In our daily fight against image theft, often you can settle a case easily since the opposing organizations understand they did something wrong and would like to resolve the issue peacefully.
Sometimes, however, they’re purely evil and all that matters to them is the bottom line. In this case, you’ll have to go to court – and this becomes a game of cat and mouse with the opposing lawyers, who try to make it harder for you to enforce your rights.
The most common dispute concerns whether the photographer can prove that he/she is indeed the one who took the photo in question. Here are some tips that we gathered in this cat and mouse game, and we’ll update it whenever some opponent comes up with a different strategy again.
1. Never give away your RAW files
I can’t stress this point enough. Shoot RAW and never give those RAW files to anyone! Keep them safe and back them up at least twice. They are by far your most important asset as a photographer. Only give them away if you don’t care about copyright protection for a certain image.
If a client wants to get the RAW file, ask whether a .tif file wouldn’t fulfill their needs.
When an opponent wants to see the RAW file, my default option is to invite them to my office. I would never send them my RAW file and neither should you. I even go as far as not giving my RAW files to the court (as they then become evidence and the opposing lawyer could get access to it). If the court insists, I give the file to my lawyer who explains to the court why he can’t submit it, but he’s ready to present it during the session.
2. Don’t sell your camera body
Being sure that you’re the only one who has access to the RAW file is especially powerful if you still own the camera body with which that photo was shot.
If you look into the details of the RAW file, you’ll notice that it records the serial number of the camera. If you still own this camera, this combination is usually enough to clear all of the judge’s doubts regarding your copyright.
But since photographers frequently upgrade their equipment, it’s important that you keep documents which can prove that you owned the camera in question at some point. For example, think of a video of yourself and your camera, zooming in on the serial number. In case you sell your camera or your camera gets stolen, you might run into trouble.
3. Document how the RAW file becomes the final image
If, like me, you do some digital post-processing and your final image doesn’t look like the RAW image at all, consider this: judges usually have no idea what’s happening during this process and have a hard time understanding why you claim ownership of the RAW file if the final image looks entirely different.
If you work in Lightroom, usually it saves the steps you did in post-processing. With that, you can show what you did and a judge can have a better understanding of the process. If you work in Photoshop, I highly recommend saving (and backing up) a layered PSD file, so that you can show the steps you took to get from RAW to final.
With other software, please check if you can document your steps somehow. In my early days as a photographer, I often used Photomatix to merge my exposures into HDR files. The problem was that I didn’t just use Photomatix to merge the files, but I also used the edit options. I was left with just the raw files that went in and the final image that came out. To convince the judge, I had to show the options I had in Photomatix and then recreated a similar – though not exact – copy of the image that my opponents stole from me.
The judge was convinced in this case, but it would’ve been definitely less risky if I had the layered file available.
4. Set the correct date in your camera
You want your RAW file to be as accurate as possible since it’s supposed to inspire trust in the judge.
Having the right date set in your camera doesn’t help just with that, but it also makes it easier for you to remember a certain day years after you’ve been shooting. You can take a look at your calendar and remember that maybe you’ve been out with a friend, shooting together? In this case, you would even have a witness, if you needed one.
5. Save a series of images from each day of the shooting
One time a judge asked me to show her other photos from the same shooting session. It was the first time I was asked for this, but it made sense. You rarely go out and take a single photo. In the digital age, you usually take multiple shots anyway, before you find the exact composition you want. Don’t throw away everything that you don’t end up using later on. Leave at least a few other photos – they can serve as yet another good argument as to why the judge should believe you.
Now, I understand that you might not have done all of the above since you started with photography years ago. Don’t worry, neither have I.
Again, it’s a game of cat and mouse, and sooner or later some opponent will bring out something we haven’t thought of yet. We’ll adjust accordingly and become even better prepared for the future.
What ultimately matters is that the judge believes you. The above is definitely helpful, but not always required. Sometimes it’s enough that you have the highest resolution of the image and you’ve shared only low-res on the net.
Adjust for the future, but don’t be discouraged if you haven’t followed every advice in the past. If the above wasn’t enough, please share your experience with us! That helps us and all the other photographers to stay ahead of image thieves.