How to Copyright your Images—And Keep Picture Pirates at Bay

how to copyright images google search

***The image above is courtesy of pxfuel.com — free to use commercially, but I’m still going to give credit.

It’s very common for sites to steal your images and use them as their own. How can you help prevent this and what can you do if it’s already happened.

Let’s start with an example and a simple test you can run to see if people have already stolen your images.

Here’s an image belonging to Brooklyn Blackpipe that they use in their ecommerce site. It’s a nice image and it has commercial value, so it’s a high-risk image for theft.

floating shelf rustic reclaimed wood

***The image above is courtesy of the custom floating shelf company brooklynblackpipe.com — copyrighted, but used with permission granted from its owner.

How do you check if it’s being pirated? The first thing you do is type “site:yourdomain.com” into the Google search box. In this case, site:brooklynblackpipe.com. Here’s what I get back. All of these images are what Google has indexed from brooklynblackpipe.com.

indexed images brooklyn blackpipe

Now open https://images.google.com/ in a new tab.

google images search page

Drag one of your images into the search box in the Google Images search box. What you’ll see are images that closely resemble the image you dropped in.

Now here’s how you find the stolen images. Next to your image, if you see a button that says “All Sizes” it means that the same exact image is found elsewhere and indexed by Google. Click the button and see all the places in Google’s index your image is being used.

google images search example
pirated images results brooklyn blackpipe

Before we get into how we can get these pirated versions of our images taken down, let’s start with how we can defend against this in the first place.

Normally, when you post your images on your website, you do several things to prepare your images. You optimize them to be lightweight, you give them seo-friendly urls, you add alt text and maybe include a caption and description.

But how do I keep pirates at bay?

pirate image smurf

***The image above is courtesy of pxfuel.com — free to use commercially, but I’m still going to give credit.

First, you may want to consider using a watermark. This isn’t something everyone can or should do. For instance, if you have an ecommerce store and you use your images in Google Merchant Center, your images might not pass their quality control system. If they do pass, watermarks are ugly, so your images might not perform well. If your plan is to sell high-resolution versions of an image, using watermarks makes a lot more sense. Or get creative. For example: I plan on testing a concept where I’ll use a small, almost unnoticeable watermark on my images so that it doesn’t distract users, passes quality control systems such as Merchant Center, but is still legible if you intentionally look for it. If that concept works, anyone using the image, will have no defensible way to argue ownership—which makes it very easy to request that Google takedown the stolen content (skip ahead). It’s just a concept and I’ll post another article with my results after I test it.

Second, you can embed copyright metadata into the images. Google recognizes copyright metadata and can display it in the details section of an image in search results. Here’s what it looks like.

copyright metadata rich results

To get this metadata into the images, you have a number of options. Here’s a list of suggested methods from iptc.org For me, I use an app called Photos Exif Editor. They don’t pay me and I’m in no way affiliated with them. The app cost me $1.99 and does exactly what I want.

Before adding copyright info, my recommendation is that you prepare your images how you normally would—going through your entire normal process first. The reason being is that when you optimize images, it’s common for apps, plugins and programs to strip all of the metadata to make the file smaller. If you wait until you’re done optimizing to add the copyright info, you can be sure your info will be intact. And adding a tiny amount of copyright metadata adds almost no weight. If you optimize images with a plugin in WordPress, you can’t add the copyright data last, so pay careful attention that your metadata doesn’t get scrubbed off when your plugin optimizes your images.

The fields you want to add are IPTC standard fields. Google suggests that you add creator, credit line, and copyright notice IPTC fields to provide the proper attribution. The labels might look a little different in each app, so check the documentation of your app to be sure. In my app, they are called “Author”, “Copyright Notice” and “Credit”.

copyright metadata added with app
copyright metadata added with app workflow

Now your images are ready to upload to your site.

After uploading your images to your site, the next thing you need to do is make sure your images get indexed. If you do nothing at all, Google will probably crawl your site sometime in the future and find them. Or maybe they won’t. Images can sometimes slip through the cracks. A better option is to create an image sitemap and submit it to Google via Search Console. Google has documentation on how to do that here. If you use WordPress and create your sitemaps with Yoast, take note that Yoast doesn’t create an image sitemap. They claim to add them to the page sitemap, but it’s just a column with a number of images, so I’m not sure that actually means anything. Another note on WordPress: it’s a good idea to make sure that your images are “Attached” to a page—which you can do in the Media Library. If you want an image indexed, the page it lives on needs to be indexed and the image needs to identify that page as it’s “loc” (location in the sitemap). This is why attaching images in WordPress is important.

image sitemap example
It can be tricky to be sure your images are even being indexed. Images that are indexed by Google aren’t shown individually by image in Search Console anymore. A good way to be sure that your images are indexed is to type “site:(yourdomain).com” into Google and select the Images tab. Everything that shows is indexed.
indexed images brooklyn blackpipe

Once your images start showing up in search, the copyright metadata you added is there, even if you don’t see it in the results. So if someone were to download the image, that metadata would be present. And importantly, if your image is indexed by Google and has that metadata present, you’ll be able to defend your rights more effectively if you need to ask Google to take copies of your images down (skip ahead).

Once you’ve done all that, your images are now eligible to show your copyright info as rich results in image search

copyright metadata rich results

As with most things Google, there’s no guarantee what info will show up for any particular user in search. That means that it’s up to Google to actually display that info. So how do you know the metadata is there? There’s actually a nifty website you can use to check. You can upload images from your computer or use a link. So, if it shows there, you’re good.

iptc metadata results tool

So, how does this help protect my images? Seeing the copyright info may dissuade someone from stealing it. But importantly, if you need to ask Google to take down images from their index, these steps will help you make your case. Just keep in mind, if some bozo wants to steal your image and use it on their site and doesn’t care that it’s not indexed, there’s no way to force them to take it down. But if you can get Google to remove pirated images from their index, it’s a major win. All of that pirated content can no longer cannibalize your traffic.

So, what if you already have a bunch of images getting pirated?

You have to ask Google to de-index them. A crucial part of the process is to clearly assert your ownership of the content. For that reason, I’d strongly suggest going through the process of adding the copyright information to your content first.

A note on the years you use in your copyright notice: according to copyrightlaws.com, “The general rule is that the year to include in a copyright notice is the year of first publication of the work.” So if you took the image in 2015, but it’s currently 2020, the general rule is to copyright your work with the year 2015. You’ll need to do it anyways, so why not do it first?

Let’s look at the process with an actual example.

Here you can see how a bunch of sites are using an image illegally pirated from the floating shelf store—Brooklyn Blackpipe. This can happen in lots of ways. In this case, there are three main ways that it’s happening.

pirated images results brooklyn blackpipe
First, from Amazon. Brooklyn Blackpipe used to sell on Amazon, but decided that the platform wasn’t right for them. Once they closed their Seller Account, Amazon disabled access to the account, but left the listings up. Personally, I believe this to be a highly unethical practice by Amazon since the content is being used to drive traffic to Amazon. Remember, the images are indexed and showing up in Search. If you click on the images, you get sent to a page that says the product is “no longer available.” Amazon can be particularly difficult to work with when it comes to enforcing copyrighted media. If you believe your rights are being infringed, start with their Conditions of Use Page, which describes their Legal Policy on the issue of copyright. Or you can skip directly to their “Report Infringement” page where you can file your report. When you file a takedown request with Google about images on Amazon, they will ask you have filled out this report first, so with Amazon, start here. Second, Pinterest. Anyone using Pinterest and uploads original content has almost certainly seen their images used in other people’s Pins. Here’s how it goes wrong. You post an image of your beautiful product, someone sees your Pin, downloads your image and then creates a new Pin using your image. The reason it’s wrong and illegal for people to do this is that Pins have a link attached to them that sends people anywhere on the web. Luckily, Pinterest has an excellent and effective method to deal with this. And in my experience, it’s relatively painless. Just fill out the takedown form they provide on any given Pin and wait a couple days for the Pins to come down. I’ll walk you through how I do it below.(skip ahead) Third, copycat blogs that scrape the web for images and create fake blogs for whatever reason. What’s so weird is that all of these blogs are exactly the same. Same images, same words, same everything except the header, footer and sidebars. And a fourth type that wasn’t that common was the unscrupulous ecommerce sites that just used Brooklyn Blackpipe’s images in their product listings. Ok, so that’s an example of how your images can be pirated. So, what do you do when it happens?
captured by pirates

***The image above is courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org — free to use commercially, but I’m still going to give credit.

Here’s where you have a few options. In Brooklyn Blackpipe’s case, the images were being used improperly and there was no reason to want them to stay up. But maybe your images are being used by legit sites in flattering ways. And maybe the authors of those sites just forgot to give you credit. In that case, you have a really good opportunity to get a valuable backlink. If that’s what you have going on, then contact the blog and kindly ask that they credit you for using your image and link your image back to your site.

Your second option is for DMCA takedown. This is where you ask Google to remove the content from their index on the grounds that someone is using your copyrighted content. Just visit the DMCA takedown request page via the content troubleshooting tool and submit your request.

dmca takedown form

If you have lots of links to request be taken down, you need a system to do it efficiently or it will take forever. So before you start submitting requests with the process below, be sure to collect all your data in a spreadsheet.

Here’s one way you can do that.

  1. Open a new spreadsheet.
  2. Open a browser tab and enter site:(yourdomain).com into the search bar.
  3. Open another tab and visit https://images.google.com/ (if you have two screens, show both tabs at the same time—one on each screen).
  4. Drag one of your images(from the first tab you opened) into the search box in the Google Images search box(the second tab you opened).
  5. Next to your image, if you see a button that says “All Sizes” it means that the same exact image is found elsewhere and indexed by Google. Click the button and see all the places in Google’s index your image is being used.
  6. Copy the url for the page showing all of your pirated images. You’ll need this url in the takedown form later on. Paste this url into A1 of your spreadsheet.
  7. In the image search results, right-click on the first infringing image and select “Copy Link Address.” Paste this link into B1 of your spreadsheet.
  8. For each infringing image, repeat the previous step and paste the link in the next open cell in column B.
  9. After you have all your urls for the infringing images, you need a link to a landing page where your work is represented. Put this in C1 on your spreadsheet.
  10. Repeat this entire process for each separate image search. Each image search result will be a separate form.

Once you have all your information in a spreadsheet, here’s exactly how you submit your request.

  1. Visit Google’s troubleshooter tool. Fill out the form and you should arrive at Google’s Removal Dashboard for Image Search.
  2. Click “Create New Notice.” You’ll see a form.
  3. After filling out some basic details about yourself, Google will ask that you describe the work. Don’t over complicate it. Just describe the image as you see it.
  4. Provide a url where the original work can be found. This is the link you pasted into column C above.
  5. Google will then ask you for the terms you used to search for your results. Since you reverse-searched with an image, you need to copy the url that shows all the results of duplicate images. This is the link you pasted into A1.
  6. After that, Google will ask for the Landing Page url where the infringing material can be found. These are the links you pasted into column B. You can just paste them all into the form at once.
  7. Read and understand the legal risks that Google explains to you at the bottom of the form. If you agree and accept the risk, sign the form (digitally) and submit.

Now you just have to wait a few hours, days or even weeks to get all your responses. If your request gets accepted, the links come down. If Google needs more info, they’ll send you an email asking you for the information they need.

And let me be clear. This is a legal process and making false claims can lead to legal liability, which can include libel charges and having to pay legal fees to the party you claim is infringing. So if you’re unsure about anything, consult an attorney. Nothing in this post should be construed or interpreted as legal advice.

report pin pinterest

So, what about Pinterest? How do I have infringing content removed there?

You start with that same reverse image search. And you’ll build a similar spreadsheet as you did above, but for Pinterest, you need to supply the actual url to the infringing pin. Then follow these steps:

  1. Create one list of urls per image search.
  2. Visit one of the infringing pins.
  3. Click the 3 dots near the upper right-hand side of the image.
  4. Click report pin.
  5. Select “My Intellectual Property.”
  6. Select “This infringes my copyright.”
  7. Fill out the form. This form is similar to the Google form, but has some differences. First, even though you started with a single Pin, you can add all the links you have for the same image to this same form, which is very nice. Second, you have a couple options to consider. One being whether or not you want Pinterest to remove identical copies of this image. It’s not clear whether or not this would also remove my legit images, so I uncheck it to be safe. The other option is whether or not to add a strike to the user that created the Pin. When you get copied as much as Brooklyn Blackpipe, adding strikes is necessary.
  8. Sign and submit.

Pinterest should get back to you within a day or two.

There you have it. That’s how to copyright your images for Google Images and how to deal with Pirates.

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