How to Stop People from Swiping Your Online Photos
Add a digital watermark to photos can protect them from unauthorized use.
CREDIT: Marksta, John D. McHugh
Imagine driving down the freeway and seeing a photo that you took on vacation plastered across a billboard. No one asked for your permission to use it, and you certainly haven't received a check.
Scenarios such as this one have struck fear into British photographers now that a new act has been passed that could make it much easier for companies and individuals to license online photos for their own use. While Parliament works out the details of its Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act, photographers are up in arms, and have renamed the law the Instagram Act, a reference to last year's Instagram debacle.
When Instagram released new terms of service, many thought it meant Instagram would have the right to sell users' photos to companies to place in ads, without the users' permission and without compensation. Instagram said that was not its intention, and struck the offending language.
UK lawmakers maintain the purpose of the act is to get vast collections of photos, such as those held by libraries and museums, out of the archives and onto the Internet. But critics claim the new law could apply to online photos that don't have an obvious owner — referred to as orphan photos. And those photos could originate anywhere, raising photographers' concerns about unauthorized use of their photos, no matter where they live.
Once photos are indexed by a search engine such as Google Images or posted by multiple people — say, on Pinterest — it's tough to determine who the rightful owners are.
What can you do to protect your photos?
Some photo-editing programs, such as Adobe Photoshop, allow users to add metadata — text entries that include copyright and ownership information. The data then travels with the file. It's not visible in the image, but can be viewed when a photo is imported into the same photo-editing tools and by online readers, such as Exifviewer, unless the data has been stripped by a photo-sharing service.
According to a March 2013 survey conducted by the International Press Telecommunications Council, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr consistently removed metadata, including authorship information. Pinterest, Tumblr and Google+ preserved metadata. (IPTC did not test Instagram, but in other tests, metadata was stripped from Instagram posts.)
What this means for you is that you should take the time to embed ownership information in your important digital files, and then steer clear of those sites that remove your photos' metadata.
You might also consider adding a digital watermark to your photos, which renders them unusable for commercial purposes by placing your name or logo over the photo. Earlier this year, Irish photographer John D. McHugh created a simple watermark app for iOS called Marksta, available for $1.99 in the App Store. Android users can try Add Watermark for $1.99 in Google Play.