Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Protecting Your Pictures Online

Last week, one of my five known readers asked me about protecting your picture once you've put them "out there" for the world to see. The answer could be as simple as this, but yet, it's something that is impossible to make simple. This write-up by the Canadian Association of Professional Image Creators is a very good guideline, and in terms of a "how to", I could not offer any better. But in terms of actually "protecting" your work from "online theft", I think I can offer some advice that goes beyond the matter of copyright laws. The laws are very simple - as the CAPIC article says, unless you're work was commissioned and paid for by someone, or unless you work for a Company who takes rights to your photography in exchange for salary or commissions, your pictures belong to you, and you have all rights to do as you please with them, including making money. It makes an important point that when you "sell", you are actually selling the license to your work, not the actual work itself.

The part that is difficult to grasp for some people may be that even though you have put your photos in Online Albums with a Public access setting (which is what I always do), if somebody does a "right-click-save" on my pictures, this does not mean they have "stolen" the picture from me. The picture, by law, still belongs to me exclusively, even though I've done nothing whatsoever to protect my rights. I can still make a print of the picture, sign my name to it and sell it at a local Gallery. Also, if somebody specifically wants to pay me a fee to use one of my photos in a brochure, I still have that right of ownership, and on one occasion I have actually done so, even though in that case I agreed the fee would be $0.00. It went down this way - Natural Resources Canada requested from me, by email, non exclusive rights to use this picture in their publications.  I could have said "yes, for a fee" and have been within my rights, but for a very good reason, I did not - I simply replied to the email granting them the rights to use it for free.

What possible "very good reason" would I have for giving something away to the Government for free? For starters, exactly because it was the Government. Although unlikely, they could have easily turned me over to Revenue Canada for investigation if I am in the business of selling photographs, but in fact I'm not. And herein lies the point of "protecting your pictures online" - you're either in the business, or you're not. I am not, therefore I have no vested interest in protecting myself, and I know that, by law, when I upload to Flickr with "All Rights Reserved", I do retain legal ownership of all my photos.

But don't I want to make extra money? Sure, I'm retired, and I could always use some extra money. The issue for me, however, is well explained here. Photography for me is pure pleasure - a fascination that also provides me a little fresh air and exercise. Turning into a business would completely ruin it for me. Besides, making extra money in any manner right now would really upset my very good Income Tax position.

I tend to look at Photography purely as a Visual Art, and the only ambition I have is to make large prints of some of my work and display them in a small local Art Gallery, either as "one-off's" or limited editions, and place smallish price tags on them. Beyond that, the reason I so willingly put my pictures "out there" is to generate some recognition, and solicit feedback - if I were in business this would be akin to free advertising and marketing. For me right now, I'm more interested in "Copyleft" than Copyright.

I will leave you with some pointers, if you are considering getting into "the business", and for that reason want to protect your work online:


  1. Keep in mind that no matter what, unless you have signed your pictures over to another party in exchange for commission or salary, by virtue of "All Rights Reserved", the pictures, and the right to license them, are yours.
  2. If you really don't want anybody to take copies of your work ("right-click-save"), then don't put them online. The downside of this of course is that the world will never see them. (Ask yourself - what did Photographers do before the internet happened?)
  3. Put them online but make them "useless for consumption"
  • Make very small copies and export them, not your full sized originals, or
  • Put a Copyright watermark somewhere on the image
Simply make sure you really know what you want. There really is not a lot of sense in worrying about somebody "out there" stealing your pictures, unless you've truly found a way to make good money with them, in which case, you need to set yourself up as a Professional Photographer, with all the things that go along with that.

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