Enforcing Your Copyright

In our last post, 5 Ways to Protect Your Work Online, we suggested that if you do find violations of your copyright, you should take action. Many photographers and other creative professionals often let the matter slide because they believe it will take too much time and effort, or that stealing pictures is now the norm. Unfortunately, this attitude only serves to encourage further copyright violations, as violators feel they have no need to worry and they won’t be caught.

Not all ways of taking action involve the use of a lawyer, either: there are many less aggressive steps you can take, and you can always escalate later if you feel the other party is not responding appropriately.

How do I find out if my image has been used without my permission?

There are several tools to help you find copies of an image: Google’s image search allows you to drag an image into the search bar, and then click ‘similar’ below the image to search for duplicates.

TinEye is another simple reverse image search tool. Digimarc, in addition to other image protection services, also has a search. One caveat: these search engines won’t help if the photo has been altered heavily. Lastly, Copyscape is a free service that enables you to search for copies of a web page.

Don’t forget about text, either: if you have text accompanying your image, it might also be a good idea to search for that as well.

How do I tell someone to stop using my image when I find a violation?

1. Reach out to the person or site directly. You’d be surprised how many times people don’t even know or consider that copying an image is illegal. A polite email asking them to take the picture down may do the trick.

2. If that doesn’t work, you can prepare a DMCA Take-Down Notice. The U.S. Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) states that the ISP, or internet service provider, that hosts a website isn’t liable for transmitting copyright-infringing material if they remove the materials from the offending site after receiving proper notice. One limitation: this only applies if the ISP is in the U.S. (8/12/15: Update: If you’d like more information on the DMCA, check out this guide from WhoIsHostingThis.com.)

The notice must be sent in writing, and we suggest you add tracking or signature confirmation to the letter to ensure delivery. The notice also has to be signed by the copyright owner or their agent, and identify the copyrighted work or a list of works from the site that are violating copyright law.

3. Another option is to prepare a cease and desist letter explaining that the use of the material is not authorized, and requesting photo credit with a link to the website, a payment of a license fee, or that the image be taken down. You can prepare a letter yourself, but it may be best to hire a lawyer to send it. When you involve a lawyer, the letter carries a lot more weight and the matter is likely to be taken seriously by the other party. At the same time, be aware that tensions may rise because the matter has been escalated.

Fees for the attorneys will vary; some will charge a flat rate to help you prepare and send the letter, others may charge a percentage of money you will recover, or a combination of the two.

4. Your final and most aggressive option is to file a suit. You have three years from the date the infringement occurs to sue. Before doing this, carefully consider if this response is proportional to the violation, and if you are willing to endure the time and expense this will warrant. Get in touch with a media lawyer familiar with copyright violation to walk you through the process, as it will be complicated.

Please note: This information is provided merely as a guideline. It must not be used as an alternative to legal advice from an attorney or professional legal services provider. As copyright infringement varies from case to case, if you have any specific questions you should consult an attorney directly.

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