Ways to deal with images ... preventing image theft

As an artist, this is near and dear to me, as image theft is a major issue on the net. Now is it completely preventable ? In a word .. NO.. as it's too easy to get around the blocks one can put up to avoid it ... Which I won't outline here, as for those who don't already know how, I don't plan to give them directions :)

There are even, darn their hides, programs out there now, tailor made to steal images off the net ... however most people are not interested in putting that much effort into it, as most theft is not from major people out to steal from you. Most snagged images are from new to the net people, who don't know any better, who have not yet learned the "rules" of proper netticate. Which we all were at one time, so they can be forgiven. But one still wants to protect their intellectual property.

Those who do know what they are doing, your not going to stop them from stealing them, but thankfully they are a minority.

So a couple of easy ways to foil click and grab of images you want to stay put.

First off, put up a notice, that's it's under copyright ... this alone will make most people leave it alone, as they rightfully, are afraid of legal issues if they take it.

Do Not say "please don't steal the images", or make threats of prosecution. As to those who are deliberately out to take them, this is tantamount to a challenge and they will do it just to see if they can get away with it. So I would advise against pleading or making threats of any sort. And such words just offend the 95% of other people who are legitimate visitors.

Lose that oh so helpful " steal me now ".. image manager of internet explorers. You do this by inserting this line in your meta tags

<meta http-equiv="imagetoolbar" content="no">

This will stop that annoying copy, email etc. toolbar from coming up every time you hover over an image. I have no idea what Bill was thinking of when he did that one :( .

Another is at your host level, which forbids all hot linked images, which is the most common form of deliberate image theft. Where a party has taken the code right off the page for the call to image and parked it on their web site, stealing your band width to serve it up on their site. I have seen entire sites built this way, to where every image on it, was being called from someone else's site, from the backgrounds, all the way to the icons.

Any image call that looks like this
<IMG src="http://someone-elses-site.com/image.jpg" height="50" width="100">
is a hotlink.

This is done by changing your htaccess files. It's a fairly simple thing that says, it's not on my site ? it's a no go.  This will not stop remote calls into your site you make to outside images, like calls for your buy buttons and the like, although it's best to have them come from your own host to be honest. I simply means anything trying to come off your site will be blocked. There are ways to write this code yourself, which can be complicated, it's a lot easier just to have your host do it, just ask them, most will be happy to turn off outside linking, and they can do it much more completely than you can.

Be aware, that again, this is not foolproof and due to some firewall configurations, some people may see no images on your site at all, even though they are legitimate viewers. There is also the issue of domains Vs sub domains and where an htaccess file needs to be. Now you see why having your host do it is the
simplest way of all, and most often, the most accurate.

There are legitimate reasons for remote calls off your own site, such as banner exchanges you yourself make, but a better way is to set it up with your own host, as above, that no one, not even you, can hot link off the site. To do such remote calls for banners and the like, get an image host, to use for your banner exchanges. There are free image hosts all over the net you can use to provide this service for yourself.

Oh, an easy way to see who is linking to your images, if you don't have access to your site logs ? go here  http://www.altavista.com/
Put in the word image:http://www.yourdomainname.com/ and it will list everything it can find where the word image is related to your domain, now most  things
you will find here, are legitimate links, and pages off your own site, and the like. But it will also show up any hotlinks anyone is trying to pull off your site.

If you don't want to do the htaccess thing, this will at least give you the option of knowing what images are being hotlinked and then changing the name of or moving any image they are hotlinking. In fact, a common tactic in this case is to change the name of the image on your own page but leave the other image up in the files, but not in plain sight to your viewer and then change what it says. 

Turning such hotlinked images into bold statements of "this image is being hotlinked" or "hotlinking forbidden" or whatever comment you care to make in a low res, tiny file as your still carrying the band for this image to be displayed. Some even go so far as to put up porn or other "bad" images as a replacement, in any event, doing this will usualy get the image taken down in a hurry, as the image they want is gone for one, and two you have just embarrassed them.  Most people after one such affair, wont attempt to steal from you again.

Now to back this up ... comes the ever popular "no right click" , which has to foil something that is built in to the browser... There are any number of perfectly good, usable codes for free available, just plug "no right click code" into any search engine and you will have dozens to choose from. Be aware however, that this is limited in scope, since they are almost all java scripts, and is.. quite honestly, easy to get around, but it does tend to stop drive by theft, even if most find it annoying, particularly if the site it's used on, has no real purpose in doing so. In other words, don't put one on, just because you can, only if you feel there is a need to do so. But again, realize its use is limited.

Now you don't want your legitimate viewers who want to right click and open a link in a new window to suffer for this however, so here is what you do

<base target="main">

This tag, placed as the last tag before </head> will cause every link on the page, no matter where it is, to open in a new window, it's not 100% foolproof as in some cases the browser will circumvent it ... but it works 95% of the time. There are other ways to handle the same thing on a link by link basis, but I find this one to be the easiest to work with.

This is also handy even on pages were there is not a "no right click"script, as it forces a new window for viewing, rather than have the viewer go back and forth, reloading a menu page over and over so will save your band width and transfer allotment. There are some who will consider this a pop up, it isn't. It's a very useful tool to save band and save your transfer limits.

Do be certain to tell your viewer that links will open in a new window however,  as otherwise, if they happen to have another window open and have their browser set to re use windows, which windows is set to do by default, they will have clicked a link and think it did nothing, when in fact behind the window they are viewing, is taken over, and is loading the new page into the window they had open. No system is perfect. So make a point to tell the viewer.

Put a transparent gif over the image, so that if they do a click and snag, what they get is a blank image. This is done using a java script, there are tutorials for it all over the web, as it's a bit complex to go into here. But again, be aware, there are ways to circumvent this by browser customizing, so it's not foolproof.

What's in a name ?

We have all seen and used the image searches on the major engines. At times you want them to serve images on your site up this way, as it's good advertising. But if your trying to protect an image, this can be a bad thing.

The searcher finds your image using their image engines the same way they do any web page, by a name. So you can use numbers for an images file name, which works quite well but is cumbersome to keep track of on your own files. So an easier way ... deliberately spell it wrong. Put a number in it somewhere, or add a letter that does not belong, spell it backwards.

You will still know what it is on your own files, but it's highly unlikely that anyone will put your purposely mangled name in a image search engine, and therefore have that image served up to them, computers are very literal, what you ask for is what you get.

Image caching by the browser and the engines.. to prevent

It's not a good idea to force the engine not to index the page however, to prevent image caching. As this takes the entire page out of the loop. It doesn't do a whole lot of good to protect the image, if no one ever finds the page to start with. But if you really want to it goes like this, which stops everything.

<meta name="robots" content="noarchive, noindex, nofollow, noimageindex, noimageclick">

You can also do this with the htcaccess file to forbid their indexing of the images for their image catalogs.

A couple ways to stop the browser from storing the page, at least in Ie or netscape, which is more reasonable

<meta http-equiv="cache-control" content="no-store">

<meta http-equiv=Pragma content=no-cache> <meta http-equiv=expires content=0>

But these do not always work well and when they do work, they force the viewer to reload everything, every time they come to the site. So it works, but there is a price. As well, as you have axed certain forms of indexing by doing so.

Watermarking the image, best option

This is where you purposely splash your company name or whatever across the middle of the thing or somewhere. If you don't like large obvious marks, its still a good idea to put a small, water mark or trademark on it. I put mine on every image I make, go ahead and try and find them :) and no I am not talking about the logo at the bottom, as it takes two seconds to take that off. I'm talking, Tiny text, wrapped around some image section that you need extreme magnification to see, but you will know where they are. I use a combination of all of these.

The reason for this is to be able to prove, if needed, that the image belongs to you. But to ruin the image in an effort to save it, sorta defeats the purpose of having the image in the first place. But it's becoming a needed effect, as with some new browser types, the no right click is circumvented in any case, to the point of its becoming useless for image protection, so some form of obvious branding might be seen on my work soon, on top of my signature mark, at least for web display purposes.

I expect you will start seeing a lot more of this in time to come, which is sad that those who have created a work, have to deliberately deface the work in order to protect it. :( but its the way things must be at the moment, even if we, the creators of the work, would rather not have to do this.

You can Digitally mark the image, by embedding comments into it, but this is only useful again for proving it's yours, if they didn't run the thing through a cleaner and took the comment out. Which is very easy to do with the right software. So its worth is questionable.

However, there are companies you can work with; that keep a running tab on such images so marked, and for a fee, and can prove, via their own database, that you are its creator based on the date you created the tag. A sort of digital copyright office, but this service costs, so be aware.

Which seems like a lot of cost and effort, but if your like me and the image is art, it's well worth considering for copyright protection. This does not mean some people wont take it, it means if they try and use the image for their own profit, you can prove your copyright to the piece in question if it come to a court case.

In fact, the reason for a lot of the above, is this very thing, to prove to the courts that you took special care and diligence to protect your copyright. Failure to do so, will mean, in most court cases, dismissal of your claims of copyright infringement, as you made no attempts at self protection, so your loss, becomes your own fault if you fail to make the effort at some kind of protection level.

You can put the images in a flash presentation or java display, which will prevent their being copied ( at the moment ) but not everyone has the needed plug ins to run these application's and your load time drags considerably because of them. But it's a possible solution.

The only fool proof way to avoid image theft, is to not put them up at all so it's said, this is based on how the web itself operates. As no matter what you do, there will be those who figure ways around anything you put up or on the images. If like me, the image is the reason for the site, this can be a problem, but most people, believe it or not, are honest. Others are new and don't know the rules, which the above tactics will help prevent, and the few who do it on purpose, well I can only say that what goes around comes around and such folk will get their come uppance in time, as I firmly believe in Karma :)

More soon
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