The internet is great. With the world wide web we are connected like never before. News travels almost instantly and communities of like-minded individuals can easily come together and share their passion. Without the world wide web, witty and informative websites like Skinny Artist could never exist.
Unfortunately, as many of you already know, the internet has a dark-side as well. Search engines constantly demand fresh new content and those who are unwilling to create it have been known to steal other people’s content and pass it off as their own. Images are stolen off the web everyday as this poor family discovered after they posted this family portrait to their Facebook page:
According to the AP report, a family friend later recognized this same photo reproduced on a billboard in downtown Prague in the Czech Republic:
The sad truth is that this kind of thing is happening all the time and if you don’t think these thieves are out there trolling the web 24/7 looking for something they can rip-off, I know a Nigerian banker who would love to speak with you as soon as possible.
It’s not just family photos either. Here’s an image pulled straight off a DeviantART gallery page (it’s even watermarked!)
And here’s the unlicensed toddler shirt design. Notice the remarkable similarities here:
So what can we do as artists to protect ourselves and our work from being ripped off, while still allowing our friends and potential customers to marvel at our creative brilliance? In order to answer this question, we put the Skinny staff on the case and did some research.
Unfortunately after scouring the web, it turns out the only 100% foolproof method of protecting our work from these thievin’ bastards is to avoid putting your stuff on the internet in the first place.
At first I was going to simply end this article here, call it a day, and burn my ethernet cable. . . Soon, however, I realized that for those of us who are desperately trying to market ourselves as artists and sell our work online, avoiding the internet all together is probably not really an option.
So we began to dig a little deeper. . .
The not-so-good news is that you’re going to have to accept the fact that for every so-called solution to stop people from stealing your work, there always seems to be an easily found workaround (heck if we can find it, I pretty sure anyone can). So the bottom line here is that if it’s on the internet and someone wants it bad enough, they can probably get it and you’re not going to be able to stop them.
Imitation is the highest form of pissing me off. Quit stealing my content and violating my copyright. ~Jen T. Verbumessor
Wow, that sucks!
Now having said that, there are still several things you can do to deter would-be thieves from stealing your stuff. In other words, if you manage to make it difficult enough for them, they may simply give up and move on to easier prey.
[Please note that in order to keep this article to a somewhat managable length, we’re only going to be talking about protecting your online images. We could talk about some methods of protecting your music, videos, and text in a future post if there seems to be enough interest from the Skinny Artist community.]
The first thing that most people don’t realize is that by the time you are able to see a website like this one, the HTML and all of the images on the page have already been downloaded to your computer. That’s simply the way your internet browser works. In other words, the only way to block this from happening is to not have your images on the page in the first place.
Using Fancy-pants Technology
Now before all of you computer-savvy artists out there start screaming at me that the solution to this problem is to put all of your images in a Flash file, streaming media, or nestled safely away in a Java applet. You have to realize that the problem with using these technologies is the fact that not every browser (and the people using them) have the broadband speed, patience, or the technology to view these images. And while it’s true that it takes a bit of technological know-how to extract the graphics from a Flash file, it can certainly be done (Trust me, the thieves you’re trying to protect your work from know how).
In the end, you’re going to have to weigh the benefits of deterring any potential thieves with the real possibility of frustrating the beejeebees out your potential customers who are still running IE3 on their Windows 98 desktop. Not to mention that for this to be even marginally effective, you would have to avoid putting your work up on any of the major gallery sites who certainly aren’t going to risk alienating their customers with your fancy-pants technology.
Turning off the Right-Click
During our research, we saw dozens of websites out there that seem to believe that turning off the right-click ability is the holy grail of protecting your images online. Their reasoning is that if you can’t right click on an image and pull up the context menu to “Save Image as. . ” your images are all perfectly safe.
This of course is ridiculous. . .
Not only can turning off the right-click be easily defeated by the thieves, but it annoys the other 99% of people who aren’t trying to steal your stuff but who would like to use their context menu to open new windows or navigate in their browser. Overall disabling the right-click is stupid because it doesn’t stop anyone who would be abusing it, and only irritates the rest of us.
I hate to drive this point into the ground but you have to remember that none of these strategies (even the good ones) are going to be 100% effective. As I said before, if someone wants to steal your stuff, there’s going to be a way to do it. All we can do is to try and make it as difficult as possible for the thieves without annoying everyone else in the process. This means no right-click disabling or fancy-pants Flash galleries.
This technique, is one of my favorites only because it involves a bit of technological trickery. The beauty of shrink wrapping your images is the fact that it doesn’t stop anyone from seeing the image, nor does it try to stop them from copying it (like disabling the right-click) Instead it allows them to copy the image, but the image they end up saving is probably not the one they wanted.
Here’s an example of a shrink-wrapped image. Try copying the image below by right-clicking and “Saving it to your computer”
If you did this, you should now have an image called “Image-1987653” downloaded to your computer. If you open the image, however, you’ll discover that it’s probably not the image you were expecting to find. Don’t worry, it’s not some kind of virus, it’s simply a transparent image that has been shrink-wrapped over top of the image that you thought you were downloading.
Think of it as a clear glass panel laid over top of your image. So when the Mr. Shadypants tries to download your image, he is actually downloading the clear glass panel and not the image underneath it. If you are interested in finding out more about how this is done, I would invite you to visit our How-to Shrink Wrap Your Images tutorial page for quick explanation.
Now you have to realize that this technique does not lock your image up into some kind of impenetrable vault and if the thief knows what they’re doing, there are still ways for them to get the real image. The goal here, however, is that the thief will download the image and then move on before he or she realizes that the image they got, wasn’t the one they thought they were getting.
Another technique that works well, but obviously isn’t 100% effective, is watermarking or embossing your images with some kind of easily identifiable mark. Watermarking an image is fairly easy and does not interfere with legitimate visitors viewing the image which is why most online galleries like DeviantART use watermarking to protect their artist’s images and discourage any potential theivery.
Virtually any decent graphic program like Photoshop or Paintshop can be use to watermark or emboss an image relatively quickly. There are also several dedicated watermarking programs out there on the market, but I haven’t personally used them. If there is a particular watermarking program that you have used and would recommend, please let us know about it in the comment section below.
If you have access to Photoshop or a similar program, however, watermarking your images is a fast and painless process. If you’re interested, we’ve created a short tutorial on How to Watermark your Images in Photoshop in under two minutes.
[Update: If you are interested in watermarking your images but don’t have access to Photoshop, we recently did a short video tutorial on our Skinny WP sister site on how to watermark images for free without using Photoshop ]
The last image protecting strategy that we’re going to talk about in this article is called “slice and dice” and comes to us from the dawn of the world wide web . . .[Cue old-man nostalgic voice]
You see back in it’s infancy, the world wide web didn’t have much in the way of images, audio, or videos. Things were slow and we all connected to it through a screechy little device called a dial-up modem that typically moved at about the same speed as Twitter on a busy day. Because of this, when someone wanted to post an image on one of those new-fangled bulletin boards we often had to chop up the image into several smaller pieces so we didn’t bring the whole internet crashing down with our 200k image file.
So essentially we had two choices, we could either upload really tiny pictures, or we could chop up the larger ones into smaller pieces so that it could load one piece at a time. We then had to reassemble the pieces using HTML. Today, of course, we have no idea what this is like and we get irritated if our HD movie hiccups momentarily as it’s streaming through the T1 line in our parent’s basement. So no one even thinks about “slicing and dicing” our images anymore. . . but maybe we should
The basic idea here is that we chop our images into smaller pieces and then reassemble them on the webpage using a HTML <table> tag. The beauty of this is that no one except the person who is trying to illegally download your image will ever know that your image has been sliced and diced.
Try to right-click and download the above image. Depending on where you initially click on the image you will end up downloading that particular piece of the image. So what happens is that instead of downloading the entire image, the thief will end up downloading several smaller pieces and then have to find a way to stitch them back together. While this is certainly doable with one of the higher-end graphics programs, unless they are an unusually motivated thief, chances are they’ll simply give up and move on to an easier target.
So if this is method is so great why doesn’t everyone use it?
While this method seems to work well and is fairly easy to do, it can take a decent amount of time to crop the image and then setup the HTML table to reassemble the pieces on your webpage. If you’re interested in learning more about How to Slice and Dice your Images please visit our new tutorial page.
The world wide web is a tradeoff for artists who are trying to display and sell their artwork online. On one hand it’s a great place for artists to share their work with a worldwide audience. On the other hand, any images that you put on the web are pretty much fair game if someone wants them bad enough.
That doesn’t mean that we have to simply roll over and give the thieves a free pass however. Simply by using one of the recommended methods listed above, we can frustrate and deter most amateur thieves from stealing our images.
If you know of any other effective methods of protecting your images online, please take moment and tell us about it in the comment section below!
Writer, teacher, and head custodian of the Skinny Artist community. His book "Getting Creative: Developing Creative Habits that Work" is all about finding the time (and energy) to live a more creative life.