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 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