Jon Ayres

Moscow, Russian Federation

I’m an American who has been living in Moscow since 2003. I enjoy discovering and photographing the many new things unheard of in...

The Myths and Realities of Digital Image Theft

The Myths and Realities of Digital Image TheftByJon D. Ayres

Being involved in digital art and photography for many years I have seen many misconceptions about digital image theft, especially lately. Of course any photographer and digital artist should be concern about having their work stolen and at present to only sure fire way to prevent digital image theft is just not to place your work on the internet, but lets be honest, image theft just does not happen as much as some people claim it does. For example, look at the number of people who are members of Red Bubble who post their work, how many have been caught using work they stole or have been caught stealing work posted on Red Bubble? Only one or two that I’m aware of, how many do you think are uploading work they stole? Considering the number of posters and the number of new members and post made every day, I would say the number of digital image thieves is very small if any at all. I read where one poster stated that they would no longer trust what she sees on Red Bubble because one person was caught uploading work that he stole from other artists and that is sad. I tend to trust people until I have a reason not to and when I see art work on different sites of the Internet, I will give the artist the benefit of the doubt until I have a reason not to because I consider myself also an artist. I take my own photographs and do my own post processing and conversions and I can prove that fact at any time to anybody, I want people to appreciate my art as I appreciate others art. From the forums of Red Bubble, it seems that some seem to think as Red Bubble becomes more popular, it will attract more image thieves. I can not argue with that, but let’s take a look at the types of image theft. Too many artists as I have said many times before, fail to even consider the business side of selling their art, they want to place their work on the Internet for people to see, admire and purchase, but are so afraid that somebody may steal their work and this fear many times lead to them taking actions that may protect their work in a small way if at all, but the price they will pay will be in lost sells and less admiration and appreciation for their work. Business is risks and gambles, both in a brick and mortar store or an Internet store and unless you’re willing to take some risks, you really have no business trying to sell anything.

Lately on the Red Bubble forums I have read where a few people are saying that they are seeing more and more work submitted by people who are using work and photos which are not theirs. I somewhat wonder just how true this really is, because very often, things are not the way it seems, yes, this also applies to digital art thieves. But like I said before I like to give the person the benefit of the doubt until I have reason not to. Of course, f you think somebody has stolen another artist’s work, you should bring that to the attention of the directors and administrators of the site so they can look into it. But often times what looks to be somebody else’s work in reality is not anybodies else work but the submitter. A good example of this is on several of the larger stock agencies. When I first started looking for a stock site to host some of my photos, I always do a search to see just what my competition was on the site and who are posting work like mine and what they are posting. Often I was in shock by what I found when I did a search for photos of Moscow. One every large stock site, looked as if the people posting photos of Moscow were all on the same tour, taking photos of the exact same things almost in the exact same locations, standing in exact same spot. That was how close most of the photos of Moscow matched each other, of the 30 or 40 people posting photos taken in Moscow; they all looked as if they were all taken by the same person. So you have to be very careful in making accusations against somebody. Also if an artist buys a photo they like from a stock site or photographer, many times they can use that photo in their art as they see fit and I have given other digital artists to use my photos in their art for free. I retain the copyright of the original photo and the artist has copyright on their art. You have to be very careful with making accusations against somebody. Of course we artists all have to lookout for each other, but that also is a responsibility to try and be absolutely sure before making n accusation against anybody. When I first started working in photography and digital art, I learn the importance of having a good attorney retained to handle situations such as this, its sad that in today’s world, every business or individual involved in business needs an attorney, but that is a fact and I have one. If anybody steals my work or other legal photo and digital art issues that may arise, then I let my attorney handle it, that is one of the reasons I have retained her.

In the early days of the Internet, I remember people only uploaded their images to show what they could do and many times the artist would be flattered if you said I would like to use your photo or art and they would let you use it for free, you only had to give recognition to the artist. The Internet was a gold mine for the ad agency, magazines and post card companies looking for digital art to use and in many cases for free. Even today there are many free graphic arts sites, one of the stock agencies I use even has a free section where photographers can donate work that can be downloaded and used for free. Though not as common as it used to be, businesses, companies, publishers sometimes seem to think they can download and use photos and graphic arts from the Internet for free. Case in point, here in Moscow a couple of years ago, a phone card company took a liking to the work of a local Moscow photographer and downloaded some of her photos to use on phone calling cards. The photographer just happen to be walking by a shop that sold phone cards in the subway and noticed several cards for sell with her photos on them, so she bought one of each and when she got home called the phone card company who tried to tell her that because her photos were on the Internet, they could be had for free, and they refused to pay for the work they took. Luckily the young lady knew an attorney who called the phone card company and told them that unless they were willing to pay for the work they stole, the matter would be settled in court. The young photographer ended up getting $500 per photo, which was about twice what she would normally get. That is why today, most businesses and publishers do not steal photos and art work from the Internet, because it is a no win situation for them and they know it. Yes, some businesses still take photos from the Internet, but they generally are small businesses who think they can get away with it without it being noticed, larger businesses and publishers know better and if they do not, they legal team will remind them. But this still does happen from time to time, consider Rebekka Guoleifsdottira, one of flickr’s most popular photographers. She’s posted the above composite to her flickrstream and written a post about how she’s been ripped off by Only-Dreaming, a London based print-selling company. Rebekka says that this store stole her photos, sold them for thousands of dollars and now will not pay her for what they stole from her. Rebekka tells how a friend of hers came across their store on ebay and recognized one of her prints. Rebekka looked into the matter and discovered 7 more of my photos being sold there. “I spent a good many days researching, going back thru their customer feedback, and was able to track back the sales of at LEAST 60 prints made from my images. These prints sold for a total sum of 2450 british pounds (around 4840 US$ )” said Rebekka. So far Rebekka’s attorney has only been able to get her images (which are all right’s reserved) off of Only-Dreeming’s website. Rebekka is an art student and single mother and could not afford a long drawn out legal battle. Only-Dreaming claims they bought the high resolution photos and did not know they were stolen. I tried Only-Dreaming web site and only the main page works, so maybe they are out of business now.

The second group of image thieves and the largest group are individuals and make believe artists and photographers who steal other’s work and claim it is their own. It is these thieves that I find the most disgusting. But even though lazy no talent sewer rats like this make the largest number of digital art thieves, considering the number of talented true artists today who post their work on the Internet, the number of lazy sewer rats will always be small. They seem to think that because there are so many digital artists posting their work on the Internet and there are so much digital art that they can help themselves to what ever they choose and nobody will notice, famous last words. I did a web search for that person who caused such a uproar on Red Bubble who was caught steal digital art, named Donkeyass or something like that. I noticed their web page is gone now, but that person still has artwork posted on quiet a few digital art agencies and sites. But word is getting out about Donkeyass. Thieves are not known for being smart, that is one reason why digital art thieves are pretty easy to catch. Just look at that fool Donkeyass, posting his stolen art all over the internet, as if nobody would notice it.

Just how do you catch digital art thieves? To a small degree its luck, as in the case when you accidentally stumble onto your work being used without your permission by another, most stock agencies are like large families, the membership generally look after one another. If you’re a member of a stock agency, then you generally look at other members photos and art and you have your favorite artists. I generally also look at other art and photography sites and have my favorite sites, if I notice a photo or art work on another site that looks like something another member of the stock agency I’m a member of that another member may have done, I will let them know about so they can check it out, same if I notice a photo or art piece in a magazine or advertisement, I will mention it the member I know, at least congratulate them, so they at least know their work has been noticed and if it is unauthorized use, then they are aware of it. Most stock agencies take image theft very seriously, both the thieves who steal members art and members who steal others art, so make the stack agency aware of images which may have been stolen. Some stock agencies use digital finger prints, each photo or art work uploaded to the site is digitally fingerprinted, then if the photo is right clicked, downloaded or saved, it can be traced right to where it was downloaded and by whom. There is nothing wrong with saving a photo you like, its how you use it that can cause trouble. Here is a very interesting link on digital fingerprinting:
Canada has a new digital police force whose job is to search the Internet for digital thieves. Canada Seeks Digital Cops to Catch Digital Thieves
This is only a few of the many ways to catch digital thieves.

How not to protect your work

The methods vary, but remember, there are ways around most methods of protection if a thief knows what they are doing. Some mistakenly believe that disabling right click saving will protect their work, but I’m afraid these people only have a false sense of security. All a image thief has to do is use a screen capture to save a photo or art work. I have an Adobe program that I use to save web pages to make my own reference manuals (for my own use), I remember not long ago on one of the Red Bubble forums a lady saying how well protected her photos were on her site because she had disabled right click saving. Well, I copied her complete web site in less than 30 seconds, then extracted all the photos from the pdf file, nothing any easier than that. In less than 30 seconds, I had a copy of every photo and art work on her site. There are programs where all you have to do is enter a web address and it will download every photo or picture that are on the web site. So you can very well see that disabling right clicking does nothing. As a matter of fact enabling right clicking has helped me make sells. Many of my clients like to save my work and show their clients if they are interested in having my work, so I have no problems with right clicking as long as the person doing the right clicking does the responsible thing. I’m against disabling right clicking for several reasons, first, it does not work, second, I make sells by allowing people to right click and save a low resolution copy of my work and third, I live in Moscow, Russia, my family likes in the US, I want my family to be able to right click and save my work. Now if you right click my work and save it then use it yourself for financial gain gain or claim it is your work, you better hope that I do not find out about it.

Watermarking is one of the best ways to protect your work, but many people not only watermark their work wrong, but also have no idea of the real reason for watermarking. Most people feel that watermarking is to make it hard for an image thief to use their work, well guess again, a good image thief knows how to remove most watermarks. Some think that by putting a big watermark across the middle of your artwork will protect it and in most cases it does, but it also makes your artwork look very bad and unprofessional and could very well cost you sells, that is why it is not bothered with by most digital thieves, they only want good art. In my and a lot of other people’s mind, a big bold watermark across a photo or art piece completely destroys it. Faded watermarks or transparent watermarks are better, but faded watermarks still take away from the photo. But this really is not the purpose of watermarks. Watermarks are for showing that a photo is copyrighted and how holds the copyright and in my case to show that I am the artist who created the art and that in a lot of cases keeps image thieves away. The purpose of watermarking is not to make it hard for an image thief to steal your work, but to show who owns and copyrighted the work. Then if the case ends up in court, the image thief is already sunk because even if they remove the watermark, that only makes your case stronger. The image thief has lost before they even began, that’s why most professional image thieves stay away from watermarked photos. And for this purpose, a small watermark is all it takes. Remember, if a professional image thief wants your digital art, they can remove a large watermark just as easy as they can crop a small watermark on the corner edge of a photo. Watermarks are for showing who owns a photo and the copyright and this is very strong in courts of law, especially when you show that the watermark has been removed. For this reason, watermarking is one of the best protections for photos. But only if you do it right will it help your sells, not take away from your sells. There are many digital arts now, the competition is very strong and if your going to make sells, you have to provide a pleasing to the eye product, do not let your watermarking take away from your work, if you do, a buyer will go somewhere else to find their art. As I said, most professional digital art thieves and businesses do not try and take watermark photos because they are copyrighted and if caught, it could be very expensive for the business or pro image thief. But the lazy make believe digital artists are the main ones who steal watermarked work for their own use or to claim as their own work and in a lot of cases the individual make believe digital artists can be the hardest to catch because they can hide among the true digital artists, but they are also the easiest to catch, because they are stupid.

How do you protect your digital master pieces?

Every stock agency, every art site, every web page where photos can be posted, should make it clear that digital art theft will not be tolerated, either by people downloading art (by downloading I mean for their own use) or by artists who are members of the agency. That all work is copyrighted. That fact alone is enough to make most people leave your work alone. And that if caught, the agency will take what ever actions needed to rectify the situation and by legal means if required. This warning should be placed on every page which has a photograph or art work is found. Do not make threats that only encourage image theft, its like waving a red flag in front of a bull. The digital image thieves who know what they are doing are few in number and will not be stopped no matter what, but thankfully they only concentrate on photos and artwork that big money can be made on, not art work like on Red Bubble or other stock photo sites like this. Face facts, if your work was truly good enough to make big bucks, you would not be here, would you?

Your stock agency should refuse to use hot linking, hot linking is one of the easiest way for the digital image thief to steal images, all they have to do is copy the code and place it on their web page and whola, look at what they have now, your photo or photos all for themselves.
If you’re more worried about people stealing our masterpieces than you are about selling them, then do not list your gallery or portfolio on the Internet search engines. The less people who know about your work or where to find, the lesser number of digital image thieves who can find your work. If your more concerned about selling your work and being an successful artist, then submit your gallery and portfolio to Internet search engines. Business is risky, just look at the number of businesses robbed and broken into each day, even on the Internet, but you can make your Internet business safe if you choose to. Use numbers instead of letters or place a number somewhere in the photo name, misspell the photo name, but be careful if you want customers

Using low resolution photos as examples is one of the best ways to protect your work, I know some have said, “Oh I downloaded a photo from Red Bubble and made a post card with it” I mean really, now how about trying to resize that photo to a more useful size, you may be able to get a 4 inch by 6 inch card made using that photo if your lucky, but any larger forget it. Having low resolution examples is the best way to protect your work and one of the ones I prefer most. Make it 4×6 inches (or smaller) at a resolution of 72dpi and that’ll make it near useless for printing purposes, unless the user wants to shrink it to half the size 2×3 inches to get a good resolution for printing.

Watermarking your photos, some believe they need a big watermark across their photo, I do not, and a small watermark is all that’s needed. Some like me place it in a corner of the photo, some place it in the middle and others somewhere like curved around a car wheel, on a church steeple or in another unnoticeable place in the photo or art work. The reason for this is to be able to prove that the image belongs to you. But to ruin the image in an effort to save it, defeats the purpose of having the image for sell in the first place. Digital art is now very competitive, will no telling how many artists doing it now. You have to keep your work appealing and a big watermark across your work just is not very appealing to most people looking to buy a piece of art. Though watermarking can make it a nuisance for the person to steal it, but watermarking is ugly, and you’d pretty much have to destroy the photo before someone like myself would have trouble removing it, is that the type of work you want to present to prospective clients, I sure do not.

You may want to consider copyright protection or registering your copyright just in case you ever have to go to court. There have been a few cases where the court has ruled against the artist who created the work because they were unable to prove that they took steps to protect their copyright. Cases like this are few and far between, but they do happen from time to time.

Some stock agencies mark their photos with digital fingerprints. Digital Fingerprints allow a photo to be tracked, who downloads it, time it was downloaded, where it was downloaded to. Stock agencies have found that just mentioning that their photos are digitally Fingerprinting scares away most digital thieves.

There is only foolproof way to protect your digital art and that is just not put it on the Internet at all. No matter what means are developed to protect digital art on the Internet, it will only be a matter of time before a way to defeat it is found. Just last month in St. Petersburg there was a hackers convention, one of the sites hacked was one of the larger popular stock photo sites, the hackers were able to bypass the security of this stock agency and download every photo on that site. If you so paranoid that you think that your masterpieces will be stolen, then you should not place them on the Internet at all. If it can be seen with a browser, it can be taken, plain and simple.

How do you find out if your work has been stolen?
1. To find stolen text or articles: Check any search engine using exact original text near the top of your page and put it in quotes, also search for the title of your work.
2. Find stolen images: Use Google’s Image search or any other search engine that allows you to search for images and use any word that would describe your image. You can also search for the image file name but if they are smart (luckily most digital art thieves are not) they may have changed the name.
3. Use CopyScape which allows you to enter your web pages URL and it will bring up any site with your content on it (this often results in directory listings with a list of your menu links or other text) so look for listings with a significant amount of words being copied.

Steps to Remove Stolen Content
This information comes from Lori’s Web Design I used this information as my source for this part of my article, so I can not and do not in any way claim this to be mine, I rewrote the indo like I did in school when I had to do a report. So I give full credit to where I found this info. J. D. Ayres
Try and find the contact information for the web site where you find your stolen work. Most thieves are trying to sell what they steal or claim it as their own and usually always have contact info on the page. If they have no contact email on the website which is rare, then contact the sites hosting service.
Check their domain Whois for contact information. All registrants are supposed to provide contact info. Use InterNic Domain Names Search to search for the registrant’s or administrator’s contact info. There are several ways to search for contact info, Mapquest, USPS (United States Postal Service for those who do not know), Whitepages, Yahoo’s People Search, name search on Google or Yahoo, and the phone company where the thief is located. Many cities have online phone directories all over the world. If all of the contact info for the domain is false and the phone company says there is no person by that name listed in that city then this domain was likely purchased for illegal practices which is against the law. You can report them to the org that regulates registration of domains with Internic’s Whois Data Problem Report. They will then try to contact the owner of the domain and if this is not resolved within 15 days they will remove the domain. You will have to provide proof that you own the content in question and include all valid info to support your claim in your letter.
You have to be able to prove that you actually own the work. It is best to have your work registered with the US Copyright office, but not necessary really. You will then need to use proof from a third party online, for example, an electronic copy (save a browser copy) of Google’s cache of your page or website with a date. I generally make .pdf copies of every web page I have material on, so there is no question about when I posted it. I also never use my original photos for my work, only copies, so if needed I can provide the original photo with EXIF data and meta-data. Hopefully you have already done this from the start so if your wrk is stolen, you can prove who had the work first and posted it first. If your website with the stolen content has been online more than 1 year you can provide a link to the Way Back Machine which keeps copies of websites and will provide 3rd party proof who had the content online first. This does not prove who owns what, only who published it first.
Write the owner of the site with the copyright infringement and send a cease and desist letter. Even though you can do this yourself, it is best to have an attorney do it because attorneys are not brushed off as easily as individuals are. You may want to try writing and sending the letter yourself before contacting an attorney or just skip this part all together and contact the Internet host of the thief.
First look for the hosting company’s Terms of Service, every host site has them on a web page with rules about using the site. Most Internet providers (at least in the US) have strict rules about copyright infringement. Quote those rules which apply to your situation in your letter. The thief’s website will probably be removed if you can prove that they have content on it that belongs to you and is there without your permission. Some hosts will take the stolen content down immediately and possibly even remove the whole website. Some hosts will insist on your sending a DMCA report by certified mail according to their rules which are either on their website or they will send you by email. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a United States copyright law which implements two 1996 WIPO treaties. It criminalizes production and dissemination of technology, devices, or services that are used to circumvent measures that control access to copyrighted works (commonly known as DRM) and criminalizes the act of circumventing an access control, even when there is no infringement of copyright itself. It also heightens the penalties for copyright infringement on the Internet. On May 22, 2001, the European Union passed the EU Copyright Directive or EUCD, similar in many ways to the DMCA.
In rare cases contacting the offender or their hosting company may not provide the desired results, then look over their hosted sites and write all their advertisers, sponsors, membership organizations, subscribers, Internet Service Providers, Google AdSense as well as any other PayPerClick Services, Yahoo Directory, DMOZ directory, including those who are linked to their website. Inform them this person has stolen your copyrighted material.
If you have been unsuccessful so far, you have one more option left to you before taking legal action, to file a DMCA report with Google or Digital Millennium Copyright Act report. Also file a DMCA report with all the search engines this site is listed with. This is a very long and time consuming process and must be filed via regular certified mail. Make sure you have your facts correct and are completely truthful because if you are not, it could result in legal penalties for you. But this last method is very effective; outside of this your only recourse is taking the thief to court.
Of course all of the above really depends on the country where you live, the country where the thief lives and the country where the thief’s web site is hosted as to how you can deal with the situation.

How many digital art thieves are caught and how many get away? I There really is no telling, most US businesses and publications no longer take images and use them without permission because of the legal ramifications, remember I said most, some US businesses still do. From what I have seen on the Internet, it seems that the largest group of business digital image theft goes on in Britain now. Only-Dreaming as mentioned before is a British company, Active Magazine another UK outfit,
I guess UK businesses are like how US businesses used to be, if its on the Internet, then its free for the taking, US businesses pretty much wised up after a few lawsuits.

But digital image theft happens all over the world and the only way to stop it is not with software or disabling this or that, but for the honest digital artists to look out for one another. Be careful and try not to jump conclusions, but when you see something that may not be what it claims to be, contact the stock agency or web page director and tell them, I’m not sure, but I think this image may belong to somebody other than the person who posted it here. I maybe wrong, but maybe you should check this photo. Also contact the artist you think the photo may belong to and tell them that maybe they should take a look at the photo and see if it is theirs or not. If all the true digital artists unite and stand together and start kicking some digital thief tail, it will not take long for people to wise up. Of course there will always be thieves, that’s a fact of life, but if we unite and say “enough is enough, we’re not going to take it any more” it will not take long for this problem to be a lot lesser of a problem.
Jon D. Ayres

Lori’s Web Design Digital Fingerprints For Images: Detecting Image Theft for Free

Canada Seeks Digital Cops to Catch Digital Thieves

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