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Image theft: This is how you can find stolen photos on the Internet

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One of the hotly debated topics among amateur photographers is “picture theft”.

Of course, this does not mean the real theft, because in the rarest of cases the picture is actually physically appropriated or removed. What is meant is the illegal copy or the illegal publication of such a copy.

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I will show you what you can do against such copies and how you can find out if others are copying and using your photo. But I'll also show you what you can't do because technology sets limits and where it is not worth doing something. And I'll explain to you why some demands that some write in their profiles are ineffective.

Here, too, first of all: It is not about legal advice. I will not discuss individual cases, but would just like to report on practical experience, pass on information from practice and stimulate thought. In the following text I will continue to write about “image theft” due to the grip of the word. But by that I mean the copy or the publication.

What is picture theft and what is it not?

I would like to use a few case studies to make it clear how I evaluate this topic for myself (and how it is basically evaluated in general).


  • You have uploaded a photo in fotocommunity and made it publicly available. It is therefore accessible and visible to everyone worldwide via the Internet). Now you discover that another user of the fotocommunity using the tag [fc-foto: 1234567890] is linking your photo in a comment and it can be seen there as a thumbnail (smaller image). If you click on the photo and you get a full view, you are in your account / profile and you can be clearly identified as the author.
    There is no image theft and no copyright infringement.
  • You will find your photo as a small thumbnail in a profile on Facebook and if you click on it, you will be taken to a larger view in the fotocommunity, in your profile or in your account and you can be clearly identified as the author.
    There is no image theft and no copyright infringement.
  • You can find the photo in a small preview on any other website. If you click on the thumbnail, the photo is shown in a larger view, but only the photo and you are not recognizable as the author, the viewer cannot relate to you.
    This is picture theft and your copyright has been infringed.

Have you expressly forbidden the linking in your profile or under the photo? This does not change anything in the above statement, because the meaning and purpose of the Internet is also interactivity and linking.

Further examples

  • Do you have a homepage on which your photos can also be seen in high resolution? It doesn't matter whether it is your own homepage or, for example, the portfolio in the fotocommunity. A fan of your photos tells you that he thought a picture was so great that he printed it out and now hangs it in his bathroom next to the mirror. It is a private copy, it does not matter whether other people enter the bathroom every now and then. It would be different if it were the bathroom of a hotel room. You should be happy about the fan, if necessary ask him to put your name under it, otherwise do not try any further actions.
  • You can find a copy of the photo on a private homepage, where a family would like to show relatives and friends how nice they live and how great the surroundings are.
    It is a picture theft and a violation of copyright, but you have not suffered any monetary damage.
  • You can find your photo in a photo book that can be bought, on a postcard at a kiosk, or in some other form of commercial use and publication.
    It is about picture theft, a copyright infringement and you have suffered economic damage. I will explain why this distinction is made in the further course of the article.
  • You can find the photo on a Russian website, don't understand what it says, can't find a link to the original or your name.
    It's about picture theft and a violation of copyright, you should be annoyed about it and otherwise go back to business.

With that I should have covered the basic cases and at this point I want to get rid of one of the famous bronze sets. Incidentally, bronze sentences are very important statements that you pour yourself into a bronze plate as a slogan and hang over the front door:

Photos that are so valuable to you that theft of a picture will hit you hard economically or emotionally do not belong on the Internet!

How can you identify picture theft?

Surprisingly often, image theft becomes known through other attentive users or internet users who know your photos or your imagery. In the fotocommunity we very often receive references to a possible picture theft from users whose photos were not affected, but know these photos from the fotocommunity or from the photographer's portfolio. Detecting this kind of image theft is neither controllable for you, nor can you influence it.

I had to search a long time to find a photo of myself that was "stolen". But then I found what I was looking for and now show you with two photos how the research works and what conclusions you can draw from it.

1. Search via Google

The easiest method for you to determine “photo theft” is offered by Google.

Step 1

step 2

step 3

I used this photo that you may still know from the photo school or from times when it was still to be seen in the fotocommunity (you will immediately see why this note is so important).

If you now start the search, you will get the following result (or a comparable one):

The first hit points to the photography school, which is also correct because I use the photo there myself in an article.

This is followed by many links in the fotocommunity. The image size is specified there as 80 x 80. If you follow the link, you will not find your photo there, or only very rarely.

So what's up with that?

Very simple: If you look at photos in the fotocommunity, you will see different thumbnails at the bottom right that fit thematically or are from the same photographer, these photos change constantly. When Google visited, my photo happened to be there in the ad and was saved as a hit by Google, although the photo can no longer be found in the fotocommunity itself. It will also take a few months to years for these hits to disappear from Google.

I can tell at first glance: Everything is fine, the photo doesn't seem to be an illegal copy anywhere.

2. Research via TinEye

The website offers another way to find photos that are not used:

You can also upload pictures there or provide a direct link to a photo. TinEye specializes purely on photos, usually finds fewer hits, but these are often different and more qualified.

TinEye does not find anything in our example image. So I can say with great certainty: This photo is probably not used illegally on the Internet.

I had to search a little to find a photo that is being used without my knowledge. The photo shows a Hanseatic cog (a replica) that I photographed at the Kieler Woche.

I also sent this photo to the Google search and found various hits that I would like to interpret for you:

In the hits you will find the known links to the fotocommunity pages, in addition to the overlays already described, at the bottom right there is also the following link:

The method

  • At the top you can see that someone used it as a preview image for a section. It is retained even if the original is no longer available in the fotocommunity. Now I have shown this photo in the fotocommunity for a long time and therefore I think it's okay to use it, always in this size.
  • I also find some links to specialist forums where users discuss certain ships and try to identify them. Nobody set a link for this, but uploaded the photo themselves. There is no copyright reference.
  • I found the photo on two private homepages and uploaded it directly as a copy. In both cases a clear violation of copyright law. In purely theoretical terms, I could try to counteract it. Since I have not suffered any damage, I will only write a friendly email (if at all). Otherwise the effort would be disproportionate to the result.
  • In one case, this image and three others were used on a commercial page promoting excursions and water sports. Damage has actually occurred here: such photos usually have to be purchased and the operator has saved this. Now I have to assess for myself: How extraordinary is the motive, how much effort does it cost me (please note: It would be a civil law procedure that I have to refer to).
  • The last hits lead to a Russian website. I neither understand what the page is doing nor what it says about the photo. Here, too, the effort would have no relation to the possible result. You can try to write to the site administrator, and sometimes they will respond. In one case, the admin wanted a fee of € 100 for administrative expenses, in order to even take care of it and supposedly to check my seriousness.


Ultimately, only the pragmatic approach helps here:

The effort must be worth it, otherwise it is not worth investing in this effort.

What do i mean by that?

Sometimes it's not worth the trouble it causes. And somehow it is also a compliment when others use my photo.

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