Have you ever found out your photo was published on a website, a blog or a social media fanpage without permission? If something is available online, it does not necessarily mean that it’s “for free”, however this is the explanation you most often hear from copyright infringers. In the digital era, this happens every day to thousands of photographers.  After you overcome the initial astonishment and frustration, it’s worth thinking what to do next.

© Shahril KHMD

Prevention is the best weapon and there are some ways to protect your photos before they’re stolen. However, even if you didn’t care much about it before, there’s no use crying over spilt milk. You still have a chance to be pro-active and secure the evidence of copyright infringement. No matter which next action you take:  request removal of your stolen photo,  send a cease and desist notice to the image thief, or go to a court and sue the infringer, it’s better to be prepared to prove that your photo has been stolen. Remember, the burden of evidence is on the right holder.

Here are five methods of securing evidence that don’t need any specific skills. You can do it yourself!

1. Take a screenshot

A screenshot of the page where you noticed the unauthorised use of your photo is the first thing you can and should do. Hurry up before the infringer removes it from the website and you lose the chance to prove that the image has ever been there. Make sure that you take a full page screenshot, so the opponent can’t argue that credit was given at the bottom of the page. Don’t hide the date and time of taking the screenshot. It can be a valuable piece of evidence in front of a court.

2. Use Wayback Machine

The Wayback Machine is a digital archive of websites which enables to see how a particular site looked like at some time in the past. The access to web.archive.org is free, as this gigantic library of record is run by a non-profit organisation. If you know the URL of the page you’re interested in, just type it in the box at the top of the page and wait for results. You may find past views of the website, possibly with your stolen content. Surprisingly, it may occur that your artwork has been published illegally a long time before you discovered it.

Of course, it can happen that nobody before you archived this website. Still, Wayback Machine can be a useful tool for you. At the bottom right of  web.archive.org in the section titled “Save Page Now”, you can type the URL of the web page you want to capture. That way you gain reliable proof that your photo has been published on this particular webpage on the day you saved it. It is a valuable alternative to screenshots collected on your computer’s hardware.

3. Inspect the image

Aside from capturing the screenshot of your photograph, you may check if the infringers are hosting the image on their server. How to do it? If you’re using Chrome, right click on an image, then click on “Inspect” and you’ll get some important pieces of information:

  • You will see the URL where the photo is being hosted on. It may be loaded from the infringer’s server. Make a screenshot of this discovery. The second scenario is that they display your photo on their website, but it’s served from original location e.g. from your site. That’s a bad practice called “hotlinking”, which is very convenient for infringers. They drain your sources and it doesn’t cost them any money. You can prove hotlinking by viewing the URL of the illegally published image, so take another screenshot. 
  • You can also check how long your photo has been online. Click “Inspect” on the image. Open this image in a new tab. Then choose the “Network” section, refresh the page and you will see the header “if-modified-since”. This HTTP request header is sent by a browser to the server to tell if the image was changed since it had been uploaded. This way you can see the possible date of the unauthorised use of your photo. The response header “last-modified”, which is sent by the server, works in a similar manner. Don’t forget to take a screenshot of the last-modified or if-modified dates. Unfortunately, if you are a victim of hotlinking, those dates won’t constitute proof of copyright infringement. 

4. Have a witness

Don’t keep the information about the image theft for yourself. The more people know about infringement the better. Send the link to the web page with stolen content and the screenshots to a colleague or a friend and ask for confirmation, so you have a witness.

5. Find the thief

To effectively fight against copyright infringement you not only need evidence that your photo has been stolen, but you also need to know who is the infringer. Picture yourself as Sherlock Holmes and try to be a detective for a moment. Try to find a contact name, and a postal or an email address of the infringer. First, check the information on the website. Every section called “contact us”, “about us”, “impressum”,  “terms & conditions”, “privacy policy”, the footer note, etc. can be a source of data you need to track down the opponent. Of course, it’s sometimes challenging as many blogs and websites are anonymous or hide the information about website owners, designers, host or administrators. Don’t forget to check if they have a Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn account. It may be a valuable source of information as well.

However, there are some tools which can make your investigation a bit easier:

whois.com – the query and response protocol which is used for checking information about ownership of a domain name;

website.informer.com – useful widget ready to install to your browser that gathers detailed information about websites. Dedicated as a special service to webmasters, it discovers not only some useful statistics about the website, but also the contact info of the website owner or host;

godaddy.com – collects more than 73 million of domains from all over the world. Although involved in some controversies related to censorship, it may be considered useful for your private investigation;

hunter.io – Chrome plugin that allows you to find all email addresses related to a particular domain. You can install it for free;

slik.ai – Slik Prospector, an interesting alternative to the previous tool, allows to find anyone’s email based on their LinkedIn profile.. Free trial available;

anymailfinder.com – another tool to find email addresses. You can use a free trial.

Probably only you know how much effort and time it costs you to take photos. It’s not only joy and passion, but often a source of your income. Don’t let others get profit from your hard work without your permission. If it’s happened so far, you’re still able to protect your copyrights and to stop the image thieves. Lesson learned – next time you’ll be better prepared to deal with such an unpleasant surprise.

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