Fabulous! We love it!
For artists, there’s a catch. Along with ease of ability to browse images, there is an equal ease of ability to copy images, frequently without the owner’s permission, essentially undermining the artist’s livelihood. So what’s an artist to do? Not post images and be virtually invisible, or post images and risk having one’s work copied?
To this, there is no easy answer. But I’ve created a set of guidelines so that if you do post, you are putting yourself in the best possible position.
Understand that if someone wants to steal your images, they will. But by and large, most people are honest — just ignorant. For instance, a large portion of the population believes that if an image is on the internet, it is free to copy. As an artist, you know that as soon as you create an image, it is protected by copyright laws in the U.S., regardless of whether it has the © symbol and regardless of whether you have registered it with the Copyright Office. Nonetheless, a large portion of the public is unaware of this fact. BUT, when they see the © symbol, they become aware of your rights and may be deterred from copying.
Step #2: Use low resolution and cropped images whenever possible. If you’re posting images, you may be thinking that you want to post high-res full-size images to show your work in the best possible light. However, posting high-res images just makes life easier for the would-be copier. Having low res images makes it much harder to physically copy your work. Think about it: it is much easier for a copyright infringer to download a high-res image right into photoshop or illustrator, make a couple modifications and claim it as his or her own than it is to download a low-res image where one would actually have to redraw the design.
And if you can, don’t post your full-size image. Just post a cropped version showing only a portion of your image. If someone is “inspired” by your work, at least they can’t copy the whole thing.
Step #3: Apply Metadata. What is metadata? Metadata is basically information about the image that is invisible when viewing the image, but it is stored in the image file. Using metadata is a way to embed copyright and contact information into your image.
It is very easy to use Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, or Bridge to apply metadata. I like to use Bridge. In Bridge, open an image in the viewer. Under the Metadata tab, enter your contact and copyright information.
Now that you’ve applied your metadata, that data should travel with your image. Your metadata is readable to anyone who opens your image in image editing software (like Photoshop or Illustrator). So if someone ever finds an orphaned copy of your work (e.g., someone copied it and maybe even cropped it!), it is still traceable back to you.
Many photo sharing sites remove this information, including Pinterest and Facebook. For information about which sites strip metadata and which don’t, visit Controlled Vocabulary which has preliminary survey results studying which social media sites are stripping metadata. If you want to test an image to see if it includes metadata, visit Jeff Friedl’s Online Metadata Viewer - a tool to view image metadata. Directions to use this tool are also on the Controlled Vocabulary site.
Step #4: Register with the Copyright Office.
Although you do not need to register your images with the Copyright Office to have copyright protection in them, it is always a good idea to do so. First, you cannot sue someone for copyright infringement until you register. Second, there are many benefits conferred if you register early, including the ability to collect statutory damages ($750-$30,000 per infringement). Registration doesn’t prevent someone from copying your image, but it may help you feel better if you have to sue someone!
Let’s face it, even if you take all of the above steps, the unscrupulous individual is still going to copy your images. But short of burying your work in a closet, it is a risk that every artist takes for any image shown in public. But by following the above steps, you have moved yourself a long way down the path toward minimizing that risk and keeping your images traceable to you, while maintaining the visibility that is so critical in today’s connected world.
Image Attribution for "HTTP" internet image at top of post: By Rock1997 (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons (image link)