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We have a rather popular website with plenty of photos. Our whole business depends on our content - and the photos are important in this. We invest a lot of time, effort, and money into taking these pictures. On our website we have clear copyright notices, we have the website name and logo in the photos, and we have a Photo Licensing page which states the prices of licensing our photos.

Despite all this, our photos are copied by personal and commercial websites alike. We really want to do something about this. We do not want them to take out the photos and leave it at that. We want them to pay for the usage, as we clearly state on our website. Now a few questions come to mind:

  • Can we legally force them to pay right away? Or are we obligated to first write a "Cease and Desist" letter?
  • Photos are used on websites throughout the world. Are there any worldwide rules for this?
  • Has anybody experience with doing these things outside of their home country? Should we hire a lawyer in any country? Or could a local lawyer contact oversees companies directly?
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6 Answers 6

up vote 3 down vote accepted

First, you did the right thing putting the copyright and website on all the photos. That is the best thing you could do as it at least will be known where the images come from and who the belong to.

Sadly, there is nothing that can be guaranteed 100% effective. You can send a letter as you suggest but it is far more effective to simply send them a bill which includes the license and your terms.

Each website may respond in one of the following way:

  1. Accept the license and pay you (usually after they consulting their lawyers)
  2. Remove the content (occasionally along an apology)
  3. Ignore you completely

In the case of (3): You can send a registered letter with CC to a law-firm. This has some chance of working for companies based in your country but very little elsewhere.

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Depending on where the website is hosted will determine how successful the copyright enforcement will be. For websites based in the UK and Ireland, a Cease and Desist order would work. But for websites in Russia and China for example, this would be near to pointless.

While it is bad how websites throughout the world are using your images, I would suggest you look at how these images are obtained from your website. Most people can be deterred from a popup displaying after the right click action is performed. Prevention is always better than the cure.

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In addition to what mickburkejnr suggested, I'd also say that if images are your main source of income for the site, investing in a good flash photo gallery is going to be a good way to help deter them. There are tools out there to decompile the flash files, but disabling javascript can be done within each browser easily as well.

I'd also recommend that you disallow crawlers like xenu, wget and curl so that they aren't simply using wget to scrape the contents of your site.

RewriteEngine on
RewriteCond %{HTTP_USER_AGENT} ^Wget [OR]
RewriteCond %{HTTP_USER_AGENT} ^Xenu's [OR]
RewriteCond %{HTTP_USER_AGENT} ^curl
RewriteRule ^(.*)$ http://www.robotstxt.org/

As a note, denying curl by itself is in itself, not much of a fix as curl can emulate pretty much any string they need to. To disable hotlinking of the images, put this in your .htaccess

<IfModule mod_rewrite.c>
RewriteEngine on
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !^$
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !^http://(www.)?yourdomainname.com/.*$ [NC]
RewriteRule .*.(gif|jpg|png|ico)$ – [F,L]
</ifModule>
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For websites in the U.S., use of "takedown notices" under the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) seems to be a fairly effective way to get the material removed reasonably quickly (judging from net scuttlebutt). This doesn't get you paid, of course, and is only one country. Rather than relying only on people obeying copyright laws (or filing lawsuits thereunder), it pays to take available practical measures as well, as ArrantSquid suggests.

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Now for something different...

Your legal options are not going to help - too much time and money, best invested in something else...

Obfuscate your photos by delivering them in a DeepZoom viewer that downloads lots and lots of hi-res tiles. Make the tile size small and you literally impose a jigsaw puzzle on your thieves - the best they can do is a screenshot and then you can protect your assets with a non-irritating watermark.

Because Microsoft have tried to hide the open source AJAX version of DeepZoom 'seadragon' there is not a lot that the casual thief will be able to do to reverse engineer your viewer.

You can also add some quality functionality to your site as people will be able to full-screen view your images in considerable resolution (and without being able to steal).

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For images already stolen - I'd say try to make a minimum effort to reach the site owners who stole your images. Copyright infringement is easy to prove, and you can get compensated without proving any damages in most countries.

Use tools like tineye.com and the new google images search. Use domaintools.com to find out who's behind a site that's using your images. Read about the way Stock Photography sites deal with this issue. In most cases you don't even have to go to court, most people will settle out of court if the sum you're asking for is lower than what it would cost them to defend themselves legally.

If there are a lot of websites, I'd get a copyright lawyer to deal with it for you. They will often do it for a percentage of the loot rather than lawyer fees.

As for materials that were not stolen yet - use something like Image Guard to watermark your images, and prevent hotlinking.

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Please ensure that you disclose your relationship when linking to products or services you are affiliated with to avoid being identified as a spammer. –  danlefree Jul 4 '11 at 21:26

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