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How to minimize image theft online
15 September 2008


In the online world many sleazy people and businesses steal shamelessly thinking that nobody is watching and everybody is doing it. The ease of stealing digital content along with the general perception of anonymity that the internet provides allows for such blatant behavior. Hopefully this will change soon as adequate IP protection laws and technologies get developed and become widely used. But as long as we remain in the "wild west" era of the internet you have to do your best to protect your hard work from getting illegally exploited.

Artists are an especially easy prey. They usually have limited understanding of any computer technologies and are happy just to have a website that works. But even if you are computer savvy there is little you can do to protect your work without degrading the user experience.

Here is a list of the most common online image protection methods and how easy it is to bypass them:

image protection method
how to bypass it
put the image into a flash file or java applet take a screenshot of the image
split the image into pieces and display in an html table take a screenshot of the image
disable right click menu or the "save as" function via javascript take a screenshot of the image, or disable javascript, or look in the html source for the image file
show another image (like copyright note) while rolling the mouse over the image take a screenshot of the image if embedded in flash or java, otherwise disable javascript, or look in the html source for the image file
put a transparent gif/png over the image, so when the visitor saves the image he gets the transparent file take a screenshot of the image, or look in the html source for the image file

As you can see these methods provide no protection against those who are savvy enough. And those who want to steal your work are savvy enough. Such people are in the business of profiting from stolen content. They develop or download tools that automatically extract whatever they need from a website. So if you see your artwork sold as cell phone wallpapers, in screensavers, games, etc. - despite having "protection" - you now know how it got there.

Ultimately the more difficult or time consuming the act of stealing becomes the fewer people will have the skills and resources to do it. Unfortunately the more security mechanisms one implements to protect one's values the less usable those values become. So it's all about balancing the needs for protection and usability.

Regular visitors are the ones you care about, and obviously they quickly get annoyed by image protection schemes. So what do you do? In my view the best way to minimize exploitation of images, without making your visitors unhappy, is by only showing images in small size and either watermark them or have a clearly visible logo on them. I show my images at 570 pixels wide and have my website logo on them. Such size is big enough to get a good look at the image but too small for most forms of exploitations like poster printing, wallpapers, screensavers, etc.

This simple solution is easy to implement and maintain, effective against most illegal exploitation, and won't make your visitors unhappy.

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