Photo theft is a very real problem, even for amateurs who aren't seeking to turn a profit from their work. Although the benefits of sharing your photos on the internet generally far outweigh the potential risk of it being stolen and used without your knowledge, personally I think it's a sensible precaution to periodically check online to see if your images are being used.
At a minimum you're entitled to claim that any stolen images are taken off an offending photo-thief's website but depending on how the photo was used & the context you may even be entitled to payment. This is an experience I've gone through personally and have even successfully demanded & received payment in cases where my images are stolen.
That said, the process can be a manual & time-consuming and it's not even guaranteed to work which leads me on to the focus of today's blog post. Pixsy is one of a small number of new websites that let you register your details, provide a source for your images such as Flickr, Facebook, Instagram or your own personal website, then automatically run a check for similar images online. I use the word similar with good reason, which will become clear later. My previous approach has been to take a subset of my images I care the most about and manually trawl through Google Image search looking for dubious matches. Anything that sticks out gets a DMCA takedown notice & an offer to pay for a licence. 99% opt for the takedown. If you're unclear what a DMCA takedown notice is then this link can help start you off.
I'm sure we're all interested in getting payment for our images being used so that's what I'll focus on in this article, rather than simply looking for DMCA takedowns. Indeed, the basic free Pixsy service does not cover DMCA takedowns - you have to pay for the privilege of that - but does at least point out the offenders for you to chase on your own.
After signing up to their beta service and plugging in the sources of my images online, I now have the chance to review any "matches" the Pixsy service finds to see if it's acceptable, not truly a match or perhaps a legitimate case of photo theft, at which point I can get Pixsy to chase the offender on my behalf for payment... at a cost of 50% of the claimed fee.
THE MATCHING PROCESS
The free service gives you up to 5,000 image comparisons. I opted to choose three sources for my photography - my Flickr account, my Instagram account and this website. Although my images do crop up elsewhere it isn't common and it would be a good way of validating the image matching process to see if it found places I knew my photos were being used.
Naturally the process takes some time to trawl the internet and compare the results to my "golden source" catalogues. Still, less than an hour after starting I had some results I could look at.
I don't expect miracles from the Pixsy comparison algorithm and I've seen first hand the types of "Your image looks like...." results you can get from Google Image search. But the first few responses I saw from Pixsy were underwhelming. While the screenshot below is perhaps quite hard to interpret, it's basically flagged an image of a bicycle parked underneath a shop-front as being a match for the thumbnail of a podcast. This is simply because both images contain the Chinese characters for "Ni Hao", basically "Hello!". The rest of the images are entirely different! As a first result I was unimpressed, does this mean any street photography image containing a recognisable word would be matched against any other image of that word on the internet?
I wasn't too impressed with the rest. The black, white & yellow street marking image from a recent camera review has been matched against a seemingly-endless number of images that contain black & white chequered markings! This isn't a trivial issue either because to overlook errors in the matching you can either exclude just that one spurious match, the entire website or the entire image. If you choose the first option you have to then manually verify every single instance, otherwise you run the risk of missing a genuine case of theft by bulk-excluding a comparison. The reason why it could be a problem for me is that a lot of the black & white architectural work I like to shoot can easily be confused for other vaguely similar geometric shapes. Maybe that's just a subtle-yet-damning indictment on my photography ;)
Even more baffling is the image of the back of Canon's new 1DX-II camera, an example of the high ISO image quality taken from a recent blog post shown at left. Pixsy have matched it against an image from Amazon of a desk calculator... again, seemingly an example of arbitrarily matching words with every other instance of that word, although now I'm beginning to wonder if at least it's looking for the same font.
There's a bug in the matching process which I suspect is easily fixed. Even though I've given Pixsy my website link and my Flickr link it flags up cases where the same photo is on my site and my Flickr. It sounds like a trivial issue to fix and may even sound like a trivial problem but I don't want to "ignore Flickr" in case someone is re-uploading my work and passing it off as their own on a major site like Flickr or Instagram.
Another big problem, especially for landscape photographers, will be that of common scenes or familiar landmarks. I found this image of Horseshoe Bend matched thousands of times because it's a well-photographed spot. I could freely set it to "ignore photo" because it's not my best work and I realise that if someone is stealing a Horseshoe Bend image it's unlikely to be mine!
Still, despite these funny & absolutely bonkers matches, I did find some other intriguing matches I will be checking out. Here are my top 10 - note that I cannot give details of the current legal state of each case. These are highlights of cases that the Pixsy matching tool has identified and I will be looking into. I will only be able to discuss specific outcomes for claims once they are resolved.
1. Digital Photography School
I'm sure every photographer has heard of Digital Photography School and it came as a HUGE surprise to find that they had used one of my images without permission in one of their tutorials. On the one hand, they have taken my material without asking and then used it for a guide - they make money from photography guides, so it feels like profiteering from my image. Furthermore, when I view the page on my mobile there isn't any form of attribution or credit - it's only when I open the page on a laptop that I see there's a mouseover link to my site on 500px, albeit on a site I don't use anymore.
This is an interesting situation because for a short period I licensed out the offending image via 500px but 500px never confirmed a licence sale. Before I can do anything with this I'm waiting to see if 500px did sell this and not tell me or DPS have taken the image without my permission. I also have questions whether or not images can be used for educational purposes - I've done this myself too, although in every case I've tried to contact the owner and given unambiguously clear attribution whether I could contact them or not. This will be an interesting "test case".
2. Someone ripping off Digital Photography School & me too!
Stumbling across this page did make me laugh. Not only has the author taken the DPS link and republished it under their name but they've taken my image without asking... although this person did at least provide my name as a credit! As funny as it is the #1 site on my list were themselves stolen by #2, it's unacceptable behaviour if the images were not licensed. That said, I do need to do due diligence to see if 500px sold this image but again, given I've never received notice of a sale or authorised it myself I am dubious about this one.
3. GrigioMilano, the Mushroom Stealer
4. The Dream Within Pictures
The first time I saw this page I was hugely pissed off. It looked like a simple cut and paste of my own review under someone else's name. When I scrolled to the very end though I noticed it was actually a cut and paste of the Petapixel review. If I hadn't been looking for attribution I might well have missed that and it looks like the author is blatantly trying to take credit. I'm not sure what I'll do about it but I'll be checking what the Petapixel guys think about this.
5. The Arabic Aggregator
At least I think that's what this site is. Regardless, it has taken my image and trimmed it down to turn into a website banner. Looks very suspicious and one I'll be investigating, again pending the 500px sales review.
6. The Flaming Thief
No permission, no attribution, just a case of apparent photo theft. Not once but twice on the same page! This has been reported to Pixsy.
7. Naughty Nerds
There are a few cases where developers writing plugins for Flickr have then gone on to use my images without permission - even though an attributed version can be found if you dig deep enough. I'll need to look into this one. The problem is made worse here because the same image has then been used on someone else's site too, and the attribution is lost on the "secondary" site. Again though with this ima I need to verify it wasn't sold, although in this case it's linking to Flickr not 500px.
8. Someone Else Stealing A Review
My images, taken from my Sony RX100 review.... This is definitely one I am following up although Pixsy claim they do not tackle blogs. That said, I've asked for their advice.
9. My first Singapore Photo...
This one has been used on THREE different financial markets websites! All three have been submitted to Pixsy for review.
10. The Absolutely Crazy One
There are many more I'll be investigating and have raised cases for but these 10 are the ones I'll be keeping track of and giving you an update in the next blog post. Let's see what Pixsy say...
Overall, my first introduction to Pixsy was initially underwhelming because of the inaccuracy of the matching algorithm. That said, once I invested some time to make use of the "Ignore this..." tool, it made looking through other matches much easier. It's disappointing and frustrating to see how many images have been clearly ripped off in places Pixsy cannot reach, such a Russia, China & even Iran but hopefully I'll be able to see some justified compensation with my other legitimate claims.
It's certainly worth spending a couple of hours checking out your own portfolio. Even if nothing comes of it, the process of seeing just how frequently anything you put on the internet is reblogged, tweeted, stolen, tweaked or pinned is astonishing.
Once I've heard back from Pixsy on specific cases I'll provide a part 2 to this experience...