Whether you're a professional photographer or an amateur photojournalist snapping pictures of your everyday life to record for posterity, you run the risk of having any images that you publish online stolen. What are your choices? You could choose not to publish any of your images online, but that means limiting their exposure more than you want. Instead, you can take steps to enforce your copyright. Here's what you should know.
A little protection goes a long way.
First, make sure that you take some steps to protect your work in the first place. Putting a watermark on the photos and embedding an image of your copyright information across the bottom is a start. You should also take the time to learn how to disable right-click action with a computer mouse that makes it easy to grab a picture from your site. That will discourage people who have a basic understanding of copyright law who have no intentional desire to steal your work. It also gives you some grounds for establishing that you never intended the images to become "fair use" or freely available to anyone who wants to borrow them off the web.
Initial notices should be quick but polite.
Next, you should periodically check your own name online and do reverse image searches to check for photos that have been lifted off your site. If you find a site that is using your images without your permission, take a screen shot of the page it is on for your records. Then send a notice according to the rules outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act as quickly as possible to the website and the ISP hosting it.
In general, keep your initial request short and polite. There is every possibility that the person who swiped your images just liked what they saw and didn't realize that borrowing it for their own website was infringing on your rights. Many people don't understand copyright laws or think that they apply only to commercial use. Assume (until proven wrong) that they have simply made a mistake and will take down the images as soon as asked.
Further action may be necessary.
If your request to remove the images is ignored, you'll probably have to take further action. You may also have to take further action if you determine that you've suffered any economic harm from the other person's use of your images. For example, if you routinely sell your photographs for use on blogs, the value of one that gets lifted and used somewhere else is diminished by its use--nobody wants to pay premium prices for an image that's been used elsewhere.
You do have an automatic, or statutory, right to recover damages for copyright infringement of your works. If the person who stole your work can satisfy the court that they weren't aware of your copyright and had no reason to believe that they were doing something illegal may have to pay $200 per photo. If you can prove the act was willful, you can collect up to $150,000 per photo. If you are only looking at collecting damages for one or two images and the use wasn't willful, you may want to handle things on your own. If you are asking for more than a few hundred dollars in damages, you may want to get an attorney, such as Adrienne Naumann, involved.