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Copyright Agent's Guide To Fighting Image Theft Online

In this informative guide by Copyright Agent, we delve into what to do when your photos are stolen, how to detect it, how to document it, how to prevent it and how to take action against image theft online. But first, we take our starting point in investigating the rationale behind copyright infringements, a combination of the excuses for infringement that we encounter and the categorization of these to give you, the rights holder, a deeper understanding of copyright infringements.

The internet serves as both a sanctuary and a battleground for creative content and protecting your images from image theft has understandably become a key concern for photographers, digital artists, graphic designers, videographers, bloggers, and content creators alike.

The widespread misuse of images without permission, consent or proper licensing poses significant challenges to rights holders, ranging from loss of revenue, devaluation of their work, damage to their reputation, legal issues and emotional distress. Copyright laws across the globe serve as a safeguard for rights holders against such infringements, enabling you to enforce your preferences regarding the usage of your photographs and ensuring fair compensation for any unauthorized use. It's important to note that it is within your right to request that the image be removed and compensation be paid for its misuse.

If you, the rights holder, are armed with the right knowledge and tools to fight back against image theft, then you can effectively safeguard your creative rights.

What is Copyright Law?

Copyright law around the world grants exclusive rights to creators of original works, the rights holder. This includes photographs. These exclusive rights include the right to reproduce, distribute, display, and create derivative works based on the original image. Copyright protection automatically applies to qualifying works at the moment of creation, without the need for registration.

Am I the rightsholder?

You can reasonably assume that your image is copyrighted if you created it yourself and have not explicitly released it into the public domain or waived your copyright through a licensing agreement.

A basic test you can apply is:

  1. Did you capture the image yourself? It doesn’t matter if you took the image with a digital camera, a smartphone or an analog camera.
  2. Have you previously published the image, whether online or in print, and did it include your name or other identifying information as the creator?
  3. Did you commission a photographer to take the image and specify in the contract that all rights are transferred to you (or your organization).

If you answered yes to any of the above you are likely the rights holder. This is essential to undertake action against image theft.

The Top 7 Excuses for Copyright Infringement

Here at Copyright Agent, through our communications with infringing parties, we have encountered a wide variety of explanations for infringement, spanning from claims like "My son uploaded the image" to assertions like "You hacked my website and placed the image there". Consequently, we are able to provide expert insights into the most common justifications for copyright infringement directly from the infringers themselves, all as part of our commitment to safeguarding the rights of content creators (we are also often called a scam by parties trying to avoid settling copyright infringements with us, but obviously we are an entirely legtimate Danish business).

Excuse 1: "I didn’t know it was copyrighted"

This is the number one excuse for copyright infringement. However ignorance of the copyright protected status of an image doesn't mean that copyright law isn’t applicable!

Excuse 2: "I Found It on Google/I sourced it from Social Media"

The fact that an image is available through a Google search does not mean that it is free to use without proper licensing. Google indexes content on the internet, but does not grant anyone rights to republish images they find. Google has disclaimers noting this and even a search for “copyright free images” is no guarantee that the images are “rights free”.

Excuse 3: "My use is fair use”

Many claim “Fair Use” however this legal concept has very specific use cases (and also only applies in the US regardless!), essentially fair use is equal to unlicensed use in most circumstances.

Excuse 4: "I found the photo on another free source”

Many infringers claim they found a copyright protected image via a “Free” image bank (often without being able to evidence this). Again this isn’t the same as having legal permission to publish the image. Many “Free” image banks indicate that ultimately you are using the images at your own risk given that many are simply hosting user generated content. Many rights holders didn’t choose to share their images on these “Free” sites, third parties may have. This, however, doesn't mean that copyright is no longer applicable to these images.

Excuse 5:  "No Watermark or Disclaimer"

If a rights holder opts not to use watermarks, or sells un-watermarked images to customers then that is their prerogative. Watermarks, or the lack thereof, play no part in respecting copyright law.

Excuse 6: "But I’ve edited the image"

Editing an image does not negate copyright law as by publishing an identifiable part of an image its copyright has been infringed. Publishers still need the consent of the rightsholders prior to publication.

Excuse 7: "It was our web designer"

If a website owner has hired someone to do work, whether paid or freelance, ultimately they are still accountable for any copyright infringements that occur as they own or operate the website/SoMe accounts in question. This is the same as when the “responsible” person has left the organization, the organization is still liable for any infringements caused by the “responsible” party.

Why do people infringe copyright?

So with these excuses at hand we turn to the motivations behind them. People infringe copyright for various reasons, but broadly speaking these reasons can be categorized into the following motivations for infringement:

Ignorance of copyright law: Many internet users are unaware of copyright laws or mistakenly believe online content is free to use without permission. However, copyright law is akin to a strict tort law meaning that ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it.

Convenience: Some infringers prioritize ease of access to images over respecting copyright holders. Simply copying and using content without seeking authorization or paying for the right to use it.

Saving Money: Image banks are everywhere, and buying a license can be done with a few clicks of a mouse, however with some images costing more to use some parties opt for a financial shortcut: Steal it instead.

Lack of Enforcement: The darling of internet forums and review websites. Some website owners infringe copyright because they believe they won't face any consequences for doing so, making statements like “I would just ignore them” or “Just take it down if anyone contacts you about it”. That narrative is now changing due to companies like Copyright Agent revolutionizing copyright protection and working in partnership with law firms to ensure that creating content pays and infringers pay for their use of copyright protected photographs.

Social Media Culture: Widespread sharing of content on social media without permission can normalize infringement.

Intentional Misuse: Deliberate infringement of rights holders intellectual property may occur for several reasons, such as financial gain or exploitation of others' work.

It’s clear from these motivations and excuses that infringing behaviour is deeply ingrained and multifaceted, so how do you effectively counter it?

What do I do when my photos have been stolen?

So you've stumbled upon the unsettling discovery that your images are being published without your permission, your videos republished, or your content utilized without your consent, and you're eager to take action. What proactive measures can you implement to halt this unauthorized usage of your valuable content?

Essentially, your choice of how to proceed boils down to 3 strategic avenues you can explore after undertaking step 1. Gathering evidence.

Gather Evidence

So you’ve been notified of an infringement of your work, the next step is to gather evidence. In the case of an image being republished without your consent a simple screenshot is an effective, low cost and strong evidential source of any infringement.

Ensure that you capture the full screen, the entire image and the infringing URL in your browser address bar. These are critical components in showing that the image was published online and the URL of where the infringement was detected is clearly documented.

We suggest that you also note down the URL where the unauthorized usage of your content is observed. Additionally, we advise you to save the Image URL, which you can access from any web browser by simply right-clicking on the image and selecting the "Copy image address" or similar option, depending on your browser. This step ensures that you have a comprehensive record of the infringement, which can be invaluable when pursuing legal action or issuing takedown notices.

Web Archives also exist where you can “back up” a specific website, ensuring that there’s a copy for future reference. A great example of this is the Wayback Machine. With the evidence above in hand, ensure that you have a copy of your original image, a screenshot of the image published on your website or Social Media and you are ready to move on.

Contact the Infringing Party Directly

If you want to go it alone then the first actionable step you can take is to directly contact the infringing party yourself. Remember to clearly communicate to the infringing party that they are using your content without permission. You will need to provide specific details about the copyrighted material being used and where it is being used.

Some key points to remember:

  • Clearly state that you require them to remove the copyrighted material from their platform or website immediately.
  • Keep copies of all correspondence with the infringing party, including emails, messages etc. This documentation will be useful if further action is required.
  • If you believe you are entitled to compensation for the unauthorized use of your content, include a request for payment in your communication. This helps protect your rights and will ensure you are properly compensated for your work if your claim is successful.

Above all, stay professional. In our experience not all infringing parties take kindly to being questioned about their use of your work, and many will not comply with your requests. Making your own approach can also be problematic in pursuing the claim further in the event that the infringing party doesn’t comply. Regardless of the infringing party's response, remain professional in all communications. If they don’t respond to your initial polite request, then consider sending a more formal “Cease and Desist” notice. If they fail to act on this then you will need to choose a way to escalate your claim.

Issue DMCA Takedown Notices

If you aren’t looking for financial recompense then this second option, issuing a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown notice to the platforms hosting the infringing content, could be of use. If the infringing content is on a website, look up the hosting information using a service like WhoIS Domain Tools. If you’ve found the infringing content on Social Media look up the specifics of contacting the platform in question about copyright infringements. A DMCA takedown is a formal mechanism that serves as a notification to the platform regarding the copyright violation and demands the removal of the unauthorized material. This method will not recuperate any lost income but it will help in getting the content removed from unauthorized platforms. Issuing a DMCA Takedown can be far less confrontational than contacting the infringing site directly but has the downside of not financially compensating you for infringing use of your work.

Legal Guidance

If you are looking to avoid confrontation and are seeking compensation, consider seeking counsel from a dedicated intellectual property attorney or lawyer who can provide specific advice on your specific situation. Copyright law is complex, claims can be very complex and seeking compensation will have guidelines in your country that an IP lawyer should be aware of. An IP lawyer can assist you in comprehending your rights, evaluating the severity of the infringement, and navigating all of the legal intricacies involved in a copyright infringement claim. It is worth noting that employing a lawyer carries associated costs, and your compensation claim is not guaranteed, so this method of escalation can leave you out of pocket. If you have multiple instances of infringement you have identified yourself, pursuing them via lawyers can be a costly affair, and IP lawyers generally stay within their own legal system. If the infringement took place in another country you’ll need to contact a lawyer there.

Utilize Copyright Monitoring Services

A viable approach, especially if you are looking at more than a single infringement, is to engage a copyright protection company. These are specialized entities that excel in combing through online platforms to detect instances of unauthorized usage of copyrighted material. They often have proprietary software that can detect infringements of platforms that are otherwise difficult to find and leaves you in a position where you no longer need to identify and document any infringements of your work as these companies will find them for you and in most cases run the entire process end to end from identification to recovering compensation. There are a few optionsin this sphere, make sure you choose a legitimate business to handle your infringements (read our guide to identifying a Copyright Troll here). At Copyright Agent we offer our copyright protection services on a no win no fee basis, where all costs of identifying infringements and legal costs are shouldered by us. We operate globally and have the capability to detect infringements in many different jurisdictions. This is coupled with our legal nous and experience in securing the best level of compensation for you according to local copyright laws and ability to deal with multiple infringements at the same time due to the scale of our operation. With no up front costs for rights holders and our extensive legal network we are able to identify, initiate and resolve copyright infringement claims for illegal image use, taking care of documenting claims, dealing directly with infringers and coordinating with lawyers leaving you able to concentrate on creating content. Our parters are wide ranging from NTB in Norway, Swedish Image Agencies to content creators across the globe.

In essence, the decision on how to protect your content rests with you. Acknowledging the availability of these strategic options empowers you to reclaim control over your content and assert your rights as a content creator. Taking action of any kind is proactive and bolsters your digital presence and safeguards your original work.

Preventative steps to take to prevent unauthorized use of your images

So your content has been used once without your consent. It is almost inevitable that it will happen again. The best defense against image theft is prevention. Implementing proactive measures like watermarking your images, embedding copyright information in metadata, developing clear licensing agreements to define scope, duration, and limitations of use of your content with your partners and registering visual works with relevant authorities can deter potential infringers and assert your ownership rights. In addition to these preventive measures, educating yourself and others about copyright laws and best practices for image usage is a no-brainer, and a clearly written copyright notice indicating that your work is copyrighted displayed on your website or portfolio will act as a further deterrent.


Image theft poses a pervasive threat to the livelihoods and rights of photographers and visual artists. By arming yourself with the knowledge and tools outlined in this guide, you can effectively prevent and combat image theft, preserve your creative integrity, and uphold your rights as a content creator. Remember, vigilance and proactive action are the cornerstones of defending your creative vision. Stay informed, stay vigilant, and assert your rights to protect your valuable creative work.

Originality, always.

Copyright Agent -

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