunate yet increasingly common situation of your images being stolen, copied and used without your permission. In this article, we present the complete guide on how to protect your images online. 

Remember Kris J. Boorman? His jaw-dropping image of Mount Fuji’s triangular silhouette caught from the volcano’s summit blew away everyone in the fraternity – it became the #1 photograph on Reddit. Why then did he regret posting it? For one, the image got pirated right on the same thread, and there was no stopping it. The worst part was that the people reposted the image without giving him due credit.

As a photographer, it is always frustrating and often loss-making. Since you can’t stop publishing your work on your portfolio website, blog, social networks or other photography communities and miss out on all the exposure internet gives you. Therefore it’s important to take steps to protect the work that you publish online.

Know Your Photography Copyrights

Before we start discussing the various ways by which you can protect your images online, you must understand your rights as a photographer. Here's the big question that you must know the answer of:

What are my rights as a photographer over my photographs?

As a photographer, you own the full copyrights to the photographs you take, until you transfer some/all copyrights to someone else.
This means that you own these exclusive right to your photographs:

  1. to reproduce the photograph;
  2. to prepare derivative works based upon the photograph;
  3. to distribute copies of the photograph to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  4. to display the photograph publicly;

Source: U.S. Copyright Act at 17 U.S.C. 106

To sum up, you’ve full ownership over every photograph you take. When it comes to how the image/photo is to be used/printed/displayed/distributed/sold/transferred/leased etc., you are the final authority.

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How to protect your images online?

Now, coming to the point – how can you avoid becoming a piracy victim. Here are a few things that you can do:

Watermark Your Images

Add a visible watermark to all your images before you upload them. Well, the whole idea behind watermarking your images is establishing the copyright and protecting the images. If placed cleverly (in a hard to remove location), a watermark can save your image from unauthorized use. You can put anything like your name, your websites/blog’s name or logo as the watermark. Check out the following examples:

You can watermark your images while you are editing them or once the editing is done. There are a lot of watermarking software available on the market. For the photographers, who are always on the go – you can download watermarking apps like iWatermark or eZyWatermark liteSome portfolio website builders like Pixpa let you watermark your images when you are uploading them.

The downside of using visible watermarks is that if they are placed prominently on your image to do their job well, they also ruin your image. On the other hand, a small, unobtrusive watermark will not deter anyone from copying your image as it can be easily cropped or edited out of your image.

Apply an Invisible Watermark

Digimarc is a paid service that provides an Adobe Photoshop plugin that lets you add an imperceptible identifier to your images. Digimarc claims that its invisible watermark survives and continues to communicate ownership rights even after file format changes, editing or cropping of your images. Digimarc also comes with a search service that searches millions of websites across the internet to find images that bear your unique watermarks and puts together a list of sites where your images are indeed found.

There are several other software tools like Icemark available that you can use to apply invisible watermarks on your images.

Safeguard images on your website

Disabling the right-click on the images on your website/blog can also prevent illegal downloads. While, this won’t discourage image theft in totality, but it will reduce it to some level. Determined visitors can still find the source of the image by sifting through your website code or just take a screenshot of the image (this is where watermarks are helpful). Also, make sure that only low-resolution images are available on your website/blog for viewing and high-quality versions are only available for purchase and cannot be accessed directly by anyone.

Tip: Clearly state on your website that all images are copyrighted and anyone who wants to use them should contact you for permission.

Encourage people to purchase images by pricing them well

When pricing your images, try keeping yourself in the buyer’s shoes and ask yourself the question – “Will I be willing to buy the image at this price?” and when you find the right answer, then put the price tag. For more help, go through this pricing guide for photography. You can also use licensing tools like LicenseStream to license, transact and monitor your images.

Are my images protected after following all of the above techniques?

Not really! While the above-mentioned processes can reduce image theft, the only way to make sure your photos are never stolen is not to publish them online! Image theft is a reality all photographers face; the key is to protect yourself as much as you can while being prepared for when it does happen.

The big question then is:

What can I do when my images are stolen?

These are the steps you need to follow 

  • Find the images that are being used without your permission using reverse image search.
  • Many times, just a simple request to stop using the image illegally can be enough to dissuade the person who has stolen it.
  • Send a legal cease-and-desist notice.
  • Finally, based on the value you attach to an image, you can pursue the matter legally by filing a copyright infringement lawsuit

Reverse Image Search

You may think - its impossible to find all instances of my images being stolen and improperly reused. Quite to the contrary, there is a technology that makes the process as easy as a simple search.

What is Reverse Image Search?

Reverse Image Search is a technique that can help track your images wherever they are on the Internet by comparing your original image to all images indexed on the internet. Sifting through fake profiles, identifying unlabeled products, tracking down originals for reference, or even merely keeping a tab on your piece of art – the reverse image search has it all sorted for you. Think of it as the next Sherlock Holmes of the Information Age.

Here are the top 3 Reverse Image Search tools:

The competition is down to three rightful candidates: Google Reverse Image Search, TinEye, and Pixsy.

Google Reverse Image Search

Google Reverse Image Search is a free service by Google that lets you upload your image and searches for similar images across the internet. It can even find all the different sizes of the image and gives you a list of all sites that include that image. Google not only hunts for your images on the web but even finds out the context of the image you are searching against.

Here's a complete guide on how to use Google Reverse Image Search

Google Reverse Image Search showed 2,25,00,000 results of Kris Boorman's Mt. Fuji image being used on different web pages across the internet.

Google Reverse Image Search showed 2,25,00,000 results of Kris Boorman's Mt. Fuji image being used on different web pages across the internet.


TinEye is another leading service that does reverse image search. TinEye is free for non-commercial use. TinEye continually crawls the web and adds images to its index. TinEye claims to have an index of over 25.4 billion images as of January 2018.  TinEye does a great job of searching images bot goes further by letting you sort, filter and categorize results easily. You can even compare by switching back and forth between your uploaded images and the search result images.

To make it even more convenient, TinEye also has browser extensions that allow you to search for any image on any web page by simply right-clicking on images in a web browser. 

Check out all the features of TinEye and make sure you see the FAQs on TinEye here.

TinEye -Reverse Image Search Results 


Another reverse image search tool that makes it much easier to spot the use of your images online is Pixsy. Instead of uploading your images one-by-one as you would with Google Reverse Image Search, you can connect any platform you store your photos on and import a batch of images in a click. They currently import photos from Flickr, 500px,  Tumblr, Dropbox and much more including your computer or your website.

Pixsy goes further than just searching for matches of your photos — it can also help you get paid for the work that was used without your authorization. They keep 50% of the recovered compensation, but in return, the only thing you need to do is click “Submit a case” nearby the match you want to go after. Pixsy will do the rest. They have an in-house team of licensing experts as well as a global network of law firms to take care of your case, from the initial negotiations to the final settlement. Pixsy has some limitations: they currently can’t pursue cases in some Asian or Eastern European countries due to the particularities of IP law there and, as a rule, they go after the commercial use of the photos, i.e., they won’t pursue someone using your photo as their wallpaper.

All the tools have different option to filter search results. You can get a list of sites hosting the full-sized version of your image or based on how recently they have posted it. Once you have the list of websites, you will have to further investigate manually if they are infringing your copyright. 


At the end of the day, these tools help to solve only a part of the problem. One should be well informed and be willing to take action to protect their intellectual property. In most cases though, photographers have to accept the reality that any image published online will eventually be copied, re-posted and reused.

When in doubt, ponder on what Kevin Spacey said:

"Give people what they want, when they want it, in the form, they want it in, at a reasonable price and they'll more likely pay for it rather than steal it. Well, some will still steal it, but I think we can take a bite out of piracy."

What are you doing to prevent your images from being stolen and reused without your permission? Share your thoughts with us.


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