Putting your artwork and photographs out into the online world can be exciting and scary. You worked so hard to create those images, and want to be sure to get them in front of other artists, brands, and potential buyers - but you might wonder, what if something bad happens to them? While fear shouldn't ever stand in the way of you successfully building your business online, there are ways to protect your images so they aren't used by others in ways you aren't okay with.
To be fair, images aren't always stolen by a super shady person. For instance, someone writing a blog post about motherhood might want a great image of a mother and a baby playing with blocks together. So, they google "mother and baby playing with blocks", then click on google images and see a great, high-quality photo that is exactly what they were looking for! So, they just right-click, choose "save image" and add it right into their own blog post graphic, with their title and blog name right on top of it.
Ugh! Didn't they even care that someone else worked really hard to create that great photo, and isn't getting any credit? Honestly, it may have not even crossed their mind - some people think if an image is right there on Google, it must be okay to use, or that it's unlikely they would get caught.
(BTW, if you're looking for a way to find great photos without using another person's work without permission, may I suggest Unsplash? This isn't sponsored, they are just a great resource!)
There are ways to protect your images using both technical and strategic moves, so let's dive into 5 simple things you can do today, to protect your images before you upload that Etsy listing photo or awesome Instagram post!
5 WAYS TO PROTECT YOUR IMAGES FROM ONLINE THEFT
Clearly explain what you're okay with
A little clear communication can go a long way! It seems obvious but people often forget about simply stating your expectations. You can add a brief statement on your website or alongside your images, letting viewers know what you're comfortable with in terms of sharing your work. For instance, if you have a portfolio or gallery page you can add a sentence at the top stating how much you hope the viewer enjoys your work, to let you know if they have any questions, and to please not share your images without your written permission.
There is also the matter of commercial use vs. personal use. If you're selling your work online, you want to be really clear about this in your listing language. Let's say you're selling a digital download of a repeating pattern you created. First, you'll need to decide exactly what you're selling - and it's not just the PDF file. Is the buyer purchasing the rights to use this image only for personal use (such as to print out and hang on a wall in their home), or limited commercial use (such as a header image on their website) or for commercial use (such as printing the image on throw pillows and then selling them, without your name anywhere on that pillow).
This is really a personal choice, and you'll need to decide what you're okay with. My suggestion is that if you choose to sell your products for personal use only, you offer another way for others to collaborate with you. For instance, you could offer an extended commercial license where they could pay an additional amount of money to use your design on items for resale, or you could encourage them to contact you to discuss options for working together. Here is some sample language you can use (feel free to copy & paste the paragraph and/or edit it into your own listings!):
Have a visible copyright notice
You don't technically need to provide a written copyright notice with your work. When you create an image or artwork, it automatically is copyrighted to it's creator. However, it's a great reminder to others and helps clearly communicate your intentions about use of your work. It's a quick, simple thing to add if you haven't already - mine is right in the footer of my website, and at the bottom of every sales listing I create.
You may also want to consider adding a free DMCA button to your website. You can find more information on the DMCA website, but essentially they provide free assistance in the form of buttons and "take-down notices" to help you protect your work online. I've never had to utilize their services, but I've heard they are a great resource!
Watermark Your Images
This is an important one! You don't need to watermark every single image you put on the internet (for instance, I've never watermarked an Instagram post - that would feel weird), but anytime you are uploading a full-size, clear image of your work you need to make sure you get a watermark on it first.
A watermark is simply a semitransparent layer of text or image that you save on top of your image, that would make it difficult for anyone to save and use it. It is a great deterrent, and something you can easily do while you're already editing your images - it only adds about 30 seconds of work, once you have a method down!
Above, I used a simple text layer to add my website name on top of the images. My goal is to watermark it enough to make it difficult to save and edit the image without permission, but not so intrusive that a potential buyer can't view the details.
For a brief tutorial of two ways I add watermarks to images in Photoshop CC (but can be done in all sorts of photo editing software!) check out my YouTube video below. Consider subscribing to my YouTube channel to stay caught up on future videos, too!
If you use Squarespace as your web host, you can also watermark text on top of an image right in Squarespace, using the built-in Adobe Creative Cloud Image Editor.
Reduce your image sizes
The higher-quality and larger the image size, the easier it is for others to print it, enlarge it, and use it in all sorts of ways. While you need to keep a high-quality version of the image for yourself to order prints of your work or sell it as a download, the images you upload to social media or online shops can be much smaller.
A 500kb image that is 1500 pixels wide will still look great as a listing image, on Instagram, etc. but won't be very useful for someone to save and re-use. That is the size Squarespace recommends using for images you upload to the web, and it has always worked for me! If you use the max file size (for many web hosts and online shops that is 20MB), it not only makes it easier for others to steal your images, but might also slow down your website load time. Smaller image sizes is a win-win!
If you're looking for a way to reduce the size of your images without sacrificing quality, I've heard great things about JPEGmini.
Use styled photos and mock-ups
Another strategy that pays off in multiple ways is using styled photos and mock-ups to showcase your work. When your image is used as a part of a larger image, it's going to be challenging for another person to save it and crop out that section, and have it be of a high-enough quality to do anything with. The big bonus is, it also looks great for your viewers! Etsy and other online sellers recommend sharing photos of your products in a variety of ways, including close-ups and mock-ups. It helps potential viewers envision how the work might look framed, above a sofa, as part of a table-scape, etc.
You can use props and backgrounds to add a sense of warmth to your work, and make it really stand out! Above, you can see examples of where I have styled images to use on social media, as well as used mock-up frames against wood backgrounds for listing images of my work. I have a whole blog post on how to style flatlay images of your artwork, so check that out for more ideas!
Having others use your image is not always a bad thing!
When someone takes an image from your website or social media and uses it without your permission, it can instinctively feel icky. However, there are circumstances where it can actually be beneficial and positive. For instance, a blog using an image of your work in a post such as a "round-up", crediting you, and linking to your website or shop can be awesome! You may not know in advance they are going to do this, and it can be a surprise to stumble on, but if you're being appropriately credited and linked to it can mean your work reaching a whole new audience. It's also super flattering to know your work was appreciated.
Well, that's a wrap!
You might notice that I left out "disable right-clicking" as a strategy, and if you've read other tutorials online you might wonder why. I honestly don't think it is very effective or worth the effort, at this point. Technology has advanced enough that it is so easy for someone to screenshot your image, and anything you do to prevent it can be undone within the viewer's browser. I'd rather spend my time on more effective methods such as adding a watermark.
Overall, don't stress too much about it! The more time you spend worrying your images have been stolen, or searching frantically online to see if anyone else is using them, the less time you're spending on producing more amazing work and content. Take a deep breath, take reasonable precautions, and then turn your focus back on what matters.
Curious what to do after you discover your image has been taken and used without your permission? Check out this post from the Spruce, which I think is really helpful.
Are you utilizing these strategies to protect your images online? Do you have other tips to add? Please chime in, in the comments!