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How to protect images online

I remember doing an image search a few months ago and seeing a copy of a picture I own. The image was posted on a site I didn’t recognise, so my first reaction was anger – somebody stole my picture! On closer inspection it turned out it was my friend who posted it on his Posterous blog with an appropriate credit. So I was lucky. But how many of you have had your images stolen? I take thousands of pictures, but I don’t publish thousands online. Neither am I a professional photographer living exclusively off the income from photography sales. But if you are, how do you protect your images online?

You can make them small and reduce the quality to prevent people from printing them. You can use watermarks and overlays to minimise the risk of republishing your images online. You can built Flash-based galleries to bypass the right-click “save as” issue. But if someone wants to steal your picture, they will. Then you need to track it down somehow. A needle in a haystack springs to mind.

There are services like TinEye which help track down your images, but yesterday another site, Image Rights, already present on the market with its paid-for tool, joined the game with a free version of its powerful image tracking service.

I caught up with one of the co-founders of Image Rights, Ted VanCleave, to find out more about the service. I’ve asked him to explain in simple terms what Image Rights is:

ImageRights International, Inc., is a company that helps professional photographers and illustrators discover the illegal use of their intellectual property on the Web.

Our advanced visual search and crawler technology continuously scans websites and blogs to protect images for professional photographers and illustrators. The crawler indexes millions of new images every month and uses powerful image recognition technology to compare customers’ photos and illustrations against images found on the Web.

It then detects where the customers’ images have been used, even if the stolen photos have been altered, cropped, rotated or color adjusted. The customer receives a full report, including a picture of the original image, its use online, and the URL and ownership information for the website where it was found.

Nobody has come up with a really convincing way of tracking stolen images. Are you different? What is your unique selling point?

ImageRights was built from the ground up to help photographers find instances of their images being used on the internet and then helping them recover fees for unauthorized use. It’s is an extremely easy to use service. We have multiple web crawlers browsing business, blogs and news and media sites in North America and Europe looking 24/7/365 at images on these types of web sites.

I’ve been using Tin Eye to track down some of my images, last time a ran a search through TinEye they went through over 1.5 billion images for free. Why would I switch to Image Rights or even pay subscription?

Tineye is a reverse search engine. That’s their term. You can only load one image at a time.  And they don’t help you recover lost revenue, which we will with the launch of our Recovery program in July. While TinEye has 1.5 billion images in their database according to their site, they don’t say where all of those images came from.  It’s a good service but of limited use since you can only upload one image at a time. With ImageRights, you can upload 10,000 images and we’ll send your reports all year long as we find matches.

Do you differentiate between published and unpublished photos and if so, are you able to track down the latter too?

We don’t differentiate between published and unpublished. We don’t actually track images, we are pulling images randomly off of business, blogs and news and media sites in North America and Western Europe.

What happens when you actually find an image that has been illegally used, do you provide any legal help too, or just point to the website which violated a photographer’s copyright and leave it up to him to chase the culprit?

We have developed a recovery program for the USA to start, launching it in July. We will help any photographer from any country collect lost revenue from an image of theirs that has been used without authorisation, without a licence in the USA. We will also be rolling out this recovery program in different countries throughout Western Europe over the next 6-12 months.

Who is behind Image Rights?

ImageRights was co-founded by myself and my business partner Joe Naylor. I’m a photographer and entrepreneur and I have found my images being stolen on a regular basis. Joe is the former President of Web Messenger and comes from a technology background. Over the last two years we researched all of the best technologies available to help stop image piracy. ImageRights is the result of our research and findings. Even if one of your images has been cropped up to 80%, rotated, colors stripped out of it or it’s used in a collage, we can still match it against your original image.

You’ve partnered with, among others, American Photographic Artists and American Society of Picture Professionals. What does it mean to you? What kind of support or endorsement are you getting from them and your other partners?

Each partner chooses what level of partnership is right for them. Many offer discounts to their members for paid subscription services at ImageRights. All of our partners are strong advocates of photographers rights and would like to help stop image theft and help enforce copyrights and educate the public about the need to license images to use them.

So that’s what Ted has to say about Image Rights. I have to admit that it’s great that someone offers a service allowing users to bulk upload their library for free, even if it means giving up 50% of  their compensation if they choose to participate in the Recovery Program Ted mentioned (it drops to 35% if you pay for the service).

I’d like to hear from you if you are a photographer and are worried about image theft. Would you use a service like Image Right? Is this a solution for you? Have you used them – or any other similar service before? Do you think anyone is able to create a database big enough to provide meaningful and robust support? Really curious to hear what you think.

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