Thinking Tech

How to protect your copyrighted images on the Web

Posting in Healthcare

Any professional who does not want their images used without permission can and should protect them. Failing to take basic steps is like leaving a buffet lunch out by the street, walking away, and then calling the cops when someone takes a carrot.

Author's Note: The article that follows was inspired by a discussion thread at Rethinking Healthcare. Those interested in the provisions of the Fair Use exception to the Copyright Act will find the full text here, and a good discussion here.

Ever since the Web was spun artists have worried about having their work stolen.

With good reason. Images are easy to save on any browser. Just right-click and hit save. (On a one-button Mac it's even easier.)

Copying pages and the images on them is essential to how the Web works. Servers cache pages to make them easier to deliver. PCs save copies until they are cleared or overwritten. There are thousands of copies of this Web page in servers and clients around the world right now, even if only a few hundred people ever read it.

I like using illustrations in my stories, but when I simply linked to them, in the late 1990s, I was accused of "stealing bandwidth."

So through trial and error I developed a policy. I would try to use small versions of each image, just big enough to fit the space. I would credit sources. I would name them and link to them. If it was a piece of art or a poster that was being sold online, I'd link to the sales page. And I'd say nice things.

That usually works. Publicity is good. Art that isn't seen doesn't exist. But this week I ran into someone who hadn't gotten the good word about publicity. He called me a thief. And he asked, "how do I protect my stuff?"

The easiest, simplest way is with a copyright notice. Create a file called index.htm with your reprint policy and put it in the images directory of the server where your images are hosted.

I would also recommend you put in your e-mail address and a link on or near each image. Make sure friends who use your images with permission take the text as well.

But there are also many things technology can do. One reason I don't fret about using images any more is because of such tools. There are several types of tools on the market:

Watermarks can be had free. The simplest watermark is a URL linked to your copyright and reprint policy. These sit within the image, covering them only partially. I never use such images without credit. (The image above is from Bytescout, which offers digital watermarking services.)

There are many watermark programs out there. Digimarc is popular, and has been available as a plug-in to Adobe Photoshop since 1996. Other such programs include WatermarkIt, WinWatermark, and AoAoPhoto. Watermark 0.0.1 is open source.

HTML commands can be written that disable the right-click function on any Web page. Like this:
<body oncontextmenu="alert('You may not right click'); return false;">
Or put in an HTML table command that makes copying difficult. A robots.txt file can keep search engines like Google from caching your images and making them available.

Copy protection programs like Imagesafe encapsulate images into a Java applet, making them harder to copy. CopySafe Web can encrypt images or whole web pages to make them tougher to download. There are even services that exist specifically to protect your images.

None of these tools will stop the most dedicated thief. If someone is using a screen capture program, they can extract any image from the captured page, then post it. For this reason a sharp eye is a good thing. Use Google Images to seek out your images and track down the culprits. If you have taken precautions like watermarking, you have an airtight case.

Point is, any professional who does not want their images used without permission can and should protect them. Failing to take basic steps is like leaving a buffet lunch out by the street, walking away, and then calling the cops when someone takes a carrot.

Final Thoughts: I want to thank all who participated in this thread for their input. It has taught me a lot. I apologize for my tone, apologize for my actions, apologize for any offense my words caused anyone. But if you want to protect your work, please excuse my tone and explanations. Please use the tools provided.

Editor's Note: Please see comment No. 147 for a note from SmartPlanet's editor-in-chief.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure