Genealogy: Preventing Internet Theft of your Family Photos

With both professional and amateur genealogists quickly adopting ways to share information on the Internet, a new problem has arisen–photography theft.

Example of possible watermarks including transparent initials,
copyright notices, your name, and symbols.

Even is getting into the image sharing business, allowing you to upload photographs of your ancestors. “But who in the world would want to use my old photographs?” you may be thinking.  Actually, quite a few people!  From antique photograph collectors who farm online graphics for inclusion on compact disks (to be later sold on eBay) to specialty hobbyists (Civil War, motorcycles, Victorian clothing, etc.) who want a copy either for themselves, or for a book or magazine article they are writing.

I recently read about a women whose photograph was stolen for the cover of an X-rated CD.  This is a strange world! Honestly, anyone who views your photograph is a 'potential' thief, even though admittedly some of them would try to contact you for permission first.

I've read that most people don't realize that photographs on the internet are copyrighted.  I believe instead that many people realize that suing someone for photograph theft is expensive, and most people won't bother once they understand the cost.  So, once your photograph IS stolen, it is “too late to close the barn door.” What can YOU do to help prevent it?

1. If you honestly do not want ANYONE other than yourself or your immediate family to use the photograph EVER–do not post it on the internet.  Don't even store it on the internet.  Even if it's not actively posted on a web page, but are in an unprotected folder on your FTP space, it could still get “snarfed” (i.e. seen and used).

2. Don't post that “rare photo” on Flickr or other public photograph storage areas.  If you think that using their settings to prevent right-mouse-button-click saving of a file will stop photography theft, think again.  There are some very simple photography snagging (screen and/or area capture) programs out there that resolve that problem if a person really wants your photograph.  Placing your photograph on Flickr simply makes it MORE
available to photography thieves.

3. Since I am a person who enjoys sharing old photographs (and even current ones) but I don't want anyone using certain photograph without my permission, I add a watermark placed in a conspicuous place. I make it large enough that would be difficult to remove using a graphics program.  The larger the watermark, the more difficult it is going to be for someone to remove it.  I've seen some folks create a watermark using the copyright symbol and their name, email address, web site address. Watermarks should be placed in a location that would not be easy to crop out.  You can make the mark transparent, or not. Oh, a caution here.  When watermarking an electronic photograph, be sure you are not marking the ONLY copy you have of the photo–make a duplicate and watermark that one.

Many of the most popular graphic programs including Photoshop, PhotoImpact and Microsoft Publisher include an easy method for creating watermarks.

I personally use SnagIt's built in image editor, that quickly allows me to use THEIR own watermark (Snagit's Logo) or to use my own as the default. Funny that a program which  allows you to capture pretty much anything you see on the Internet, also provides you with a way to protect your own creations!

If you indeed find someone using your photograph and it bothers you but not enough to sue them, do contact them and ask them to remove it from their web site, etc. Many will comply with your request immediately. If you find it in a book or magazine, you could write to the magazine publisher or editor to learn if they will either 1) pay you for its use or 2) make a special notation in the next edition correctly crediting your photograph.

I've found in the majority of cases that a well-placed watermark results in people actually contacting you for a “watermark-free” copy.  Just last week someone sent me an email indicating they would pay me for a copy of a building that I had posted on one of my web sites.  I wrote back to discover how it would be used, only to learn it was going to be a gift to their son who had proposed marriage to his wife in the building, and they were going to frame it as a gift for their first anniversary.  It was too complex a story to have been made up (although beware, I have received a few requests that I did not believe). In this case I sent them the high-quality version free of charge as an email attachment.  

Oh, this same watermark process works well for photographs of items you are selling on eBay!


*Additional Reading*

29th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy
(Link to be added when available on August 4th)

Thwarting Image Theft: Fact or Fiction?

Who Owns That Family Photo?

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