How to Properly Handle Online Image Theft

woman working at laptop

 Eleonora Ghioldi/Photolibrary/Getty Images

You pull up a website and you see a photo you took. It was used without your knowledge or permission and you feel ripped off—it's a horrible feeling.

Even though no one broke into your office or home, you've become the victim of crime; something has been stolen from you. Luckily, there are some simple steps you can take to have the photo removed and to deal with future thefts more easily.

  • 01 of 05

    Verify the Photo

    The first thing you should do is verify the photograph. It's a small step but there are a lot of similar images out there. It makes sense to take an extra minute to make absolutely sure it is your photo that has been used.

    During this step, you should also double check yourself:

    • Look through your sales records to make sure you haven't forgotten a licensed sale.
    • Be sure that you have not posted it on a website that allows or on which you inadvertently opened the photo up for creative commons licensing.

    It is best to know for sure that you have not made a mistake, rather than accuse someone of theft if they thought they did everything right.

  • 02 of 05

    Contact the Website

    A short and polite letter informing the website that the photo is not free for use is often all that is required for a website to remove a photo.

    • If contact information cannot be found on the website, you can often find the owner through a domain look-up website such as
    • While you may be very upset, it is important to remain calm in your email to the website. A calm approach will get better results than an immediate threat of legal action.

    If you're lucky, they may simply not have known they were in the wrong and you will receive an apology or the photo will simply be removed. Some people are too embarrassed to write back, so let it go if the photo's taken down.

    Some website owners will respond negatively to your requests. Some will take down the photo but call you names, others will refuse to remove the photo and tell you it is free because "it's on the internet," and in some cases, a few may even threaten to sue you for trying to protect your property.

    Don't respond to negative emails without taking a moment to compose yourself; then follow the next step.

  • 03 of 05

    Contact the Webhost

    If the website is hosted by Blogger, WordPress, or another large web host it is usually a simple matter to fill out a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) form and the web host will remove the content quickly.

  • 04 of 05

    Seek Legal Help

    If you wish to receive payment for the unauthorized use of your photographs rather than them just being removed from the internet, you will likely need legal counsel.

    • If you have registered your photos with the copyright office, you can sue for damages.
    • If you did not register, you are limited to actual losses (amounts vary based on the case - this is just a general guideline).

    You can send an invoice to copyright infringers and attempt to collect money yourself for your photos. Be sure to price your photos well and include licensing terms in your correspondence.

    Before you contact a lawyer, you'll need to have records of steps you have taken and enough money to cover legal fees up front. If you do consult a lawyer, be sure to select one familiar with copyright law.

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Preventing Future Theft

    While there is no way to completely prevent image theft on the internet, there are steps you can take to reduce theft and deal with it quickly when it does happen.

    • Use Watermarks. Watermarks are an easy deterrent for casual photo thieves and an identifying marker when lazy thieves don't bother to remove them.
    • Consider an Image Tracking Service. Services such as PicScout monitor the web for your images and then arrange legal action to collect payments for unauthorized use.
    • Use a Low Resolution. Use as low of a resolution setting as possible to make your images less attractive for offline use through theft.