Finding Copyright Infringements on the Web

This is an update (March 2020) of a post I wrote in 2014 as infringement search has changed since then.

If you share your photographs on the internet it is possible that people are using them online without your permission. No amount of transparent overlay images, right click disabling, watermarking, or other measures are going to stop this. Copyright infringements may be in the form of anything from display on personal blogs to commercial uses by large companies. Some may give you image credit, but most of the time I haven’t found this to be the case. Others may even take the credit for your image themselves! So how do you find these infringements?

How do you find your photographs being used without permission?

Search engines such as Google, Bing and Yandex have reverse image search capabilities you can use to find your photographs. Other websites such as Tineye do this exclusively, and other companies such as Infringement.report will do the searching for you (more on those kind of sites later). For most of these reverse search engines you can drag and drop an image from your computer to be searched, or copy and paste a URL instead. I find searching for individual images with the reverse search engines to be a tedious method when I have many many photos to search for. Luckily there is an easier way utilizing browser extensions.

Personally I use an extension for the Firefox browser called “Reverse Image Search” that allows me to search for infringements on all 4 services (Google, Tineye, Bing and Yandex) with just one right click. The search results open into new separate tabs. You can also download extensions that just use one of these sites for your reverse image search. Similar extensions exist for Google Chrome and other browsers as well. With most of my searches Google Images is the service that seems to find the most results. For more “popular” images I use all 4 services just to be thorough (they all have slightly different results). The extra time involved continually clicking results tabs with no results is easily paid for in the 1/50 times when Tineye or Yandex will yield a result other than my own websites. Frequently these are results that Google did not find. While TinEye is frequently mentioned by photographers looking for image uses, Google really is the best bet if you don’t have time to search all 4 services.

The screen capture below shows the Firefox extension in action – performing a reverse image search on one of my blog photographs. Sometimes searches on thumbnails and full size images yield different results. It can be worth it with “popular” images to do a search on both your thumbnails and full size images.

screenshot of right click menu for infringement reverse image search

When using a reverse image search plugin, you can right click to search for infringements of your images with multiple services at once.

What if I can’t right click on my images?

For some of you the majority of your images may be on a site that does not allow you to right click and search for the image. While many of my infringed photographs come from my blog, the bulk of my image library (2800+ images) is on Photoshelter. A right clicking isn’t possible for those images I simply batch upload downsized copies to my own website in a hidden folder. I then load each photo in a browser tab and do the right clicking from there. When I am finished I empty the folder (I don’t need search engines picking up on the contents). This is laborious but I do it slowly, and cycle through my images once every 2 months approximately. For those of you without a website – there are fewer options. You can right click on some social media sites if you have your images there.

The search results

The various sites show their search results in a similar fashion. Google, which seems to give the best results, keeps changing the layout but the content is the same. I usually scroll through the page(s) of results and am scanning the urls for sites that are not my own, or places I know I’ve uploaded the photograph (Flickr, social media, etc). From there I check out everything that is a potential infringement and determine what I want to do next.

Regardless of the reverse search engine used, I scan the results for sites that are not my own, or are social media posts that I did not make. One area to point out in the Google results is the area titled “Visually similar images”. Most of the time if the image I am searching shows up here, it is on one of my websites or social media profiles. However, I do think it is important that you hover over a photo in this area to verify its location. I have caught more than one infringement in the visually similar images area that did not show up in the main search results.

The above reverse image search methods may not be the only way to accomplish this kind of searching, but in the many methods I have tried it is currently the fastest and easiest (and free). People usually ask me how I pursue infringements but before they’ve found their own. There are a lot of options for searching for images but not everyone will find results, and if they do they may not be commercial in nature. I usually recommend you find some results on your own before using a service (paid) to find them or think too much about what to do with an infringement.

Sites that do the searching for you

There are many sites that will take a batch of your images and do reverse searches for you. While these sites have the advantage of being easy compared to searching yourself, there can be some major and costly drawbacks. Many require you to attempt any settlement for an infringements through them. In addition to this, and monthly/yearly subscriptions, they usually take far more of a percentage of any potential payments from infringers than lawyers would. If you are already part of a site like this, make sure you read the Terms of Service to see if you are contractually obligated to pursue infringements through them. I no longer use these sites for anything infringement related, with the exception of a few that can pursue things in Europe or Australia.

That said, there is one site I use for searching sets of images that is called Infringement.report. The search results are not as organized as some of the big sites, but they are higher quality. There are many instances of settlements I’ve had in the past where I missed it while searching on my own, but this site found the infringement. They also have zero interest in what you do with any infringements they may find for you, so what happens next is completely up to you. They are also not cheap, so as I said above, I’d search for images yourself first and verify you indeed have enough images being used to warrant the cost of this service or others like it.

I have found an infringement! So Now what?

My old blog post on this is going to be updated next, so I’ll link to it here when it is finished! Coming soon…

500px Now 100% Owned by Visual China Group

   Here I thought I had written my last blog post about 500px. I’ve written two in the past. First I outlined “9 Reasons I No Longer Use 500px” back in 2015 (would be 25 if I’d kept up with it) and then followed up with “500px Creates 500px.me – Hosts Photos in China” later that same year. Today it was announced that Visual China Group (VCG) bought 500px outright. People are now rightly concerned about their intellectual property. Honestly though – the warning signs were there years ago.

   This reminds of something important that I think more photographers and creatives should be doing. If you give a damn about your art, your intellectual property rights/copyright etc… then you should look before you leap. Yesterday the frenzy over a new (3 year old) social network really rose to a fever pitch and invitations, discussions, and complaints were flying around the internet – especially among photographers. I’ve asked a few times if anyone had read the Terms of Service (TOS). “No, who does that?” was the most frequent response. Well – YOU should. If you care about your work – then don’t place it in the hands of anyone until you know what they say they can do with it. I’ve read the TOS for G+, Flickr, Twitter, IG, Facebook, Ello, 500px, and every other social network I’ve ever joined. I did not enjoy reading them – slogging through that language is not fun. Why read it then? So I can have at least some idea (not being a lawyer) if it is a safe place to upload my work. I’m uncomfortable with the TOS on Twitter and FB so I don’t directly upload my work there (but do use the networks extensively). So if you’ve signed up for a new social network in the past few days and haven’t read the TOS – why not? Likewise have you re-read the terms on sites you’ve been on for a long time? Are you sure they aren’t acting like another 500px and have changed their TOS along the way?

Deleting your Work on 500px

   So rather than list another litany of 500px’s transgressions I’ll offer some suggestions to the photographers that have determined they don’t want their work any more. Deactivating your account won’t help you – your images will remain in the hands of… whoever. From my experience many years ago I would proceed to try to delete your work on 500px as follows:

  1. Determine the urls (direct to jpg) of a handful of photos you’ve uploaded on 500px. They likely start with “https://drscdn.500px.org/” or something similar.
  2. Manually, individually delete these images. I believe that is a 4 step process but I don’t have any images on there to test this for you.
  3. Check to see if that jpg is still on the site. Spoiler alert: it probably is (remember that part about allowing people to embed your image on websites around the world – the one in the TOS?).
  4. Contact support at 500px (which I’ve heard is just one employee at this point but hopefully there are more) and request your images be deleted for good. This might work, it might not. I’ve read it has for some, but not for others. In my case I know of four of my images still on their servers and no amount of requests, DMCA takedown notices (to their US based servers), and more emails/requests have removed those files. I do hope you have better luck.
  5. If the above works I’d do that for all of your photos on 500px. I realize now some of you are just now panicking about your photos going to China etc, but the process to remove your work from 500px may take some time. I encourage you to keep after them if that is what is required.

So what now?

   No matter what networks you share your work to – having your own website and making it the center of your activity is a good idea. It is only on your own website that you can truly control your content. Buy a domain name if you don’t already have one. I host mine with Dreamhost.com, though there are a lot of other great hosts out there. Research them before you sign up – and get the level of hosting you require. I also host my Image Library on a site called Photoshelter. If you just have a few photos online at this point you could start with a some basic WordPress galleries and get some experience with that platform.

Good luck!

500px Creates 500px.me – Hosts Photos in China

500px fingerprint logo   Earlier this year I wrote a post outlining why I no longer wanted to participate in the 500px website. As you may have heard, a few days ago another rather large issue with 500px came up regarding its deal with the Chinese Company Visual China Group. Initially I wrote this to be an addition to my 8 reasons post, but I think it merits mention on its own as well as mention on the list.

   Last week many 500px users noticed a site called vcg.me that contained 500px user profiles and photographs. I don’t know how they found this site, but it appeared to quickly mirror new photo uploads, comments and favorites. This caused some confusion and discord in a number of 500px groups (their user forum) and in other posts on the internet and social media. Initially I speculated this was another Chinese site scraping the content of another website, which isn’t that uncommon. I believe this very thing had happened to 500px before, but in this case, it was not a malicious site – it was 500px themselves.

   Back in July of 2015 500px announced they had obtained $13 million in funding from China’s Visual China Group (VCG) in order to fund various ventures including expansion into China. I didn’t think too much about this at the time, China is a huge market and a lot of companies want to explore business there. When the vcg.me site (now rebranded 500px.me) showed up earlier this week it became apparent that there could be some major issues with the move into China. This was to be an entirely new Chinese site written in Chinese and hosted in China. 500px support confirmed with various users frantically asking for an explanation that indeed this was a 500px affiliated website. This was the first the company had indicated that a whole new site would be the platform for a move into China, though nothing official was really released until a few days later when they started damage control. They promised that at some point in the future users would be able to control what images showed up on the Chinese site. Allowing this only after the fact really is too late – the cat is already out of the bag and images have already been transferred to the new Chinese based hosting. As I write this 500px.me has been hidden while it is finished – something I bet 500px wishes it had done from the start.

   All of 500px’s customer communication failures in this matter aside, the main issue for me is the Chinese based hosting. As you might know I pursue copyright infringements of my work. All of the legal and copyright infringement “enforcers” I have dealt with immediately bow out when China is mentioned – there is simply no way to enforce copyright laws in that country (or many others). I have tried on my own with a few infringements that I found particularly frustrating (one of my bear photos used on a trophy hunting guide’s website) and got absolutely nowhere with the web hosts or the companies in question. While I realize that any image I upload anywhere may be used in China and other jurisdictions where I have no legal power, I’d prefer my images do not start on servers in those countries. I don’t know all the implications the 500px.me Chinese based site might have for the intellectual property rights of its users, but I bet there will be some. 500px indicated to me on Twitter that if a Chinese infringement occurs they will “act on your behalf to send takedown notices and infringement notices”. Since this is not possible for my lawyers and companies that handle copyright claims already, I have no idea how 500px can guarantee this. I suspect they won’t be able to do anything more about this than any other company or law firm currently can – so their statement to the contrary likely means nothing at all.

   Another issue that I find unsettling is one of censorship. As I stated, I don’t have much of a problem with 500px pursuing business for its photographers in any country, including China. I had imagined that this would take place on their current site but it has been indicated by many that the main 500px site is banned/blocked in China because it contains a lot of images that the Chinese government doesn’t want their citizens to see (and not just the nudity). Having the files located in China itself allows the government and VCG to censor it so that it can be shown domestically. While this is not new on China’s part, I do find it an unsettling part of this deal.

   I had abandoned 500px in late 2013 due to the reasons I outlined earlier this year, but I had left 5 images behind as a kind of advertisement of sorts. After finding out that this vcg.me/500px.me site was indeed an official 500px entity – I deleted all of these images immediately. Perhaps I was lucky and caught them before they were transferred to Chinese servers, but I have no way of verifying this. As it stands now, 500px has blocked access to vcg.me and 500px.me as they (presumably) continue to develop the sites. Unfortunately this also means people cannot directly see if their content is being transferred there or not. A lot of users seem angry enough about 500px’s handling of this that they are deleting their images and their accounts entirely. I feel that is probably the proper course of action at this point, but I can’t help still feeling disappointment in what 500px has become after their promising beginnings only a few years ago.

Further Reading

 

I’ve Found A Copyright Infringement! Now What?

organic blueberries

Blueberries – apparently infringers love Blueberries

If you’ve been searching for your images on the internet and have found copyright infringements – what do you do next?

   For many photographers finding our photographs on the internet in places we did not intend for them to appear can be frustrating. I have written this post as a follow up to my earlier post “Finding Copyright Infringements on the Web“. My previous post illustrated one method for finding your images in use on the internet, while this post tries to cover some of the options for what you can do next. I of course should point out that I am not a lawyer, but many cases of infringement are below the threshold for when we may get lawyers involved.

   Your first step should be to first verify that this is actually an infringement. If you have never sold an image license, uploaded to any agencies or even told people they can use an image then this probably isn’t a concern. If you have, however, double checking your licenses beforehand can save potential embarrassment later on.

   There really isn’t a “one size fits all” answer for what to do once you have discovered a copyright infringement. What you choose to do is up to you, and people may see some forms of infringement as no big deal, while others will not. Those sharing their images with a Creative Commons license such as “Attribution Non-Commercial” probably will not care if one of their photographs shows up on a non commercial blog. Some photographers who share their “All Rights Reserved” images will not want their images shared without permission or license in any location other than their own sites. What you are able to do also changes depending on the copyright laws in the part of the world where the infringement occurred. So I can’t tell you what you should do specifically, but I’ll outline a few potential responses that may fit your situation.

The Easy Method – Do Nothing

   While ignoring an infringement is easy, I rarely do so anymore if the infringer is based in a country that takes such matters seriously. I may not always get to one of the reactions below immediately (especially for personal non-commercial use infringements), but everything I find goes on a list I work through eventually.

The Removal Request for Non-Commercial Personal Uses

   This is an option I only reserve for personal, non-commercial infringements. In a perfect world this kind of request would be met with a positive response and honoured. In my experience, however, most friendly requests for image removal are ignored. Very few actually respond by removing the image, or perhaps giving image credit if that was requested (which I only do on very rare occasions). The remainder respond with the sort of vitriol I won’t repeat here – but you can use your imagination. Whatever the form of non compliance, this means I have to write another email to their web host, or issue a DMCA takedown notice – which takes even more of my time. For this reason, in instances where I am not pursuing payment, I go straight to the DMCA notice – or email the webhost/social media site directly. I would rather communicate with people in a friendly manner, potentially even educating them about image usage… but it just has not been worth it in the majority of times I have tried it.

The Payment Request

   I always request payment from uses of my images that are even vaguely commercial. I sometimes handle this on my own, but usually contact a lawyer. My usual first contact is fairly gentle. I explain that there must have been some sort of mistake as I have no record of a license for the image use. I then outline that they are infringing on my copyright and give them a price for a retroactive license. If paid, this only give them a license up to the current date. If they want to use the image going forward I point out a new license can be negotiated. Some times this “gentle reminder” goes ignored, but often it is successful and most communications I have had with reputable companies have been fairly civil. Those who ignore my initial letter receive a follow up with much sterner (but still professional) language. Often those who ignored the first letter respond to the second.

The Lawyer

   I pursue the majority of non personal usage of my photography via lawyers in various countries. If you want to approach a lawyer in order to take a look at an infringement you have found, do be sure that copyright is part of their practice – they are the experts.

The DMCA Notice

   The DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998) protects online service providers (website hosts, Social Media companies etc) in the United States from liability for the content their users upload. When a complaint is made under the DMCA the service provider usually disables the content in question quickly so as to not become liable themselves. What this means for us is if your infringed photograph is on a US based webhost then having the material removed can be relatively easy. If you decide to go after most image infringements a lot of the DMCA notices you may issue will be on social media sites. Rather than writing an email and finding an appropriate recipient for it – many of these companies have a form to fill out that is much quicker and easier. I’ve included a few links to notable services below and their DCMA/Copyright Complaint forms.

Pinterest: https://about.pinterest.com/en/copyright
Instagram: https://help.instagram.com/contact/552695131608132
Tumblr: https://www.tumblr.com/dmca
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/help/contact/208282075858952
Twitter: https://support.twitter.com/forms/dmca
Google: http://support.google.com/legal/troubleshooter/1114905?hl=en
WordPress.com: http://automattic.com/dmca-notice/

For most web hosts you can find the DMCA agent (who to contact) on their website, in their terms of service document, and occasionally in their support section. Individual services may also outline the exact language they require in a DMCA notice. While these things are pretty standard, sometimes a web host will require an address and phone number, which is information I tend not to give out unless it is necessary.

The US Copyright website also has a list of DMCA Agents that may come in handy for some web hosts: http://www.copyright.gov/onlinesp/list/a_agents.html.

How do I write a DMCA notice and who do I send it to?

   A DMCA notice requires some specific “legalese” to be valid. The article “Two Easy Steps for Using the DMCA Takedown Notice to Battle Copyright Infringement” on the NPPA website explains both how to write a DMCA notice and how to determine where to send it. Written by a lawyer too. I did point out before that I’m not a lawyer right?

   While this article outlines a way to find a website’s host via IP I have found the initial method of a simple whois search to be fruitful at least half the time. The nameservers for a website domain name are often something like ns1.websitehostname.com and this makes determining who to contact rather easy in many circumstances.

   Generally speaking most of these notices are acted on within a week. Some may take longer depending on how busy they are but I have also had takedown notices work in the same day I sent the notice. Do be aware that the sort of person that would have given me a nasty email (see “The Removal Request” section above) occasionally responds in the same manner with a DMCA request. At that point, however, you can pretty much ignore them – the image is no longer on their site. In one case this did mean that suddenly a LOT of my images were suddenly on their site. Another email solved that, and their site never resurfaced online again that I have noticed. They were likely asked to find new hosting.

The Copyright Enforcement Service

   Copyright Enforcement Services such as Imagerights, Pixsy, etc can be useful for pursuing infringements in various parts of the world. I’ve had some success with them, but largely I have found that they are expensive and do not get near the results a copyright lawyer is likely to. In some instances I could have probably done a lot better contacting the infringing party myself. That said, sometimes they are able to pursue something in a jurisdiction outside of North America where I do not currently know of a lawyer to contact, so using them in those instances is worth a try for me.

Final Thoughts

   Ultimately this can be a full time job depending on how many images you are finding without licensing or permission. Often just looking through your images with a reverse image search can take a lot of time. Writing a DMCA notice does not take a lot of time, but can take up an afternoon if you are sending as many as I do on occasion. Sometimes I put the less egregious instances off for a while, but I do think it is important to take copyright issues with your work seriously. If you do not look into these issues at all – you may find an infringement that does get you angry eventually. At that point you may find that your image has been all over the internet for several years, and having all those images removed that late in the game can be difficult or even impossible. I stay on top of this so none of my images get away from me in that manner, though a few still have.

Good luck! If you have any questions or comments feel free to leave me a comment below.

Photographic Thievery

flickrlogo

I ran across a link to this article in an online photography forum. The article itself is pretty misinformed, basically advocating that people steal images from flickr users for their own interior decorating needs with little or no regard for the copyright already held on those images. What I do like about this is that the authors ignorance on the matter was quickly pointed out by quite a number of irate photographers (read the comments – really the best part). What followed was a number of follow-ups and clarifications about what the article really meant. Whoops!