If it Can be Seen, it Can be Copied

Protecting Your Images is Hard

It's a common scene: you post a beautiful, large image of your latest vacation, and you hope that people rush to your e-commerce site to buy those lucrative 20x30 prints. A week later, you find that someone has posted your image up on their website, as part of an unattractive mishmash of honeymoon ideas. Or someone you know has printed out their own private copy of the image and stuck it in a little frame on their desk. Or worse.

What's worse than the situations you discover is knowing that there are a lot of copies of your hard work that you'll never discover. They should have paid for those copies, because that's what feeds your kids.

That's when a lot of photographers take a lot of time, burn a lot of energy, and learn a lot about technology, in the hopes of finding a sure way of protecting those images. Let them see your artworks, but don't let anyone "steal" it!

Techniques which Don't Work

Here are a few techniques which get discussed repeatedly on photography forums, in the vain hope that these methods will somehow magically make it impossible for some lowlife cretin to snag an unauthorized copy of some precious image.

Disabling the Right Click
The most popular web browsers have a little menu which pops up on a right-click, including a "Save this Image..." item. The first thing many web publishers try to do is to disable this feature with strange JavaScript incantations, or by wrapping their images in heavy plugin wrappers like Shockwave Flash. Of course, if the viewer turns off JavaScript, they can click anyway. Or if they don't have the right version of the right plugin, they can't see how great your images look.
Embedding Forensic Data
There are small companies and big companies offering "secure" image programs, which inject invisible forensic evidence into your image files. The theory goes, anyone could visit a webpage, sniff out the images with this data, and report the violators to the copyright holders. Of course, what these snake-oil sales folks don't tell you is that a quick conversion to a plain bitmap format like BMP will scour the file of any invisible data that's not in the image itself. A simple unsharp mask or gaussian noise operation will destroy any of the invisible encoded bits which are kept in the image.
Picking your Filename
Oh, but if you name your image something searchable, like campfire-JXSMITH2005.jpg, then those are sure to show up with a quick Google scan. Well, except some search engines don't search by filenames. And many people who borrow nice looking images are probably going to replace that unwieldy filename with something simpler.

Oh, and you can't Disable the Print-Screen Key on many operating systems, either.

The only people inconvenienced by copy protection technologies are the legitimate viewers of your content. If you make it even slightly inconvenient for the honest visitor, they'll just click the next hyperlink and forget all about you. But if someone wants your image, and you've posted it on the Internet, then it's guaranteed that they'll make a perfect copy of whatever you've let them see.

Techniques which Work

If you want to protect your images, there are only three basic approaches which will actually work.

Damage Your Image
Stick a big fat ugly watermark over your images. Make those company names and © symbols as large as possible, and the more the better. Of course, it gets a bit hard to recognize the Grand Canyon behind all that egotistical logo-tistical "protection."
Shrink Your Image
Proudly display your masterpieces at nothing larger than 300x200 pixels. (Forget 72dpi.) Go ahead, show your photographic genius in the size of a postage stamp. Nobody will want to print out something which has such poor resolution. Of course, nobody will be inspired to whip out their credit card and buy a print, either.
Sequester Your Image
The obvious counterpart to the title of this page is, "If they can't see it, they can't copy it!" Well, that is true. Pull all those great images off the world wide web before someone can steal it. And before your talents are discovered by Arizona Highways.

That's it. Just those three. Mix and match in any way you like; they're guaranteed effective. Any other method trusts technology to do it for you, and we all know we can't trust technology. The image hounds will always have access to a lockpick that counteracts your locks.

Learn to Love Sharing

Some people are always bound and determined to get something for nothing. They'll work around whatever restrictions or limitations you impose, and they won't care if it's a horrible-looking photograph as long as it's free.

If you care about profits, this may be upsetting, until you realize that these types of people were never going to be a customer anyway. You can't "lose money" if they were never going to spend money.

One useful way to think about the occasional picture-copying is as an advertisement. A loss-leader that may bring some unexpected new customer to your door. Nobody's going to know you exist unless you show off your craft. Write off the loss against your advertising budget, if you have one.

If you embrace sharing, if you give out samples which few people would buy but many would enjoy, people are much more likely to contact you... with checkbook in hand.

Contact Ed Halley by email at ed@halley.cc.
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