How do you protect your work from being ripped off online? Here are five ways to keep your designs safe.

As creatives of all levels now have huge amounts of work online, it’s all too easy for others to ‘borrow’ – or steal – your images and designs from portfolio sites, Flickr, or elsewhere.

According to research by web hosting firm Fasthosts, one in 10 UK business have had intellectual property plagiarized; anecdotal evidence suggests it’s even more prevalent for the design community.

Many illustrators and artists have a story of finding one of their works being used online without their permission.

Most stories you hear of images getting ripped off are funny (often questionable) – such as the recent story of family photos from Missouri appearing in Czech supermarket posters (tinyurl.com/czechmates).

However, there’s a serious side, too: if your work is used commercially, or resold as part of a T-shirt or website template, then you are being deprived of earnings.

In extreme situations, the way works end up being used can be inappropriate – and distressing. Take the case of UK photographer Lara Jade Coton (www.larajade.co.uk): in 2007, she told the BBC that she was “shocked and disgusted” to find that a self-portrait she’d taken when she was 14 and uploaded to DeviantART was being used on the cover of a US porn DVD. She sued the producers; the case is waiting to come to court.

Some creatives see getting ripped off online as par for the course, and the price you pay for having an online presence – but it doesn’t have to be that way. Follow these simple steps to protect your work, find thieves and deal with them.

STATE YOUR COPYRIGHT
Many people don’t understand copyright: this is just as true for those in business as it is for teenage MySpace users. This is highlighted by the much-forwarded (and unverified) story of a designer who took some images down from his site.

He received an email threatening legal action from the owner of another site who had been hotlinking to them, starting with the indignant line: “I have been using images from your web site on my web site for along [sic] time now and suddenly they are gone” (tinyurl.com/imagesonyoursite).

To remind visitors to your site that stealing your images isn’t on, include a clear notice of your copyright, such as this standard phrase: ‘[This site] and the included images are © [Your Name] 2009. Do not reproduce, distribute or otherwise use any part of this site without permission from [Your Name].’ It won’t stop people if they don’t care about copyright, but it might make the uninformed aware of the rules.

STOP THE COPYCATS
The simplest way to keep your images and designs safe is to use low-res, compressed versions of your work on your portfolio site and elsewhere online. However, this prevents clients from seeing your work properly – especially if you create intricate illustrations – and won’t stop it being used on other websites.

Watermarking is one of the most effective ways to protect your images. Simple ‘physical’ watermarks – an overlay of a logo or copyright notice – require careful placement and sizing to prevent them from wrecking your image, while making it impossible to simply crop the watermarks out.

If you’ve got the skills (or can pay for it), you can use Flash to drive the portfolio part of your site – this allows you to prevent image downloading easily, as well as giving a better experience for visitors.

However, it doesn’t stop the truly determined from taking screengrabs. It also prevents potential clients from downloading your images – as many do when researching potential commissions for a project – and makes SEO (search engine optimization) for your site trickier.

Hotlinking – where others embed images hosted on your site into theirs – can be one of the most annoying forms of image theft. As well as taking your images, these image thieves are stealing your bandwidth, which could make your site more expensive to run.

Many web hosting companies – including Fasthosts – won’t prevent hotlinking automatically, so you need to manually modify the code of the .htacess file. There’s a good tutorial on this at tinyurl.com/stophotlinking. If you’re feeling cruel, you can set the file to provide a different image if someone attempts to hotlink – which could range from a simple warning to something unpleasant.

CATCH A THIEF
Finding versions of your artwork on other websites can be relatively easy. Thieves may resize images for their sites, but they rarely bother to change the name. If you name all of your artwork files by a unique jumble of numbers – for example, d56g3dn8fgh.jpg – a simple Google Image Search images.google.co.uk will quickly turn them up.

However, this does mean regularly running time-consuming searches, and there’s always the chance that the thief will have changed the name of the file. If you have a few images that seem particularly appealing to thieves, you may only need to look for these, and check for others more occasionally.

Even if thieves change the name of your images, they can’t evade you if you use the TinEye reverse search engine (tineye.com), which finds versions of your images based on its visual properties and can even cope with resized images.

TinEye can run as plug-in for Firefox and Internet Explorer, allowing you to click through your site’s images and search.

‘Digital watermarking’ plug-in developer Digimarc (www.digimarc.com) offers an image tracking service based on its technology as part of its top-level Gallery package, which costs $499 (around £305) a year.

PROVE YOURSELF
Proving that stolen images belong to you can be tricky if you haven’t prepared in advance. If you’ve produced a piece for a client, then emails between you (and their testimony if necessary) will prove invaluable as evidence.

You should also modify each piece’s metadata before posting it on your site – this is information kept inside the file, including copyright information, keywords for searching for images in a tool such as Adobe Bridge, and even which camera and lens a photo was taken with.

If you add your copyright info to your images before posting (File > File Info in Photoshop or Bridge), this will remain – unless your rip-off artist is tech-savvy enough to modify it.

Hidden, unchangeable digital watermarks are available through commercial Photoshop plug-ins such as Digimarc. This enables you to lock your copyright information into your files – both those you post online and those you send to clients – with an embedded link so anyone who comes across one of your images can contact you for licensing information.

THE LONG ARM OF THE LAW
If you’ve found someone using your work without permission, you have two main courses of action, says Mark Owen, partner at media and entertainment law firm Harbottle & Lewis (www.harbottle.com).

If your work has been used online and you simply want it removed, contact the owner of the site and inform them that your rights as the copyright holder have been infringed. Ask them to remove it, reserving the right to bring legal proceedings if they don’t.

You can also offer them to option to license the image from you for a fee, unless you created it for a client and the terms of your contact prevent this. If the infringer refuses or ignores you, contact their web hosting company – which can be found by searching for their domain name on a Whois site, such as www.who.is.

The host should have a set procedure for dealing with a request for a removal of copyrighted content, which is known as Notice and Take Down. If this is unsuccessful, seek legal advice about how to proceed.

If the work has been used in a way that you feel you should be compensated for – for example in an advertisement in print or online, or a company brochure – then speak to your solicitor about asking for damages. This will usually mean going to court, says Owne.

Even if the person who has taken your work is in another country, you still have legal options. “The level of protection available if your work is infringed overseas depends on which rights are being relied upon, and where the alleged infringement has taken place,” says Owne.

“Although in theory similar copyright laws apply in most countries, in practice there is a variety of ways in which courts approach these disputes. Having said that, Notice and Take Down procedures are commonplace on sites hosted in many parts of the world, in particular the US.”

Legal proceedings can be costly, but you may be able get help, Owne notes. If you created the infringed work for a client and they are unhappy about how a work associated with their brand is being used – and they probably will be – you may be able to take advantage of their greater clout and resources.