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Protecting Images: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Protecting Images: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

If you post your pictures on the Web, odds are that you are already well aware of the challenges in protecting them. Without some measure of protection, anyone who visits your site can simply right click the image, do a “save as” and post it to their site.

Worse yet, many will not bother to save the image and, instead, will just copy the URL and paste it to their site. This not only plagiarizes your image, but robs you of your bandwidth and money.

But what is most frightening is that, unlike text plagiarism, image theft is not easily detected by search engines. As of right now, there is no free, easy and effective way to search for duplicates of your image should you want to check for plagiarism.

Given the amount of time and effort that can go into an image it is more important than ever to take precautions to ensure that the work does not get misused.

Some Bad Ideas

Unfortunately, the most common and the easiest methods of image protection are also the most annoying and least effective.

The classic method of image protection has almost always been the no right click script. This script, as the name implies, works by disabling the right click function on a Web site. This can work either silently, or with an alert that lets the user know that right click has been disabled.

However, the no right click script places a major burden on legitimate users. Many, myself included, use the right click menu to navigate around the Web. Disabling it effectively cripples the site. It is also extremely ineffective as it only addresses one method of copying an image. Users can still drag and drop the image, save the entire page, take a screenshot or look at the source code, or disable Javascript and right click as normal.

While it may frustrate some plagiarists, it will send many more legitimate users running away in frustration.

Another method that is gaining some traction is the use of special plugins such as Copysafe that encrypt images and hide them in special applets.

Though these plugins tend to be very effective in preventing image copying, they are also unheard of to most Web users. Very few people are going to trouble themselves to download a plugin from a company they don’t know, especially when it cripples some functionality of their computer, just so they can see a few images.

Worse yet, many of these plugins cripple your site on some browsers and operating systems. This means that these scripts should never be used on mixed-content pages.

The end result of most of these plugins is that your images will be very well protected, but only because most people never see them.

Incomplete Solutions

There are some solutions that, while not annoying to users, do provide a partial solution to protecting images.

One option is to use a transparent overlay. It works by placing the real image behind a transparent one, a feat that can be easily accomplished either through tables or CSS.

If a user tries to save the real image through right clicking or drag and drop, he or she will only be grabbing the transparent image. Though it doesn’t prevent other methods of saving images, such as screenshots and viewing the HTML, it will slow down or thwart the most lazy and inattentive of plagiarists.

Similarly, it is possible to segment the image, for example through Photoshop’s slice tool, and use HTML to piece it together. To the viewer, it will appear as one solid image but anyone who tries to save it will only get pieces of it and would be forced to take the time to put it back together.

This method easily defeats most common methods of saving an image, leaving only screenshots, but it is difficult to create and set up. It is not an easy or efficient way of displaying a large volume of images. It also doesn’t work, well with smaller works.

These methods, though incomplete, do provide some protection against image theft and do not annoy end users. In fact, if done properly, they are completely transparent.

The Most Complete Solution

The problem with protecting photos over the Internet is that, without crippling one’s computer, there is no way to prevent a user from capturing an image of something sent to their computer. One has to assume that, anything sent over the Web, can be captured.

The trick then, is to only send images that you are comfortable with being copied. This can be achieved either by not sending the photo at all or attaching a watermark to it. The latter can be easily achieved through freeware applications and only takes a few moments. Also, some sites, such as deviantArt, offer the ability to watermark images as they are uploaded.

However, using a visible watermark is a delicate balance. It has to be difficult to remove or edit out and visible enough to discourage theft, but not so intrusive as to interfere with viewing the image. It is a very difficult balance to strike.

The best watermarks are, generally, semi-transparent overlays placed at or near the center of the image. They need to be in a place that can not be easily cropped out or photoshopped over.

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If a visible watermark is out of the question and cost is not a major issue, an invisible one, such as Digimarc’s MyPictureMarc can be used. This can help protect an image transparently by providing proof of authorship and, with some packages, the ability to search for infringing copies.

When it is all said and done, watermarking solutions are the only protection methods that provide complete protection of the image with minimal annoyance to the user.

Other Methods

In addition to all of the methods above, there are other techniques for protecting images that are worth noting.

  • .htaccess and referrer protection: Though not a method to prevent copying, editing the .htaccess file or using referrer-checking scripts can prevent image hotlinking, thus preventing people from simply linking the image off of your server and robbing you of your bandwidth. It is a sensible addition to any image protection scheme and does not interfere with users in any way. There is even a WordPress plugin to make the process as simple as possible.
  • Using low resolution images: Very low resolution images, barely high enough to view on the Web, can be used as a deterrent to content theft. However, since most plagiarism of Web content winds up back on the Web, this provides little protection by itself. It is still a good idea simply because it helps reduce file size, keeping bandwidth costs down and sites moving quickly.
  • Embedding in Flash: Another possibility is embedding the photo in a flash animation file. This reduces the annoyance of requiring the user to install a new, unfamiliar plugin and, in some cases, is even transparent to the user. However, it does not prevent screen captures and it can cause a site to load very slowly, especially if there are many separate files to load. It can also make editing and maintaining the site more difficult.
  • Embedding EXIF data: Another option is to embed text data in the file. The data, known as EXIF, can provide author identification, proof of ownership and contact information. However, this data can be edited by anyone, including a plagiarist, and is not searchable. It can provide some level of proof when a work is stolen, but will do little, if anything, to prevent theft or help detect it.
  • Other Javascript trickery: Finally, there are many different javascript scripts to display full images. However, the vast majority do not provide any content protection as that it is not what they were designed to do. Most do not disable drag-and-drop or even right click. Furthermore, any protections they do provide can be defeated by simply turning off Javascript.


There is no 100% effective method of protecting images you post to a site. If you can not stand to see your work plagiarized at least some, the best approach is to not post it to the Web.

However, images are easier to protect than textual works and their unsearchable nature makes it important to take advantage of that. Once an image is plagiarized out in the wild, it is almost impossible to track down and stop.

The key to protecting images though is not finding the most powerful system and running with it, but rather, balancing your needs with the usability of your site. If no one views your work, then your images are indeed safe, but also completely useless.

It is important with any protection system to keep in mind how people will use your site and ensure that you do not interfere too much with legitimate users.

It is a delicate balancing act and it is one that must be weighed differently from site to site, artist to artist and even work to work.

After all, a good balance for your vacation photos probably is not a good balance for paintings and fine art. It is all a matter of the value of the image, the likelihood that it is going to be stolen and one’s comfort with that possibility.

There are no right answers to the question, just several wrong ones.

View Comments (6)
  • Excellent article. Too many folks try to tackle the issue of image copyright infringement and end up at either end of the spectrum: it’s a lost cause, so there’s no point in worrying, or don’t put anything online. As you’ve noted there’s no magic solution but most folks can find something reasonable if they use some common sense. Copyright on the web is one of the topics I have in mind for a post at my photography blog Photoschooled and I’ll likely refer to your post here.

  • It’s always a question of security vs. usability.

    One thing with images is that they’re not as easy to track online as text content. You can easily find out if a piece of text you wrote has been copied and posted elsewhere. Images, on the other hand, are harder to find, except if they use the exact same filename.

    Image hotlinking is easy to discover and prevent, though.

  • I’ve been using an online watermarking website and it’s pretty quick and easy to throw on some text or semi-transparent watermarks. It could use some additional features, but it does at least allow basic positioning, colors, alpha levels, and custom text. It’d be great to be able to upload multiple images at a time and watermark them all in a batch, but I guess I can’t complain since it’s free :)

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