Professional Photographer Magazine Web Exclusives

Protecting Your Pixels

By Sara Frances, M.Photog.Cr.

Copy and remix. No industry is immune. Competing businesses try to improve on each other’s products or duplicate them outright, seeking greater profit, lower cost basis and market share. Mining the Internet is the norm; search engines themselves are a form of information scraping. No one thinks twice about harvesting quotes, music, scientific formulas or images. I’ve witnessed advanced degree university classes where information scraping without regard to copyright is not only tolerated, but encouraged.

Photographers need to wake up to the fact that our industry is no different. Even though we insist our product is not a commodity, customers see only square inches of a print, not the result of years of artistic development. “It’s my portrait anyway.”

Same old argument; new rules and consequences. Shawn Davis, manager of internet services at Marathon Press, says “There is simply no foolproof protection for your images once they leave your studio in any form. Showing session proofs on the Internet essentially means making them available and accessible.” Internet posting in itself tends to equate images with products sold via catalogues, validating the hated commodity comparison. Check back with Marathon soon, as the buzz is they’re working on an underlying image protection tool for session proofing that will not be so easily defeated.

Facts about exposure to theft on the web:

• Copyright notice added on an image-viewing site is usually only a facsimile, and therefore easily defeated.

• Logo and copyright embedded in Photoshop is harder to eliminate, but doable with pirate-friendly software.

• Logo and copyright placed less conspicuously at the bottom or in a corner of an image need only be cropped off.

• Many small, low-res images can be successfully interpolated to 8x10 and larger with current software.

• While right-click disabling with a Java script may deter the laziest of image thieves, it's virtually useless against anyone marginally computer savvy.

• Posting enhanced or greatly retouched images prior to a substantial client purchase commitment elevates the studio’s financial risk.

• Clients can become dissatisfied and sales drop if you post images that are not color/density corrected, or if wedding images are jumbled out of logical storytelling order.

"That’s optimism?" you ask. Well, there is a brighter side, particularly though product innovations that help clients fulfill contemporary needs for social site postings, iPod movies and limited licensing for small size consumer prints.

How to deter theft and fulfill expectations gracefully:

• Embed watermark and copyright via Photoshop automation. Centrally locate watermarks without making expression selection impossible.

• Metadata information is your personal label. Be sure your name and contact is complete on every image, and that you register with the searchable database. This makes it easy for clients to find you when they need to purchase a release, usage rights or get authorization.

• Design a great logo—it’s your silent salesman that people will want to show off, just like fashionable clothes labels.

• Test for the smallest size Web image that still allows clients a good sense of content for their initial selections.

• Include copyright policy in your contract, on sales receipts, on the backs of prints, in albums. Point out your policy during one-on-one negotiations, but do not expect any of these to stop a determined thief.

• Price up-front session or creative fees to sufficiently reward yourself for your efforts.

• Resist the temptation, even in this economy, to shoot and burn for quick profit. Do yourself, and your clients, a favor by finishing your job with great retouching and postproduction. Doing half the job lowers the value of all photographers and imaging services in the eyes of the public.

• Design products and presentations that interpret and combine images in ways clients cannot hope to do themselves. This makes proofing only a basic first step to the final order, not the actual item being sold.

• Unenhanced 4x6 reprints from a consumer lab are often good enough for Aunt Mabel from Minneapolis. Consider releasing limited usage rights to self-print small, low-res files as an incentive for purchasing a certain substantial dollar amount of wedding album or finished portrait products.

• Price your highest senior packages to include an image or two specially optimized for Facebook or MySpace; better yet, provide an animated portrait short film as a Quick Time movie suitable for YouTube.

• Practice safe copyright for all. If you steal music to back your slide show, you can’t gripe at customers scraping your images off the Web.

How do you protect your images? What means of theft prevention best works for you? Please share with other readers in the comments section.