Matt: Showcasing Your Work vs Image Theft

Really appreciated your post on keepers rate and have also made the experience about taste or lack of taste of photoeditors.
But to the point: where you mention “…If you want to showcase your good photos, the best solution is to showcase them on your personal website…” there goes another question:
How do we as photographers avoid or better limit image theft if we want to post “good” pictures on the net?
Obviously this is a good theme for a PHD thesis but maybe you and Matt can eventually in spare time give your own solutions in the future?
Ciao and keep it up
David Steck via Flickr

Note that David directed this question at Ryu, and his keeper rate post, not mine which I did at the point of a virtual gun.

I’ll start out by saying that Ryu is 100% correct about showcasing your very best pictures on your personal website. Anyone just starting out is in no position to rely on people stumbling across enough of their published work to create interest. So you need your own website both for passive traffic (Google) and to send out to show editors/clients what you can do. And whenever you put your name on something, you need to show your best work and only your best work.

Image theft is as old as the internet. As long as people can click and drag, your photos are their photos. Sure you can code a site that makes it more difficult to copy pictures: Doing the whole thing in flash, using a script that prevents right-clicks/adds blank file overlays can all deter casual copying. But flash doesn’t display on iPads (a large and growing share of web traffic) and scripts are easily circumvented by 12-year-olds. And even flawless implementations of the above tactics are 100% susceptible to a simple screenshot. In short, it’s not worth worrying about. You need your pictures to be seen, and that’s that.

What can you do to “protect” your pictures? You can watermark them. Some people put giant obnoxious watermarks on every picture. Ryu doesn’t watermark. I use a small watermark on certain pictures on my blog/facebook, but none on my main portfolio. How I came to this is surely idiosyncratic, but hopefully my process can help you figure out what’s best for your specific situation.

First, your pictures are almost certainly worth less (in pure money terms) than you think. My awesome picture of Serena Williams celebrating her Bank of the West Classic championship sold to for a grand total of $25, and that’s before my agency took their cut.


Pictures that run in print are sell for significantly more, but not enough more to make that much of a difference. And SI (and all other reputable outlets) buy their pictures legitimately. Commercial use commands several times as much in fees, and the vast majority of businesses will also buy pictures rather than trying to base an ad campaign on a copyright violation and the triple damages that can come from such violations. Assuming that you will be fairly compensated for the most lucrative uses of your pictures is a safe bet. NFL/MLB/NCAA/etc players similarly don’t generally mis-appropriate pictures. The common thread is knowledge of copyright law, and that it’s cheaper to pay for pictures rather than to risk paying fines later. Mistakes happen, like poorly trained interns taking pictures, mock-ups finding their way to production, etc, but one email can generally solve the problem and yield a check.

So what does that leave? For me, that leaves a few high school games that I shoot for the paper, and of course rodeo, the bulk of my current business. Unfortunately young people (all HS kids and the vast majority of rodeo cowboys) have grown up in the Napster/Tumblr era where everything is supposed to be free and copyright is a foreign concept. If you shoot young people and they can find your pictures, those pictures will end up on Facebook and other social media, and you can take that to the bank, or not, since you’re not getting paid for that anyway. Using the (millions of visitors) model, how much is a picture on an 18-year-old’s Facebook wall worth? I think you see my point.

Yes, it’s frustrating to see someone use your work without permission, we’ve all been there. But you have to separate emotion from the facts of the situation. I use watermarks on HS and rodeo pictures because if the pictures are going to be clipped and shipped to social media, I want people to know for sure where they came from, so my watermark is ©, year. I’ve saved the worst case for last, because thankfully it’s rare. Small businesses, where one person makes the decisions without the benefit of a legal department or advisors who understand simple copyright law, steal pictures and use them for all kinds of purposes, from social media to full-on advertising. I’ve had this happen with more than a few rodeo-related small businesses, and generally getting in touch with them and explaining to them that they either need to pay me or I will sue them results in a check. Rarely do I have to get my lawyer involved, but it happens. But the point is that the damage (amount of sale lost to unauthorized use) is minor compared to what you would get from legitimate use, put another way, the people who will pay you more know that they need to to pay you.

Given all of this, you’re only hurting yourself if you let fear of unauthorized use stop you from building a great portfolio that features your very best work.


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6 thoughts on “Matt: Showcasing Your Work vs Image Theft

    1. At the moment I don’t have the time to draft a complete strategy, but perhaps you should start with revising your clients and contracts.

      Selling a shot for $25 to Sports Illustrated seems a pretty bad business. I work with some international agencies myself, but I don’t shoot such high profile sports like you do – yet I never sold a picture that cheap to any paper. Even small circulation Eastern-European newspapers pay you more – of course that’s only true if you don’t let them grab photos and get away free or to under pay you like SI did in your case.

  1. “At the moment I don’t have the time to draft a complete strategy”

    ah, right.

    “Selling a shot for $25 to Sports Illustrated seems a pretty bad business.”

    Which is why it’s a small part of my business. But it’s not my call, that’s what they pay via my employer. And I don’t have a say in that. SI didn’t “underpay” me, they paid me what they pay for web-only pictures.

    Newspapers pay more. SI print pays more. Commercial clients pay more. Web-only use doesn’t pay well. I covered all of this in the post, it’s actually the point of it.

    Still not sure what any of your point is.

  2. I had an image violation by a university student newspaper. They used it online as well as in the paper and I just happened to luck upon it trying to find other images of that player.

    They used it with my watermark in plain sight. They didn’t even try to remove it.

    This was a university with a photography program, I might add. If they don’t care about stealing images then we’re really in trouble.

    I sent them an invoice and a cheque arrived 2 weeks later.

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