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How to Protect Your Photos Online: Lessons from a Victim of Image Theft

Padlock over picture
(Image: DALL-E 3)
Question: I just found one of my pictures on someone else’s web site. In fact, they’re using it to make money by showing it and displaying advertising around it, and that annoys me to no end. What can I do?

Welcome to the internet, where technology makes copying and stealing just about anything you see downright trivial.

I’ll be honest … the photo that was stolen was mine.

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Preventing image theft

Using my own experience with a stolen photo as an example, I’ll discuss image theft on the internet. While it’s nearly impossible to completely prevent it, you can make it less appealing by “branding” the image with a watermark or text overlay. If you discover your images have been stolen, contact the site owner, which often resolves the issue. Taking legal action through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is also an option.

There are things I can do, but it’s not guaranteed I’ll be successful unless I haul in a lawyer, and then it starts to cost more than it’s worth.

What I should have done is taken a couple of steps to make it less desirable to copy the photo.

But note, I didn’t say “impossible”.

It’s pretty much impossible to make it impossible to steal an image off of the web. I’ve seen lots of sites that try to disable the browser functionality that allows you to save a picture to disk, but the reality is that anything you display on the screen can be captured, one way or another.


“Prevention” is a misnomer, since as I said, if it can be seen, it can be captured, but there are things you can do to make it less desirable to steal your photo.

First, let me show you the photo of mine that was stolen:

Corgi Puppies

This comes from a page on my personal website.

Cute puppies, eh? Apparently others thought so as well, as I found the photo on a themed photo sharing site:

Stolen Corgi Puppies Photo

Perhaps the simplest, and most important thing I could have done would have been to “brand” the photo. Here’s what I mean:

Branded Photo of Corgi Puppies

Here all I’ve done is overlaid some text claiming ownership onto the photo using a photo editing tool. It’s unfortunate that it’s somewhat distracting, but you can see I placed it in such a way that it doesn’t obscure the subjects of the photo, and it’s a little work to crop out.

This is actually enough to discourage a lot of theft. And for the majority of theft that continues, your “brand” – in my case copyright and URL – travels with it. The down site, of course, is that it’s somewhat time consuming to brand all the photos that you post on the internet.

Unfortunately it’s still possible for a thief with image editing tools like PhotoShop to crop out the text, or erase it. I know of no way to stop them – all we can do is force them to work for it. And if found, it’s then clear that not only did they steal your image, but they took extra steps to remove your ownership indication.

Bandwidth Theft

There’s another type of image theft that’s easier to deal with once caught. In these cases, the thieves don’t bother to make a copy of the image on their own server, they just reference it directly from yours. As an example, you’ll see that the very first photo in this article is hosted not on, but on a different site completely … If I didn’t own that site, that would be bandwidth theft … displaying a picture from someone else’s website on yours. It’s called bandwidth theft because you’re using their bandwidth to display images on your site.

Bandwidth theft is really kinda stupid, because once detected, it’s so easy to deal with. Make a copy of the image for your own use, and change all your references to that image to be to the new one. Now change the old image to be something else. Perhaps an advertisement for your own site, or an image of text that says “bandwidth theft is bad”.

I can’t do that with the puppy pictures, because the thief made a copy on his or her own server. This technique only works if they simply display the picture directly from your server with out making a copy.

Dealing With Theft

So what can you do if you find your photo has been stolen?

Step one is simple: contact the site owner. If it’s not obvious who that is (as it wasn’t for the site I’m dealing with), then check the domain registration for that site and complain to the listed contact. In about 90% of the cases, the owner is often unaware that theft has occurred, and will remove the material on request. These are the good guys who simply made a mistake.

The other 10% get more problematical. There are approaches using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to complain to the website’s hosting provider that can result in the entire website being taken down. ISP’s apparently take the DMCA very seriously. (Caveat: I am in no way a lawyer, and strongly suggest that you do your own research into copyright law and the DMCA before pursuing this course, including, if appropriate, engaging legal representation.)

In many remaining cases, there’s little else that can be pragmatically done. Yes, you could spend a lot of time, energy and perhaps money pursuing the offender. You could even win. In some cases, it might well be worth it. But for the common user – like say myself in this puppy photo case – it probably isn’t.


After writing the article above, I followed my own advice. Using domain information for the website in question, I contacted the site owner, and requested that he take down my photo.

He responded very quickly, and indicated that he would do so.

Not surprisingly, the site is a collection of photos submitted by the public. It was a random person, not the site owner, that copied the photo and submitted it for republication. In this situation it’s very difficult for a site owner to confirm that a photo (or video, or article, or any form of content) is, in fact, owned by the submitter.

In the subsequent email exchange, rather than taking down the photo, we elected to simply replace it with my branded version, and allow it to be used with my permission. Why would I do so? The branding turns into a little free advertising for me.

And those puppies are darned cute.

You can see the result, on the site

It’s an aptly named site. Feeling sad? It’s hard to stay that way after looking at some of the photos there.

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9 comments on “How to Protect Your Photos Online: Lessons from a Victim of Image Theft”

  1. Interesting article indeed. I had this happen to me about 6 years ago where the offender was stealing my bandwidth. I changed the referenced photo with an advertisement for my (at that time) hosting and design site. I felt vindicated! Then while on a chat board of a community I was hanging with, I made mention of this fact. Within minutes the advertisement for my site was gone! The offender was a member of my chat community. I tracked down just who it was and reported his offence to our moderators. Isn’t revenge sweet?

  2. Hello,
    well whats the problem is that I have a lot of pictures on my piczo and loads of people like them and they want to copy them well they have and one of my mates has a piczo and the pictures that she has she protects them from getting snatched.
    Am going to ask a quistion…
    What do I do to make my pictures be protected like my mate just lik my mates?

  3. I have a person using personal photos, without permission, on their website. I have contacted both the owner and the host, and nothing has been done. How can I remove them?

  4. To Quinton. Your sarcasm is plain stupid. If the picture is not important, why stealing it? People who steal any content make me totally sick and the only thing I wish for them is to eat fruits of their own crime. I simply can’t imagine that some people actually grow up wihout a trace of moral in their system, do not learn the difference between right and wrong and think it’s perfectly fine to steal other people’s work.

  5. i am a web developer. and was told by my boss to gather images to put on a blog for a site that we are getting ready make live. I was instructed to search google and as long as the images had no copyright ON them, it was ok. I feel like I’m stealing.

    Look for public domain photos, and also research Creative Commons – many photos and other works are published with a creative commons license that allows reuse under various conditions. Best of all, I believe Google Image Search, as well as Flick and perhaps other services often allow you to search within those CC restrictions.


  6. You missed something very important in the OP’s question. He said that his boss told him that if there’s no copyright notice on the photo, that he was OK…” This is flat out wrong. The copyright exists for the photographer the instant the photo is taken. No (c) or other copyright mark has been required since (I think) 1977 when the Congress passed a major overhaul of the copyright laws.


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