Dealing with image theft and protecting your copyright online

Published · 3 min read

Deciding whether to publish high quality images online can be a tough decision, particularly for visual content creators and businesses that invest in photo shoots.

On the one hand, showcasing the best of your products and services is essential if you’re to gain new business. But on the other, there’s the very real risk that images will be stolen and used elsewhere, possibly detrimentally to your brand or offering.

As I’m sure most would agree, I personally believe imagery to be an essential tool in marketing. But I do understand that businesses, particularly photographers, designers and illustrators, may want to take measures to prevent others from ‘stealing’ their visual content. I therefore thought I’d take this opportunity to look at some of the ways in which businesses have tried to combat image theft online.


Watermarking is a very common solution. It allows you to publish high resolution images online, safe in the knowledge that it is highly unlikely that anyone will steal them. Should Google index them, it will always be obvious that the images are yours. Even if they are stolen, the unwatermarked images that you or your clients may be using elsewhere are not devalued.

However, the obvious downside is that watermarking doesn’t look pretty, which is not great if you’re trying to woo perspective clients, showcasing your products or creative portfolio. Using fainter watermarks or strategically placing faded overlays may help, but the reality is that many businesses are seeking alternative solutions.

Low resolution

It is not uncommon for lower-resolution unwatermarked images to be published online. This means that the images are unblemished and the high-resolution version is not accessible to be stolen. However, this solution is not fool proof and presents two main issues.

The first is that this solution doesn’t prevent image theft. The smaller size does of course decrease the number of potential uses and may therefore put off would-be thieves, but as low-resolution images can be stolen and used elsewhere, this is not a solution for if you require complete protection from image theft.

The second issue relates to evolving technology. What is low-resolution? With the wide use of HD and 4k screens and devices, and Apple’s retina technology, low-resolution images in the traditional sense are becoming impractical and may even diminish the look and feel of your website.

Disabling right-click

It is not uncommon to see some websites disabling the ability to right-click and save images from their websites. Unfortunately, this is more an irritation than a security feature because it does not prevent image theft and can disable other useful browser functions. I guess the only thing in its favour is that it is a deterrent, but a user could simply use a keyboard shortcut, turn off JavaScript, download a browser plugin or view site settings to gain full access to all the image assets on the page. In addition, this solution does not prevent Google from indexing the images.

Blocking Google

Whilst it will not prevent users from stealing images directly from your website, you can limit your exposure to the people who steal images, possibly unwittingly, via Google’s image search. In short, you can tell Google not to index any of your images which means they will not appear in Google’s image search.

Of course, you may not want to block Google. As a viable source of website visitors and potential customers, a more desirable option may instead be to feed Google with watermarked images, but it’s certainly worth considering this as an option.

Image Encryption

With the adoption of HTML5, there are now even more opportunities to manage the way images are presented online. One such feature is the HTML5 canvas which allows you to display JavaScript-rendered graphics. In non-technical terms, this feature has a lot of potential to display images in a way that prevents them from being copied. Whilst it is early days, one company has already developed a tool called SmartFrame which uses HTML5 canvas to encrypt images and prevents them from being saved, copied, screenshotted or downloaded. I’ll be keeping an eye out for further developments because there are certainly going to be more image security innovations as more HTML5 tools are developed.

Enforcing your copyright

It’s worth remembering that copyright laws entitle you to ownership of your creative content. For starters, you should reinforce this by placing a copyright notice and policy onto your website. However, you should also consider how you intend to handle any copyright infringement that may arise. You could let it go, or you could send a cease and desist letter informing the offending party of your rights and stating your requirement for them to remove the images, taking further legal action as applicable. I came across this story that I feel is a very interesting and useful example of how one infringement was amicably concluded with the photographer charging a royalty.

What else?

Have I missed anything? Feel free to share any other solutions you’ve implemented by commenting below.

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