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How much could using this image cost you?

  |   Article, Articles and reviews, Photography Business   |   2 Comments

How much could that photo cost you to use

Using our images ‘found’ on the net could cost you dearly

How an image misuse tracking service found our photos where they shouldn’t be, and why we take copyright infringement seriously.


One of the great things about having a web site is that it lets people see your work.

One of the not so great things is that it’s easy for someone to copy images from your web site and use them on their own.

Here at Northlight, Keith has been looking at the Pixsy image search service, which recently sent us a hefty cheque from a business that had used one of our photographs without permission.

Image theft happens – Keith looks at how we used to deal with it and one way that just paid out…

John Lewis store at dusk, with passing traffic

Borrowing and downright theft

It’s always nice to see some of my work in use, since photography may be my job, but it’s something I enjoy too. My photos appear all over the place – ideally for clients who’ve either paid me to take the photos or have licensed them to use.

We take care in licensing images, and keeping track of who has what image and what they can use it for – but what about pictures appearing without our permission?

The ‘Leicester ring road and John Lewis’ photo (top right) is currently one of our most popular ‘infringements’ – the number of businesses being chased over it just went into double figures.

This view of the Clock Tower in Leicester at Christmas, just cost someone many hundreds of pounds for use in a single blog post…

Leicester Clocktower at night with Christmas decorations and tree

Finding your photos

In the past I’ve found out about my pictures being used without permission by all kinds of methods.

Using Google’s image search and just looking for similar images is a simple technique, but relies on good descriptions. Far easier is making use of Google’s reverse image search function. In Chrome and Firefox you can do this via right-clicking on an image.

image search
It will find pages with the image (or similar ones) on them. You need to be careful to make sure it is your image that is being used, especially if you were at an event and someone next to you might have taken the same shot.

The list of web sites could surprise you – some you really may not choose to visit, and be sure to be using an up to date browser like the latest version of Chrome with things like Flash turned off.

Another service I’ve used is TinEye, which has image search features and browser plugins. I have it loaded in my copy of Safari, so an image search is just a right click away.

Here’s the results for this image – two are on my web site, one isn’t

tineye results

Now I’ve found my image on someone’s web site, what to do about it?

Getting some money?

Once you know where your image is to be found, visit the page, and grab some screen shots. Now comes the tricky part – what to do about it?

If you are in the US -and- the image is registered for copyright then you may well want to go to a lawyer and kick off the process of extracting money from the infringer.

I’m in the UK, and whilst copyright is automatic, legal action involving lawyers is not going to be cheap.

There is the UK  Intellectual Property Enterprise Court IPEC, which offers a small claims process which you can use yourself [guide to IPEC Small claims], but it still requires suitable evidence, and identifying the right company/individual to go after.

Even then, I could end up with nothing.

Why nothing? You need to find out who to actually go after (not always easy), and if it’s a company they can vanish, leaving no-one with liability. You are likely to be met with a variety of excuses, from blaming the web developer, through to the blatant, but still common ‘We found it on the internet’.

Enforcing judgements you win comes at a cost, and as I learned many years ago, chasing someone who has no money won’t get you far.

I’ll not go into many more legal aspects of this here – there’s plenty written about it, and it varies from country to country.

A more friendly approach?

OK, let’s back off the heavy stuff. What about sending the infringer an invoice? Sounds good, perhaps offering them a license fee to continue using the photo?

This is an approach I’ve used with one or two small local businesses, where a phone call and reasonable license cost got us a bit of cash and someone to spread the word that it is not OK to just use other people’s photos without permission.

Moving up the scale from simple lack of understanding, there comes a point where you’re dealing with deliberate image theft and mis-representation.

The example that really convinced me of the need for a better way was a ‘Pro’ photographer in Barnsley in the UK who had a section of their web site devoted to commercial photography services, as apart from the ‘portrait’ work that seemed their main business. The only problem being that their prowess in commercial photography was almost entirely illustrated with my photos.

Not answering the phone or accepting delivery of a letter from ourselves didn’t suggest a business we’d get much from. Contacting the SWPP (a UK photo organisation) with regards to the SWPP logo on the infringing site got us no-where, apart from feeling annoyed and wasting our time.

Our photos did get removed from their web site, but it felt a hollow victory…

Pixsy and a new way of dealing with the problem

Not long after our initial forays into chasing up people ripping off my work, I was asked if I’d like to try out Pixsy, a new image search and tracking service that not only looked for infringements, but allowed you to flag them for further action.

You can upload your photos or point to web sources. I’ve just got the basic free service, but if you’ve a lot of images, there are a number of subscription levels.

The idea is that they will look at an infringement, investigate it and then potentially pass it on to independent law firms around the world for followup and action. There is also the option of going for a license fee for ongoing use and submitting DMCA takedown requests.

pixsy process

The service has now expanded, with more countries covered and Pixsy now works with more than a dozen law firms in the United States, UK, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria, and Luxembourg.

I’ve just had a payment of several hundred pounds from Pixsy with respect to the Leicester Christmas photo above – you get half of what’s collected, and in this case it’s still above what I might have licensed the image for, as a single use in a blog post if I’d been asked up front.

The case submission process is really easy – you pick the photo that’s been found, add a few details about your photo and where you took it, and hit the ‘submit case’ button.

One nice feature is that you can submit cases you find yourself. An architect I know emailed me and asked if it was one of my photos he’d seen on a web site – yes it was and a few minutes later it was submitted to Pixsy.

It’s very important to me that it’s us who decide what to do, if anything, with a match found via Pixsy. I have no desire to cause difficulties for charities and small local businesses. Some I might just call to let them know about the issue and point out that others might not take such a friendly attitude…

I did wonder if it would be worthwhile going through Pixsy, but not having to worry about the process once initiated is actually a big bonus – that and not having to waste Karen’s and my time on the practical hassles of chasing up people who really couldn’t care less about the problem. Receiving a letter and demand from a law firm is much less likely to be ignored.

It’s also very nice to get that email from Pixsy telling you that cash is on its way…

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  • Matt McGrath

    Thanks Keith – interesting and well written. Just from curiosity, I wonder how Pixsy spots if something is the same image? Is it carrying out some sort of visual feature extraction? Or is it looking at, say, the frequency distributions of pixel values? Because it occurs to me that it might be quite easy to carry out some minor transforms of values in an image file that make very little difference to how it looks to the eye but which change its fingerprint enough to be missed by computer matching software.

    Conversely, have you had any issues with “false positives” ie images which Pixsy says are yours but which you know are not?

    • Keith Cooper

      It’s pretty good at picking up similarities – it found a cropped version of an image that had been converted to B&W.

      When you check for matches it also lets you adjust the ‘match sensitivity’ and lets you remove individual matches or whole sites from a search. This might be for an image i’ve genuinely licensed, or an automated site of some sort that just scrapes stuff and there is no hope of finding who set it up.

      Mis-matches have not been an issue for me