Is Your Artwork Safe?



As you peruse the internet you may have noticed that over the last ten years or so there has been a massive explosion of digital art and photography being placed on the web. There are also a heck of a lot of images being placed on websites that are either part of a “work in progress” or just random images that have been created for no reason other than the artist having a “moment” and wanting to allow their peers to see what they’ve been up to. As a sometime fractal artist, photographer and general amateur digital artist I fall into the latter category.

While it is wonderful to have the opportunity to show the community our artistic side, a very real problem has arisen, and one that doesn’t only apply to non-published artists but to the major publishers too. Art theft is widespread, and seems unstoppable.

But there are measures you can put in place to protect your artwork.

First of all, no matter what anyone says, copyright exists for your artwork as soon as you create it. You do not need to register it anywhere, copyright is automatic as long as your image is an original piece. The only things that can’t be copyrighted are names, titles, slogans or phrases, these tend to be trademarked. If in doubt you can find helpful information at the following websites, copyright can be a complicated issue, but for your artwork it is relatively straightforward.

The UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO)

The US Copyright Office 

Don’t forget… although it’s not actually needed a © can help when placed on your work, that way no-one can plead ignorance at a later date.

There is a lot of opinion floating around regarding artwork in the digital age, varying from artists horrified that their work has been used, to others believing that once you upload an image it’s fair game and you have no realistic rights to it any more. I wholeheartedly believe that an artist’s work is for them and them alone to determine how it is used, so before you upload think carefully. I only use images in my blogs/websites that are marked as free to use (as in they have been tagged as useable for this purpose), are in the public domain, or I have created myself.

For the images you have created, implementing the following protections can help you keep control.

1. Have you placed a copyright mark on your work, along with your name & date, company name or website?

This is simple to do, and if your artwork is of a physical medium rather than digital, you will have to digitise it or take a photograph before it’s uploaded anyway so there really is no excuse. Simple photo editing software will allow you to place a copyright notice on your image.

This image of mine was widely circulated. I was stupid, I was green...I originally forgot the (c) statement!
This image of mine was widely circulated. I was stupid, I was green… I originally forgot the (c) statement!

2. Watermark your image

Similar to a copyright sign, a watermark is often placed across the whole of the image. Some artists insist on it, others hate it. You can make your watermark as unobtrusive as you like, but it can deter theft as no-one can use the image if the watermark is visible.

This also stops the copyright notice being taken off by cropping, something that is very easy to do with a copyright sign on the edge of an image. Watermarks can be removed, but it takes time and often if someone wants to steal an image they can be deterred by the hassle involved.

3. Make sure the Exif information is on your photo

It makes sense to ensure that all the Exif data is left on your photos, and includes a copyright notice and if possible a website or contact address. Especially with the new orphan works legislation allowing use of works where a copyright owner cannot be contacted, it makes sense to have the details logged on your work. It’s very easy to do, just pop over to the properties area of your photo or artwork file. (Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013, for comment see this BBC report)

While data can be stripped from a file, having the information there does make it more difficult for potential thieves… most are opportunists and either won’t think to strip it or won’t bother using a photo if they know it’s there.

4. Place a copyright notice on your website, or anywhere you may place your images

This, for me is one of the most important things to think about, and requires some thought.

It can be as simple as placing “© Your name, date, copying strictly prohibited” on your website/blog to a detailed paragraph showing what extent you allow sharing, what wording you will expect, along with whether you demand written approval or just an acknowledgement.

It’s a good idea to have thought out exactly what you will and will not allow, and to think of all the ways that your image could be shared. This ranges from out and out theft, to people loving your image and sharing it on their blog (I’ve had a lot of this in the past with a couple of my images). You have put a lot of time and effort into your art, you should be the one to benefit from it… yes, it’s lovely when people enjoy your work, but it’s a whole other matter when they start making money out of it!

For example, on every page of this website there is a copyright notification:

© Sara-Jayne Donaldson, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including photographs and artwork, without express and written permission from this blog’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sara-Jayne Donaldson / Northern Editorial with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

This also applies to the written word; just as you have put your heart and soul into your artwork, your writing should be protected too. Although it is more difficult to stop people stealing your words a copyright notice is a deterrent. There is one way to make life more difficult for light-fingered browsers that doesn’t involve coding, and that is saving your writing as a picture before you upload it, but that is tedious and time-consuming.

So… you’ve copyrighted your artwork, you may even have a lovely physical image in your hands, either through self-printing or through a commercial printer, and you’ve put up a statement of use on your website, you’ve even watermarked your files.

I’m afraid that still doesn’t allow you to be complacent.

Watermarks can be stripped (it’s laborious but can be done), copyright statements can be cropped and artists statements ignored. It’s wise to use a website such as or Google image search to check that your images haven’t strayed. The butterflies in your stomach are horrible if you find your image on a site… but ignore them and be active.

I allowed this to be downloaded from deviantArt as a free wallpaper for personal use...can you guess what happened? AND it's watermarked (although very faintly)
I allowed this to be downloaded from deviantArt as a free wallpaper for personal use (It’s been downloaded thousands of times)… can you guess what happened? AND it’s watermarked (although very faintly)

If you find that something of yours has been used somewhere on the internet without your approval the thought of enforcing it can be quite daunting. I’ve had to do it once, when I found one of my images being uploaded to a wallpaper site. I won’t lie… there were butterflies, sweaty palms and a dry mouth when I sent off the notice (if you are wrong a very costly lawsuit can follow) but if you are certain that your image has been taken (and let’s admit it, we know the images we produce), and has been used without your permission, or not within the terms of your copyright notification, a DMCA notice usually does the trick. DMCA stands for Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, and the full legislation can be found here.

There is also a very good walk-through of how to file a notice on Sara F. Hawkins’ website. It’s written by an American attorney, but the principles are the same no matter where you are writing from.

Look before you leap

Think about how you feel about your artwork being used. A few of my pieces have found their way onto blogs, and after the initial anger subsided I decided that a quick email to say “I’m glad you like my artwork but could you please link to my website, and acknowledge me as the artist” sufficed. Many times the blogger just didn’t think about where the image had come from, and it’s an unfortunate fact that many people who find an image on Google believe that it is there to be used. Most people are happy to oblige and are apologetic. A polite email should usually be the first point of contact. Wait until the anger subsides before you do anything.

But what if the image use is not a feckless blogger, but someone who has deliberately stolen your artwork? First send off an email and politely ask for the offending item to be removed, stating when and where you found the image, and point them in the direction of your original source. Often this will do the trick. However, sometimes your email is ignored, or a reply isn’t quite what you were expecting. If the email doesn’t work a DMCA shows you are serious; send off a form, be formal and adhere to the proscribed way of writing. If that doesn’t work, you may end up having to go down the legal route and hire a lawyer conversant in copyright and digital theft.

You probably know all this already, but often people forget, or new artists become complacent and think that they will never be in the position to have to defend their work. I was one of those people, and believe me the first time you find your artwork appearing where it shouldn’t it can make you feel physically ill (no, it’s not an exaggeration).

There is a very handy, readable document available form the IPO on Copyright for digital images, photographs and the internet, which finally goes some way to address some of the modern issues faced by artists and photographers.

Don’t listen to those who say you are asking for your work to be used if it is put on the internet, or in print. You are in control… or at the very least you can try to be. There are valid reasons your work can be used, for example a small percentage of images can be used in reviews such as the ones in this blog, but any image must ALWAYS link back to the author and publisher, and for review purposes should link back to, or give the reader ways, to buy the product. And no-one should make money from your creations unless they have your permission. It is a problem; even large publishers and established artists come across fraudulent use of their images, but by trying your best to safeguard your artwork, your job can be easier.

7 Comments on “Is Your Artwork Safe?

  1. Thanks, Sara. As a newbie to blogging and website development this is something I have been thinking about. I was already aware of copyright issues when it comes to using other people’s stuff, and would only ever post original content on my site, or link to the original if it’s not my work. However, I wasn’t sure how to go about protecting my own work/photos, so this is very useful. Thanks! 🙂

    • Hiya Natalie,

      Glad you found it’s useful. These things are changing all the time as the internet evolves, but the basics are usually the same. The links are especially useful to bookmark 🙂

  2. Popping a nice visible url onto your image also works as an advertisement for your work when it is shared. Just make sure that it’s the correct url lol! 😀

  3. Pingback: Image Use and Art Theft | Northern Editorial

  4. Wonderful post! Thanks for this treasure trove of useful info.

Leave a Reply to alisoncross Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: