For most of us, the ownership of an image is something we don’t think about. As cameras get better, and as amateurs post their images to blogs, web pages & the like, this may become something to consider. The number of images taken by amateurs that have been purchased by end users increases every year.
In the United States, unless your are employed as a photographer and meet the terms for “Work for Hire” or sign a contract that gives the rights to your images to your employer, a photograph is copyrighted in your name when you push the shutter button. Back when the image was placed in a photo album or only shown in a family slide show there was no need to defend that copyright – today thousands of people may see your images on the internet either through your blog or web page or on one of the photo sharing sites such as Flickr or Photobucket. Unfortunately, there are some individuals & organizations that will take advantage by copying your image & using it on their own site. I guess some considerations are: Do you care? Can they do that? If you don’t like it, what can you do about it?
As to whether you care, it may be flattering to find someone thinks enough of your images to use them, but since many of us place Google or Yahoo ads on our blogs or web sites to generate revenue, you might think about what your images are worth. The sale of your images can often be another source of income. Few of us will make a living selling photographs, but every bit helps!
As to “Can they do that?” – I probably should point out the difference between stealing an image & linking to one. When you post an image to the internet, unless it is placed in a protected directory, you are making it available to the public. Whether you like it or not, if someone links to your image, in other words, does not copy the image itself, just places a link to your image on their blog or web page, you will have a difficult time preventing them from using the image. Copying the image to their server is not acceptable, links are. The proper way to link to a site is to include an acknowledgement that directs the viewer to either the home page of the image owner’s web site or to a page that identifies the original photographer, but not everyone does that.
The first step I take when I find an unacknowledged link is email the owner of the blog or web page and request that they provide a link to my home page, or the page the image thumbnail is on, next to the image. The more links to your web page the higher it ranks on the various search engines, and the more traffic views your web page (and its ads). In most cases, this works. I have never had a web site owner or blogger refuse to add an acknowledgement to identify where an image came from.
If the web site or blog owner does not want to acknowledge your site, about the only thing you can do is change the name or location of your image, leaving them with a dead link. Of course, you will need to make the necessary changes in your own site to prevent your own dead links, and, of course, the other site owner can make changes to link to your image’s new name or location. In most cases it is not worth the effort to try to fight the link, just accept the bad manners of the other site.
If someone has actually copied an image and placed it on their server they are violating copyright; in other words, stealing. When it happens to me I request that they either purchase the rights or remove the image. Of course, this presents the difficulty of determining a price for your image. the Stock Photo Price Calculator web site is a place to start, however it it up to you to determine the image’s value. The value of an image depends on how it will be used, the size of the data file, and, of course, the quality of the photograph. There is a link to a web site a little later in this article that describes the different types of image sales (referred to as rights) that can be made.
If I get no response from the author of the site, I contact the web site host and inform them that an image for which I hold the copyright is on their server, giving them a link to the image on both my & the offending site. By the way, although you are not required to include a copyright notice with your images, it will make it easier to defend your images. Include the word Copyright or the symbol ©, the date, and your name on the page containing the image.
In every case that I have contacted the site host, they have immediately removed the image. This includes organizations as large as Time Warner, as well as individually owned local hosts. If that doesn’t work and you want to continue the process of getting the image removed, you may need to prove your copyright. The best way to do this is to have already registered your image(s). For the $45.00 fee you can either register a single image, of as many as you can fit on a CD or DVD. You can reduce the quality (obviously you should be able to recognize the image) so that thousands will fit on a CD or millions on a DVD. An article on the Wedding Photography web site gives more information on protecting your images. Unless you have actually registered a copyright for your image it will be difficult (and expensive) to work with a lawyer to be compensated for its use. Unless it is a major site using your image it will probably not be worth the cost to get reimbursed, however many image owners have shamed those using their property through blogs, newspaper articles, and even a feature on the local TV news.
Although you own the images you take, you can’t always do anything you want with them. In almost all cases, taking photographs in public areas is acceptable, and it is legal to post them to your web site. There are always exceptions. I was taking photographs of a bell tower in a public park being decorated for a festival when a sheriff requested I stop. The reason? The individuals doing the decorating were prisoners on work release. In NY state it is illegal to photograph prisoners.
If your images include recognizable individuals, it gets a bit more difficult. Most web sites are considered editorial; you can post the image to your site under “fair use” protections. If you are posting to a commercial site you must have a model release. A release is a contract with the individuals (or the parents if the individual is a minor) in the image that defines how the image can be used. A sample of a simple model release is at this Digital Photography Workshop page.
If an organization wishes to purchase your image for commercial use, there are a number of ways the image can be sold. Check “Step 3” on the protecting your images page at the Wedding Photography site for a description of the different “rights” that can be used when selling an image. The site also has a good web page giving more information on the rights of a photographer, including when & where you can take photographs.
Again, all this may seem like information for the professional photographer, however since many amateurs are using cameras that are capable of producing commercially acceptable images and posting them to web sites or photo hosting sites for all the world to see, the number of requests for commercial use of their images is increasing. This Washington Post Article gives a number of examples of amateur images “borrowed” for commercial use.