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Digital Photography and Copyright in the Internet Age

Copyright symbol - © Kiri Stuart-Clarke

Copyright symbol - © Kiri Stuart-Clarke

We now live in a digital age, one where copyrighted data and images can flow freely across borders, even all around the world, in the blink of an eye.

But what does that really mean for our copyright, what are the risks of image theft, is it safe to use an image we find and how can we protect our intellectual property right?

This article explores some of the key facts and issues surrounding using digital images on the internet that we need to know.

Who Owns An Image's Copyright?

In the vast majority of situations the person who creates an image (“the creator”), such as somebody who takes a photo, is the owner of the original copyright.The Designs, Copyright and Patents Act of 1988 enshrined this right in UK law. Copyright holders can grant permission to use "license" or transfer ownership ("assign") their copyright to others.

Do all images have a copyright?

Legally, copyright lasts for the lifetime of the creator plus 70 years after the year of their death, and many older digitised images from image libraries had copyrights renewed, so in practice most images will be held under copyright.

What Does This Mean For An Image User?

In a nutshell - respect the image owner and ensure you have permission.

In practice, almost any image you find on the internet is likely to be protected by copyright, so it is only safe to use it if you are sure there is specific permission to do so in place, for example through a licence or in the terms and conditions of the website supplying the image.  Remember, you are responsible for ensuring that you have permission to use the image. Its safest to start out with the assumption it is copyrighted.

At its most basic level, if you want to use a photo, in any form, you need to seek permission from the copyright owner. Even if it's a friend’s photo or is to be used for non-commercial purposes such as downloading a photo to use as a desktop screensaver.

Remember, you are responsible for ensuring that you have permission to use the image. Its safest to start out with the assumption it is copyrighted and if you’re not sure – always ask first!

So can I use images at all?

Don't get too worried, just sharing a link is okay, and is of course what social media is meant to be all about. The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that internet users should be free to share links to material that has been published online with the permission of the rights holder

However “Tagging”, that is displaying a hosted image or copying and hosting images on another website, probably does constitute copyright infringement.

Don't forget also that modifying someone else's photo, even if it's by a friend, and even if it's only for a joke, could well be an infringement of the image owner's copyright, so do get their permission first. 

The Rise Of Image Theft

The rise and rise of the internet and social media has also unleashed a wave of image theft, that perhaps in some ways might be compared to video piracy when technology first enabled video tapes to be copied. 

For some psychological reason, activities carried out on the internet often don't seem to be ascribed the same weight that they would be in the real world and seem to be perceived as not "counting", perhaps because the victim is invisible at the time and the perpetrators may experience a false sense of anonymity that liberates them from a sense of consequences or repercussions.

Certain fellow photographers, for what are to me quite incomprehensible reasons, have even taken to stealing other photographer's images and passing them off as their own on image sharing sites and social media in order to pad out their portfolios, or perhaps simply to gain a fleeting ego boost. Of course such antics were  always to be seen in not a few camera club competitions in the physical world too, but the technology of the internet world has created a step-change by making this so very easy to do at the click of a mouse button.

Of course such image theft is unethical in the extreme, cheating both victim from credit and also the perpetrator themselves from gaining the chance to learn and improve their own work. More seriously, such an act is unequivocally a legal copyright infringement.

Sadly there is also of course a more sinister side and the issue of "professional" image theft by criminal gangs for all manner of purposes which is even harder to spot and combat, although recent search by image capabilities are now starting to make tracking down such illegal activities easier.

Photographing Art Work

Pictures at an Exhibition (the Artist had provided his work for a charity event and agreed to photo coverage)

Pictures at an Exhibition
(the Artist had provided his work for a charity event and agreed to photo coverage)

One thing for photographers to be mindful of is accidentally infringing another's copyrighted work.

If you photograph a creative piece of art under copyright and it is the main subject of your image then you may inadvertantly be infringing another’s copyright.



What Does This Mean For Digital Photographers?

In a nutshell - be aware, protect yourself and assess the risks. 

Yes, your copyright is protected by law online as in the real world. But once you publish an image online, it is "out there" in the cyberspace for others to enjoy, share, comment on, use and inevitably, human nature being what it is, potentially misuse.

You of course stand to benefit from exposure, kudos and social media "likes", but at the expense of a certain loss of control over your image once it enters the public domain. That is unavoidable and to a certain degree that risk has to be accepted as an "occupational hazard".

There are of course sensible precautions you can and should  take to protect your images and copyright.

Check Websites' T's and C's

Firstly DO spare the few moments it takes to check the terms and conditions on any internet, image sharing or social media website when you join before you start posting images and check back periodically as terms do change and get updated.

Quite a few have surprisingly unfavourable copyright terms and conditions  for photographers that at the very least enable them to make your images available for others to use, without your prior permission or notice.

The worst might even attempt to assign your copyright over to themselves which would leave defamation or privacy laws your only recourse in a dispute if your image were then to be used in a way you don't like.

Whatever you do, DON’T surrender or give your copyright away, this undermines the value of you time and effort and photography as a creative genre.

 Thankfully following a backlash by many photographers against unfavourable terms of use, several of the more established sites have recently been improving their terms.

Will "watermarking" my image give me more protection?

In the UK despite misconceptions you don’t have to watermark your image to assert your copyright as its creator, that said, it is a good idea to do so in order to ensure that people are clear that copyright exists on the image and that they know who to contact to obtain permission.

So it is worth copyright marking your work, but not excessively, heavy watermarks often destroy enjoyment of images and in reality don't prevent determined thieves as these days clever software programs exist that can completely remove watermarks. 

Enforcing Copyright

With the internet now established as part of everyday life and being accessed on tablets, smart phones outside the home, it's now easier than ever to republish copyrighted works. So it is not surprising that copyright breach cases have risen so dramatically, but if you are caught using an image without permission and infringing another's copyright there could be serious financial and legal consequences.

On social media there is a growing backlash by photographers who have fallen foul of image theft rallying against the misattribution of other photographer's work.

With perpetrators now being more easy to track down through image search an increasing number of culprits are being brought to task and "named and shamed" publicly as well as receiving lifetime bans from sites.

Some of the big photo libraries have been using reverse image searches to track down illegal usage of their photos and are retrospectively billing the web designers.

As technology continues to advance and laws and policies start to catch up with technology, people who think copyright infringement will not be detected are increasingly likely to get a nasty surprise. The internet is now far less anonymous than you might think, with cookies embedded almost ubiquitously, in many respects individuals' activities online are tracked far more extensively online than they can be in real life. So infringers do run a genuine and increasing risk of being discovered, shamed and potentially even being pursued through the courts as a consequence.

Hopefully the situation for photographers will continue to improve as awareness of the issues around data, copyright and image theft continues to grow, and bad behaviour of all kinds on the internet becomes increasingly socially unacceptable. 

Further Information And Disclaimer

While this article is written in good faith, I am not a lawyer cannot guarantee 100% factual accuracy and this does not constitute any sort of legal guidance. If you are in a copyright dispute it is best to seek qualified advice.

If you are interested in the topics explored by this article here are some of the resources that are available:

The UK Government's Intellectual Property and Copyright Law Website  

A helpful plain English IPO Factsheet called "Copyright Notice: digital images, photographs and the internet" (Number: 1/2014 Updated: March 2014) - one photographer's battle to challenge image theft got them bullied and temporarily barred from Facebook.

A plagiarism today article on Facebook and Copyright following one victims experience and how Facebook staff were themselves unaware of copyright rules.

Facebook – search for photo stealers