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…

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

   I bookmark most infringements that I find, but with many I wind up doing nothing about them. Sometimes an infringement is just a personal blog with little following and no advertisements. Perhaps the infringer even gave me image credit (rare). While credit is worth next to nothing really, sometimes it will mean I simply move on rather than take the time to do something about it. Sometimes I will find an infringement that I would normally do something about, but the server is based in a foreign country where copyright laws are nonexistent or not enforced. Usually this means I am out of luck. While this can be frustrating, sometimes I just have to forget about it and move on. This gets easier the more it happens.

The Removal Request

   This is an option I only reserve for completely 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. 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 – 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, and sometimes use a company called ImageRights (more on them later). 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

   There have been a few cases where I have sought the advice of a lawyer but thus far have not been able to have one return my calls or emails. I suspect that the cases I have brought up have been relatively small, and have been based in Canada (these were Canadian Lawyers). A US based infringement of a photograph that is registered with the US copyright office would likely be met with a much different reception. So while it is necessary to suggest you may seek the counsel of a good IP lawyer – I have not yet discussed these issues with one myself. I suspect that if you reside in the United States this would be much easier.

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
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.

ImageRights

   US based ImageRights is a company that can pursue copyright claims for you in many corners of the world. I initially tested them out with their Basic service to pursue a Canadian infringement of one of my photographs in a visitors guide. The publishers had asked me to use the photograph, and when I mentioned the image was not free (and quoted my price) they did not return further emails. Later the next year I accidentally happened upon the same photograph used in their guide. This was the first infringement I had found that really got my blood pumping – so I tried out ImageRights for the first time. They successfully recovered a settlement worth many times what the image license would have been. Pleased with that result, I signed up for a Pro account for a year. It is early yet, but I am happy with their progress on subsequent infringements so far. Maybe I’ll write a review of my experience with them after a year of data.

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. This is why I occasionally do nothing – it often isn’t worth hassling personal bloggers or non commercial users. Even writing a DMCA notice for them can take time, and you may not want to spend that time in every circumstance. I do think it is important to take copyright issues with your work seriously, however. 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.