protect your photographs and retouching by kendra paige
Business & Clients, Real World Practices, Successful Retouching Business

How to Protect Your Work as a Photographer or Digital Artist

When it comes to protecting your work and your brand, there are many things to consider, and the top of that list is copyright. With images on display on websites, digital magazines, social media, online contests, etc, the opportunities for someone to misuse your work are plentiful.

In the first part of this series, we will discuss the basics when it comes to protecting your work: watermarks, copyright registration, searching for infringement, and the best practices for protecting your brand.


When it comes to protecting photography online, watermarks are often the first topic that comes up. While watermarks and branded logos on images can be an effective deterrent, the side effect is that they often detract from the aesthetics of your work. There are ways of watermarking your work that will not be too distracting, such as low-opacity overlays like in the example below.


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A post shared by Julia Kuzmenko McKim 💄 (@juliakuzmenko) on

While this may give potential thieves pause, Photoshop makes it woefully easy to remove most watermarks, and for some genres of work, it just isn’t practical for the working professional. In these instances, consider embedding an invisible watermark in the CSS of your website, as described by Ryan Cooper in this tutorial.

There is also the service Digimarc, which will create a practically invisible barcode as an overlay to your image. This barcode makes searching for stolen works an easier task. Digimarc comes at a price, however, currently listed as $99 annually for consumers. You can find out more about Digimarc on their website.

digimarc invisible watermarking barcode

Source: Digimarc

Register Copyright

Within the US, the photographer has automatic copyright as the author of the image. However, this does not grant the photographer the full benefits of copyright protection. If you register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office prior to the infringement (or within three months of the image first being published), it can mean the difference between paying your attorney to recover very little in damages, versus up to $150,000 in statutory damages and having the infringer pay your attorney fees.

While it used to cost $35 per image to copyright, recent changes have made registering your work a no-brainer. For only $55, photographers can now register up to 750 images for copyright, as described on the U.S. Copyright Office’s website below:

A group of published photographs can be registered on a single form with a single fee if (a) all the photographs are by the same photographer (if an employer for hire is named as author, only one photographer’s work can be included); (b) all the photographs are published in the same calendar year; and (c) all the photographs have the same copyright claimant.

As mentioned before, if you wish to pursue maximum damages and attorneys’ fees from a copyright infringement, it should be registered before the infringement occurred, or within three months of the photograph first being published. A good practice to get into is to register copyright every three months, starting with the end of March. This way, your work is unlikely to fall into a gray area of not being adequately protected and will run you $220 for a year’s worth of up to 3,000 images.

However, even if you have not registered the copyright in time, if a large company uses your work, you should still talk to a lawyer to see if they will pursue the case on contingency. At the Retouching Academy, we have had great experiences using The McArthur Law Firm to pursue anyone that uses our photographs without permission and we highly recommend them.

You can begin the registration process online through eCO, at their website.

How to Find Instances of Copyright Infringement

There are many methods for discovering potential misuse of your photographs, with varying levels of time and cost for each option. The first one, and typically the most common for reverse-image searches is Google Images.

Google Images

With Google Images, you can upload a photograph or search by the URL of an image. Google will then show all relevant results, which can also include modified versions that could consist of filters, overlays, or other edits to the underlying photograph. This method is free but is also the most time-consuming.

google reverse image search for photographers


The next major player in the reverse-image-search space is TinEye. TinEye works similarly to Google Images but tends to bring up different results than Google. What is handy with this option, is the ability to use their image comparison tool, for switching back and forth between your source image and a specified result.

tineye reverse image search

TinEye also offers a browser extension which allows right-click searches, and premium services for those who need to search an extensive library of images all at once.


The third option we recommend for protecting your images, and the newest arrival, is Pixsy. Pixsy allows users to connect a variety of services such as Instagram, Photoshelter, 500px, Dropbox, and more to a monitoring system. Pixsy then crawls the web searching for potential instances of infringement, in a user-friendly interface that requires minimal time to use.

What is particularly handy, is that Pixsy also includes tools for submitting a legal case, as well as sending Takedown notices. While you may need to dial in some of your matches through their system, this can be an excellent tool for photographers who don’t wish to invest hours of their time searching the web for potential copyright claims.

Best Practices for Protecting Your Work

Below are a collection of tips for you to consider to ensure that you protect your intellectual property, as well as your brand.

Include Credits Everywhere

Whenever you share your images on a website or social media, include credits for yourself, as well as those involved in the production.

Unfortunately, for the vast majority of people that are not educated in how intellectual property works, they may look at a photo without any information or credits and consider it fair game. Identifying yourself as the photographer and/or retoucher, listing the team, and potentially including a copyright notice may be enough to deter someone from taking your work.

At the very least, it supplies you with some proof that the infringement was willful, as they chose to ignore your copyright claim.

Contracts are Vital

Whenever working with a creative team, a model, or a client, you will want to guarantee that somewhere in your contract there is a clause that specifies that your images cannot be modified. Too many times, someone who has received your work feels ownership over it and will post it with a filter on it, or will “retouch” an image beyond what you have already done.

This can be particularly damaging to your brand, especially as your name could still be attached. While contracts may not work for everyone, addressing this point in some sort of text or writing might keep you from an embarrassing repost.

Commercial Reposts

A growing trend with many brands that are active in social media is reposting the images of photographers for commercial use on their social media, with the only compensation being “for exposure.”

Having your work reposted by a major brand with a large following can undoubtedly carry value with it, but you should stop and consider how truly valuable it may be. For some brands, one repost can lead to another, with your personal work being used for commercial purposes to sell products.

Consult with your team, especially if you’re working with agency represented talent, and consider if this is the right choice for you.

Watch Out for Rights Grabs

Another worrisome trend that has become particularly prevalent in digital magazines and photography competitions are these platforms being used to steal the rights to your images. Before signing any agreement or entering into a contest, be sure to comb through the details of their terms. In particular, watch out for language that may sound similar to the following:

By entering the contest, you retain the rights to your works while granting (the contest) the unrestricted, royalty-free, perpetual right to use, reproduce, communicate, modify and display the works (in whole or in part) for any purpose without any fee or other form of compensation, and without further notification or permission.

To translate the above portion, it is stating that they can use your images for an infinite amount of time, without any notice needing to be provided, or even your permission. They can use your work however they see fit, thanks to the broad language that is applied.

While some of what is said is not entirely wrong for purposes of displaying your work for a competition/magazine, the language used should be far more specific about them only having the right to use your work as it relates to the entity itself, and only that.

Before you submit your latest editorial to a publication or enter into a competition, do yourself a favor and read the fine print.

While I hope that the above information is helpful, my advice is no substitute for seeking the guidance of a copyright lawyer. If you have legal questions regarding possible misuse of your work, be sure to contact a lawyer that specializes in copyright law to properly represent you, such as The McArthur Law Firm.

Sources: Copyright.govPhotoShelter | MOZ | DPSchool | Pixsy | Phlearn | Digimarc

Featured Image – Photographer: Kendra Paige | Model: Madison Nagle @ Elite Miami | MUAH: Bri Soffa | Retoucher: Tatsiana Zavadska

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7 thoughts on “How to Protect Your Work as a Photographer or Digital Artist

  1. Olivia Green says:

    Great information, Kendra!
    Image theft and piracy has always been a concern for us photographers. Luckily, most platforms are working to minimize this by using appropriate tools.
    I’ve built my website with Pixpa, and they have this built-in functionality of watermarking the images after uploading. Right click protection is always on which further prevents image thefts on the website.

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