Social Media and Piracy

Many people enjoy posting their photographs online, and it may be prudent to consider the risks of social media and piracy. Since I am not a lawyer, this article does not suggest that I have any expertise with Copyright laws in various jurisdictions, nor is the intention of this article to recommend that any specific actions be taken. My intent is only to share some of my personal experiences and perspectives.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge. Photographs have been added to serve as visual breaks.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/2000, ISO-4000, subject distance 4.8 metres, cropped to 4034 pixels on the width

Intellectual piracy is common on the internet. We can be well intentioned in terms of trying to protect our work, and still become victims of intellectual piracy.

The reality is that there are many unscrupulous people in the world who take things that others have created and use them without any authorization or any compensation given to the creators. Before posting anything online we have to accept this reality and the risks that accompany it.

Over the years I’ve had hundreds… and for all I know… perhaps even thousands of images pirated. A number of years ago when I regularly wrote for the good folks at Photography Life, I discovered a website that was downloading my images and selling them over the internet.

The perpetrators didn’t even bother trying to take my watermark off those photographs. They simply posted thumbnails of my images on their website. Put a price on them, and took online orders from people. From a practical standpoint there was nothing I could do about their activities.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/10, ISO-2000, subject distance 1.6 metres

Some of the large legitimate photography websites are under serious threat from online pirates. Entire articles along with accompanying photographs are being actively stolen and passed off as original content on pirate photography websites. Some of these pirate websites have been monetized and thus skim off revenues that should be sustaining the legitimate photography websites that actually produced the original content.

Websites can be routed through various servers and addresses to help mask their origin. And, even if the origin and the owners of the website can be identified they may be located in a jurisdiction that has very lax regulations when it comes to Copyright enforcement.

Pursuing legal action is certainly an option when intellectual piracy can be traced. The costs can be prohibitive, and even if a judgement is awarded there is no guarantee that any compensation will ever be paid. It may cost thousands of dollars in legal fees to get a judgement that only totals a few hundred dollars. The result can be a large legal bill with little to show for it. Online pirates are aware of this and are emboldened by reality.

I suspect that many people who post their images on social media may not have read all of the fine print in the terms of service. The same likely holds true when folks submit their images in various photographic competitions. I haven’t read any terms and conditions for many years as I do not post my work on social media platforms, nor do I enter my images in any competitions… so things may have changed.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 261 mm, efov 522 mm, f/6.3, 1/2500, ISO-400, subject distance 33.2 metres, cropped to 3696 pixels on the width

In the past it was quite common that a photographer would give up at least a portion of their ownership/usage rights of their images when they chose to post them online on social media, or when they entered them in various competitions.

If you choose to post your photographs online it is prudent to study the terms and conditions of the platform on which your images will be appearing. The same holds true before entering your work in photographic competitions. This is especially true if there is an entry fee involved with your submission. To me it makes no sense to have to pay to enter a competition and then have to potentially give away some of the usage rights of your photographs that were submitted.

A basic rule of thumb is to only post images online in a size and format that you can accept being pirated by others. Unfortunately the reality is that once you post your photographs on social media… especially if they are in a large format… you can basically kiss them goodbye.

OM-D E-M1 Mark III + M.Zuiko 75-300 mm f/4.8-6.7 II @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/800, ISO-200, subject distance 2.5 metres

Many identity scams find their origins in thieves downloading images and information from social media sites. They create fake identities which are then used to scam people. For example, millions of dollars are lost to ‘love scammers’ every year in Canada alone.

One of the reasons that I started my own photography blog was to take more direct control of my photographs. They can still be pirated of course, but there are things that can be done to make it a bit more difficult or less desirable to try to do so. Basic human nature is that people who are inclined to steal will choose things are simple and easy to take.

I changed the size of the images used on my website to 1200 pixels on the width… that’s about 10 centimetres (~4 inches). Small images are potentially less susceptible to online piracy than are full resolution files. Software exists that can increase the size of files so even posting small sized files is not a fail proof protection. Personally I think posting full resolution RAW files online is sheer lunacy… unless a photographer wants to encourage pirates to steal their photographs. Then it makes logical sense.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 12-100 f/4 IS @ 16 mm, efov 32 mm, f/5, 1/4, ISO-800, Handheld Hi Res mode

While not perfect, I also use a plug-in on my website that makes it more difficult to copy and paste content, as well as to directly print it. I use a similar type of technology with my eBooks. Again, these actions will not totally prevent piracy, only discourage it. Sometimes this can upset individual readers who pay for my eBook content. With very few exceptions most people have been very understanding. They appreciate the need for me to take steps to discourage intellectual piracy.

So, if you choose to post your photographs on social media because it makes sense for you, then by all means continue to do so. Just be aware of the risks that may be involved.

Technical Note

Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear and technology as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 212 mm, efov 424 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-250, subject distance 5.6 metres

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Article is Copyright 2021 Thomas Stirr. Images are Copyright 2020 Thomas Stirr. All rights reserved. No use, duplication or adaptation of any kind is allowed without written consent. If you see this article reproduced anywhere else it is an unauthorized and illegal use. Posting comments on offending websites and calling out individuals who steal intellectual property is always appreciated!

2 thoughts on “Social Media and Piracy”

  1. You won’t like it, but I have a response that I send to thieves:

    Cease and desist,
    Or cease to exist.
    Your choice.

    I used to have a site selling photos, but I closed it years ago because of the theft. I now only post a few pics on-line, and never the best ones; plus also produced at a lower resolution. Thieves should be punished, and not just monetarily. Most people would consider the forms of punishment I would suggest as draconian, however they would be effective in preventing people from being repeat offenders.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience and perspectives William! I’ve posted messages on offending websites. On occasion I have had success. Often these piracy websites shut down… likely to open up again under a different URL.


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