5 Alternatives to the “Let Them Steal” Approach to Copyright Protection

I’m a bit of an amateur photographer on the side. My fiancé and I have long enjoyed heading out on weekends to picturesque locations around the Greater Los Angeles area to find an amazing photo opportunity or two. And, while I’m certainly not good enough to consider myself professional, I enjoy keeping up with the latest happenings in the sphere of professional photographers. Most of the topics are far outside the scope of this blog, but one post in particular caught my eye recently, and I felt it warranted a post from a lawyer’s perspective on copyright infringement.

Aptly titled “Let Them Steal,” professional photographer David duChemin takes a unique approach to a much-discussed topic: whether a photographer’s time is best spent hunting down and punishing those who steal her work. His answer was “no.” And that’s completely understandable given that, as a photographer, you’re in the business of taking pictures—not scouring the internet for someone who posted your latest landscape on Pinterest. But even if you don’t want to spend every waking hour you’re not honing your craft on searching for scrapers and plagiarists, there are a few ways to protect your work with a minimal time and monetary investment.

Watermarks
A watermark is the quickest and easiest way to try and discourage theft of your copyrighted work. Create some fancy typography, slap it on your image, and call it good. Big or small, it will discourage some people from stealing your work and it should help point people who view your photo (stolen or otherwise) toward your business. Or, you can spend a little extra time on your watermark and include pertinent information other than your name and the copyright symbol. Think about throwing in your website, the date the photo was published, and even the phone number of your studio. The more information you provide in the watermark, the more likely it will be that you may actually get a client if someone sees your work—regardless of whether it was stolen.

Demand Letters
While watermarks are a good passive way to try and deter some copyright infringement, demand letters, DMCA takedown notices, and civil suits require a bit of work in finding the infringer in the first place. But however you locate the infringer, whether through a Google image search, random browsing on Facebook, or by hiring an investigator, a demand letter may go a long way to convince a thief to remove the image. You can draft one yourself, citing to the applicable copyright laws and cases, or you can take all of the stress away and spend a couple hundred bucks on a copyright attorney to draft one for you. Just remember, if you draft a demand letter yourself, keep calm, be precise, and don’t make any ridiculous legal threats.

DMCA Takedown Notices
The DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) Takedown Notice has gained a lot of attention in the past few years. Maybe it’s because Google has directed some attention to it by replacing removed search engine results with a link to ChillingEffects, drawing the public eye to how broad and specious some of these notices are. But I digress. If you find that a site contains your copyrighted work and you want to use a less personal way to get the webmaster to take that material down, a DMCA takedown notice is a good way to go. But keep in mind that a lot of website owners may ignore your request, so be prepared to take additional steps if necessary.

Civil Suits
I’m a firm believer that a suit should only be filed as an absolute last resort. And when it comes to copyright infringement, I feel much the same way—only resort to a suit if every other avenue has been unsuccessful. Bringing legal action against each and every person who re-pins your photo on Pinterest will only lead to major public outcry against you, and is that what you really want? Save a civil suit for those individuals who are especially nefarious. People who are stealing all of your work, passing it off as their own, selling it, and refuse to respond to any of your demand letters or DMCA notices. And remember, if you want to claim for the maximum amount of damages in a copyright infringement suit, you’re going to have to make sure you’ve properly registered your copyrighted work.

Making The Item Freely Available
As a final alternative to letting people steal your work, consider just making the work available for free in the first place. Consider it part of your marketing materials—a photograph with your information attached to it that you freely distribute everywhere on the internet.

Image courtesy: Thomas Leuthard

Eric Norton

Eric Norton

Business & Trademark Attorney at Norton Law Corporation
Eric Norton is a business and trademark attorney, and the founder of Norton Law Corporation, a modern law firm designed to help entrepreneurs with their legal needs. Eric also enjoys photography, gaming (tabletop and video), watches, and good design.
Eric Norton

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