When Copyright is a big deal and when it isn’t

As a photographer copyright is a big deal. In fact we photographers get so obsessed with it we go so far as to ruin our images by splashing giant copyright notices all over the work we publish online.

Why do we do this?

Because we’re in constant fear of someone stealing our images and doing I don’t know what with them.

It’s actually pretty easy to find out if someone has copied your images and are using them on their website. Just drag your published image into Google Image search and the nice people at Google will do the rest.

Sadly it’s a pretty common occurrence and you only have to drift onto a photography forum or Facebook group to see a thread about the latest amateur to “borrow” another photographers images to bulk up their portfolio a bit (I’m being far too kind about these kind of people I know).

But how does copyright actually work?

It’s different for different countries and there are always special circumstances but basically if you create it, you own it.

If you’re using someone’s pictures (that’s pictures you didn’t create) and you don’t have their expressed permission then most likely you are infringing on their copyright.

How would you define expressed permission and how do I get it?

Normally the easiest way to obtain expressed permission is to ask for it. You will most likely get one of three answers.

1. No, if you use my images I will hunt you down and send you nasty letters that might end up with you paying far more than you bargained for.

2. Yes, do what you like with the images. I would appreciate a credit though but don’t feel over obliged.

3. Yes, that will cost you £xxxx

When is it OK to not ask permission?

If you have obtained the images from a site that has already outlined the usage rules attached to the images (and you follow them of course). See the Creative Commons website for an example of this.

What else is not OK?

Copying an image and crediting the photographer without any written notice that the photographer is happy for you to do this.

Taking screen grabs. It’s the same thing folks.

What is the worst thing that could happen?

Technically you could go to jail but that’s unlikely. You could get fined or a nasty email. Then again nothing could happen but it’s a bit like driving without insurance. Actually it’s just plain stealing.

But really think about it this way, if you are reading this its likely that you run your own business or are thinking about setting one up.

It you upset the wrong photographer and the full wrath of the photography community came down on you like a ton of proverbial bricks, how good would that be for your business?

Sometimes there is such a thing as bad press, just ask anyone who appears on the Tumblr page Photo Stealers

How should you protect your own images?

Contrary what what I’ve just been saying don’t worry about it too much. If you shoot stock images then the stock library will look after your interests.

If you are just sharing a few happy snaps then who really cares if someone has stolen your holiday photos and has created a false Facebook profile with them which they use to stalk people with (actually you should be a big worried about that one).

If you are a photographer then if you publish it online at least don’t be surprised if someone steals it. A good rule is to only publish work you have already sold or that you’re happy to give away for free.

You can continually keep dropping images into Google search, but unless you’ve got time to burn that’s kinda counter productive. Do it with your best award winning work for sure (that’s the stuff that gets stolen anyway) but like I said, don’t let it take over your life.



You could slap a big watermark over your images but what really would be the point in that. Rather than showing people your pretty pictures you are actually making quite an aggressive statement. I think of it has a farmer chasing hikers off his land with a shotgun. Rather than chase them off, why doesn’t he just offer to sell them a refreshing glass of homemade beetroot juice? It’ll save on shotgun shells and he might make a bit of extra money whilst people are enjoying the beauty of the landscape.

A happy medium would be to add some branding to an image like you can see below. Actually this is great for Facebook but if you are doing this on your blog images then its unlikely they will get picked up by Google Images, and that could be a good source of traffic for you.

Memory Gate London baby photographers

Do you incorporate your branding into your images, if so how do you do it? Share in the comments.

What about Pinterest and other social media sites that have very grey terms and conditions regarding copyright?

Oh I guess you know what I’m going to say….. Don’t worry about it. Sites like Pinterest will drive traffic to your site and what are they doing that Google aren’t? We are going to talk lots more about Pinterest next week.

I know this is an article with a few contradictions, the biggest being my own cavalier attitude towards protecting my own copyright whilst vilifying those who abuse it. But you can only do so much to protect yourself without it becoming obsessive. On the flip side, there are a lot of obsessive people out there who are really protective over their work. Beware of metaphorical farmers and their shotguns.

About Michael Shilling

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