How The Internet Abuses Photographers & How Photographers Can Fight Back

Popzazzle | Monday, 13 January 2020 |

Post a photo on the free internet, and by default its copyright will be twisted into a knot of "yes but"s and "you have to expect"s. Here's the "Actually, NO!" you were looking for...

Image by Bob Leggitt - @PlanetBotch

One of most common things I see when I look at the average photographer online, is a person who truly has no concept of how grotesquely they’re being screwed over. I’ve said before that I despair when I see photographers accepting as normal a situation where they have to pay to contribute their work to the internet. But in this three and a half thousand word epic, I’m going to delve much deeper into the kit of psychological tools, used by big tech, to turn the web's most important contributors into the most unsung. And then I’m going to discuss some solutions…

The internet has deliberately been engineered to devalue photos, whilst at the same time using them to front nearly everything the web has to offer. And when I say front it, I don’t just mean appear at the top. I mean literally drive it. Photos are about 90% of the value of £billions worth of online content. Alongside provocative titles and egotistical lure, they’re one of the key push systems of traffic to some of the web’s most lucrative domains.

One might imagine that would be good news for the photographer. But because of the way the internet is set up, it’s the exact opposite. It’s very bad news indeed.

"Actually, Ms/Mr Photographer, even though WE make £BILLIONS off the back of your work, YOU don’t deserve to make anything at all."

Big tech has calculatedly tweaked the web so it can exploit the most valuable commodities for free. One such valuable commodity is the photograph, and the system used to appropriate that commodity is extremely insidious. Even though the web is literally fronting itself with photos, and making £BILLIONS off the back of the traffic those photos drive, it seeks to persuade photographers that their work has a monetary value of nil. And it’s been incredibly successful in doing that.


It’s an unfortunate truth that people care about the subject of a photograph, and not the person with the real skill – the person who created that aesthetically pleasing image. If you take selfies, and you look good in them, the public are going to laud and applaud you like every day is your birthday. But if you take photos of anything other than yourself, then unless you’re a phenomenally good self-publicist, the expressed appreciation for you, the photographer, is going to border on non-existent.

Content-driven tech companies rely on you, the photographer, not only accepting this as a measure of your value as a person, but also accepting it as a measure of the value of your work.

“Yeah, you see, you’re actually not worth anything, because people don’t flock to your profile to worship you. It’s the subjects in your photos that people like. Not you. Because look, they made a Facebook page about sunsets and they used all your photos, but they didn’t make a Facebook page about you. So that means you’re not worth anything. And if you’re not worth anything, that must also mean your content isn’t worth anything – because how can content created by someone who isn’t worth anything, be worth something? So actually, Ms/Mr Photographer, even though WE make £BILLIONS off the back of your work, YOU don’t deserve to make anything at all.”

  -   Google, Facebook, and the rest of the content-driven web.

The whole internet is built on this completely irrational premise. Deep down, we, the photographers, know it’s us who create the value.

As far as these sites are concerned, the photos are worth zero and the photographer's ego is the mint.

Sure, people mainly tell us how great the thing in our photograph is, and not how great our aesthetic glorification of that thing is. But we still see the way they lose interest in that thing, when we do not put in the effort to aesthetically glorify it. A brilliant photo of a train in the 1980s will get comments about how great that train was, and a load of Likes and shares. But post a crap photo of the same train, and… oh look… suddenly, no one cares anymore. No replies, no Likes, no shares. It’s us. Not the thing.

But creative people tend to have modest self-esteem at the best of times. And the internet’s assertion that photographers have no value is therefore highly effective. We end up accepting it, even though we know, based on hard evidence, that it’s not true.


It’s not, however, enough for internet powers to simply persuade photographers that they’re worth nothing, and then stand back as the public import our work into their platforms on an industrial scale. Nope, stealing content by proxy isn’t sufficient for big tech. Big tech also wants to steal directly, and it’s bulldozed that little trick into the system in a variety of ways…

For example...

Google search has created a bypass in which photos you upload to a sharing site, or your own website, are made available directly to the public, from Google, without the involvement of you or the site to which you uploaded. What this means is that, let’s say, 9 out of every 10 times a surfer finds your photo on Google Images, they will download the picture straight from Google, and your source page won’t get a visit at all.

Yes, Google has turned what was supposed to be a search engine, into a content distribution system that more often than not, cuts the copyright holder out of the loop. Let’s just think about that for a moment. There's no need for Google to give away the image. An image search engine only needs to display thumbnails and refer people to the hosting sites. A site that distributes the actual content is a scraper, not a search engine. Google is basically saying:

"You photo publishers need the vast amount of publicity Google can provide. And you need it so much that we can cut ourselves in on the distribution at something like a 9:1 ratio.

That's, 9 to us, and 1 to you. For every 1 person we refer to your site, we allow another 9 or so to bypass you and stay on OUR site. AND get your work directly from us. You won’t even have an opportunity to assert your rights. In fact we’ll trample on your rights by insidiously telling everyone that photos might, possibly, sometimes, be subject to copyright – like that’s not the default status.

And we won’t warn anyone they need permission to re-post, because we know a lot of people only use Google Images to find photos to re-post. We don’t want to put people off re-posting ‘cos we’ll lose that traffic."

The actual ratio of direct Google downloads to source page visits varies depending on a range of things. What the subject matter is, its resolution, how many other options there are in the results, whether surfers think they'll find more content by visiting the source site, etc. What we can all agree on is that an unthinkably vast number of copyright-protected photos are distributed directly by Google, with the copyright holder gaining nothing from it at all. True, sites can technically block Google from indexing their images, but…

  • They lose traffic. 10% of Google’s direct download traffic might be derisory, but 10% of something is still better than 100% of nothing.
  • Many UGC platforms - for example – offer uploaders no means to specifically block their images from Google.
  • If someone re-posts the blocked images elsewhere, Google will index the re-post, so the photos will end up on Google Images anyway.

Conspiring circumstances like these psychologically browbeat photographers into accepting the theft of their work. Big tech knows that, and thinks it’s fine.

Instagram’s movers and shakers understand that THEY need to be the central office in their distribution system. They can’t make money from Google giving their shit away behind their back. They WANT Google blocked. Same on Snap.


Older UGC sites didn't, and still don't care about Google becoming the main distributor of their photos, because they've always seen it as a source of promotion for them, if not for the photographer. I'm talking here about the kind of platforms who think it's a great idea to provide tools for scrapers, so scraper sites can "promote" the platform.

Most photographers would never allow their work to be scraped of their own volition. But the platforms don't care because it's not their content, and their income comes directly from the photographer's bank account - not the photographer's photos. As far as these sites are concerned, the photos are worth zero and the photographer’s ego is the mint. So yeah, scrape the shit out of it! It would be a very different story if the sites’ funding came from sales of the work. They wouldn’t be building tools for scrapers then – that’s for sure.

But newer UGC sites, such as Instagram, took exception to Google's redistribution and devaluation regime, and sought to combat it. They stopped Google from indexing their photos by serving them as scripts rather than files. That helped Instagram grow, because it essentially forced consumers to sign up to Instagram rather than just sitting perched over Google and downloading everything from there.

So you’ve now got a mechanism in which the photo is being downloaded at least fourth hand... What chance does a photographer have of maintaining the value of their work under those conditions?

It probably also helped Instagram attract influential publishers, because the publishers who really hit paydirt on IG are the kind of people who are opposed to having their pictures all over Google. Instagram’s movers and shakers understand that they need to be the central office in their distribution system. They can’t make money from Google giving their shit away behind their back. They want Google blocked. It’s the same on Snap. This newer wave of sites have offered photographers a level of genuine control over their distribution, and aimed to drive the audience specifically to them, rather than just the platform.

Instagram's system, and other Google-blocking or semi-blocking schemes, do still have that age-old achilles heel. Namely, people can manually collect pictures from Instagram and upload them to forums, Twitter and what have you. And they do. And when they do... yep, Google indexes the forum, and the pictures end up on Google Images. Then they're re-stolen from Google and posted elsewhere. Then stolen from there... It's really an unstoppable realm of copyright abuse. And it's crystal clear who's at the centre of it.

Then there's snippeting. This is where aggregator sites such as Tumblr offer a 'bookmarklet' which imports a snippet from any post the user takes a shine to. And the first thing the snippet presents?... Wouldn't be a photo by any chance, would it?... Of course it is. This not only infringes on copyright by design - it also persuades those who use the bookmarklet that it's okay to re-post any photo they find on the internet, even when they're posting on sites other than Tumblr.

And then there's RSS farming, where the picture heading a blog post normally ends up in the RSS feed, and thus gets republished on RSS scraper sites. This is another loophole in the practice of blocking Google Images, because once the photo is on the RSS site’s domain, Google can index it from there. And worst of all, the photos heading blog posts often don’t even belong to the blogger. So you’ve now got a mechanism in which the photo is being downloaded at least fourth hand. The photographer posted it, the blogger appropriated it (whether legitimately or not), the RSS scraper scraped it, and Google indexed and distributed it to the end recipient. What chance does a photographer have of maintaining the value of their work under those conditions?

RESTRICT THE SIZES at which you post photos on the free web. This helps you in three important ways.

The more the public get used to all this, the less seriously photographers are taken when they complain. That's precisely what big tech wants. Licence to exploit photographs, for free, and have the general public support them in doing so. To gain maximum value from photographs, whilst portraying them to the public as a valueless commodity.


So what does a photographer do in the face of all this?

There’s no perfect solution, because we’re dealing with an entire digital universe of exploitation by design. But there are some things we can do to make life easier for ourselves…

As a first step, BRAND YOUR IMAGES. I know it can detract from the look, but it also deters some people from re-posting the content. And some blogging sites – Hubpages, for example – won’t even accept branded images. That gives you a few less parasites to chase. If you brand near the edge of the frame, some bloggers, forum posters etc WILL crop off the branding. It’s best to watermark well into the image, where it’s difficult to edit out. At least then if the image does go viral outside of your control, anyone who cares can see where it came from. Hardly anyone will care, but it’s better that a few can find you than none at all.

In truth, I tend to brand at the edge with images that don’t have a lot of commercial value, and watermark near the centre on more usable stuff – so I don’t always follow my own advice. It’s a battle between wanting to present things in their best light, and wanting to deter parasites. But as time has progressed, I’ve become less puritanical about presentation. Some tech firm or other is probably going to sit the photo next to a really shitty ad sooner or later anyway. Stamping your own ID onto the pic is a minor aberration in comparison.

As a second step, RESTRICT THE SIZES at which you post images on the free web. This helps you in three very important ways.

  • Stops thieves and parasites from getting hold of images with resolutions they can commercially exploit. The worst thieves target the biggest images, and resources like Google are delighted to aid them in doing that.
  • Persuades the audience that they can probably get a larger size of image, and thus makes them more likely to visit your source page from the search engines.
  • Vastly opens up your options for publishing. Only a few platforms let photographers post at high res, and they tend to charge the photographer, not the consumer, for the privilege. A huge number of platforms – many of them with excellent social attributes – will host lower res photo uploads for free, so you immediately escape that territory where sites are asking you for cash.

Don't just publish your photos. USE them. Use them the way other people are using them.

Think about it. The bulk of web browsing is now done on smartphones, so the majority of the audience is not going to appreciate your high res upload in all its glory anyway. And if people tell you they want the photo at a larger size… let them pay to have it at a larger size, and then submit it to them privately. You are owed that money, and in uploading high res for free, or worse, at your own expense, you’re literally throwing it away.

The next step is to play the system at its own game. Don’t just publish your photos. USE them. Use them the way other people are using them. If you can write, do write. If possible, incorporate your images into long form written content. Put value into your text, so that people can’t just download the entire value from Google images. And most importantly, use seductive titles which make it clear that there’s more value on the actual source page. Use your images as bait to attract web surfers to YOU. Because if you don’t, other people will. And if their text-based post ranks above your photo post on search engines, then they will get traffic that YOUR photo earned. You have an opportunity to bed your photos into the search engines first, with content that’s going to last.

This is one of the reasons I prefer to post images on blogging sites rather than photo sharing sites. You can cement blog posts into visible search engine spots with ‘h1’ priority titles. Those titles will show on Google Images, and if they tell people it’s worthwhile clicking through to the source page, then click through they will. Then the visitor is yours, and you can show them round your work. I’ve had quick success doing this with my railway blog Rail Revisited, for which I use the @JPEGJuice Twitter account to push additional traffic. I came up with a post format called the info-pictorial, which provides double value on the source page, and acts as an instant trigger for getting potential visitors to click links.

If you don’t write, and especially if you’re not very socially-inclined, it can be almost impossible to hack your way back into the centre of the distribution system. Social reluctance is another thing the internet, and pretty much the rest of the world, exploits for its own gain. But you can still use seductive titles to get people onto your source pages. And in the future, things may get better…


One of the things we haven’t yet seen much of in online photo distribution, is direct photo sponsorship. That is, integrating a small sponsored area into the image itself, in return for a fee from the sponsor. I know a lot of photographers would balk at this idea for aesthetic reasons, but it could revolutionise photo sharing in a way that pays the sharing sites’ bills, and rewards photographers.

This could revolutionise photo sharing in a way that pays the sharing sites' bills, AND rewards photographers.

The brilliance of the idea is in its immunity to the internet’s pathological quest to separate photographs from their value. Once the ad is integrated into the image itself, it travels with the content. The more it travels, the more the advertiser gains, and the more other advertisers are inclined to become sponsors. Which they can only do through the sharing site the photographer uses. The ‘launching pad’, if you like. So the flow of reward always comes back to the right people.

The mechanism would not be immune to abuse – unscrupulous advertisers can theoretically stamp their sponsorship area over the original, without permission. The good news for the photographer, however, is that this would be the legitimate sponsor’s problem to sort out, because they would be the ones losing money through it.

I suspect it will happen at some point. It’s just a matter of an enterprising party ironing out the detail of how it would work and putting it into practice.

And finally, for photographers who do still have copyright concerns?… STOP OTHER PEOPLE FROM PROFITING FROM YOUR PHOTOS!

Don't be abusive, but don't be polite. Don't say "please", and don't say "thank you" when they remove what they stole. You're not asking them, you're telling them. Exercising your right. It isn't about whether or not you owe them politeness. It's about creating a scenario that causes them to remember not to do it again. That’s critically important.

The majority of moderated forums will instantly remove Getty photos from their boards, by default. Why? Because when they had Getty content on their boards in the past, Getty went to them with a financial demand and a credible threat of court action. Do you think they'd care so much about deleting Getty stock if Getty had instead gone to them and said: "I know you're busy, but when you get chance, would you mind removing this please?" Of course not. With that approach there's no impetus for them to care. You have to make them care, and the way to do that is with a threat.

When you approach content thieves, threaten them straight away. Don't wait for them to ignore your first approach and then threaten them when they don't respond. You don't have time to mess about writing multiple notices to people who have no respect for you, and who have in fact already ignored you before they even posted the content. They could have come and asked to use your photo, but they didn't. They chose to ignore you. And many of them will ignore you again if you don't threaten them with a consequence.

If they're on their own domain, threaten to DMCA their web host, and use a whois lookup service to get a domain abuse reporting address. Tell them if they don’t remove the content immediately, you will report their domain for abuse. If you do this, or DMCA their web host, their whole site can be pulled, and they won't want to risk that - even if it's only for an hour or two.

If they have direct advertisers (as a lot of social media aggregators do), threaten to tell their advertisers they're stealing content. A lot of advertisers fear anything that can damage their reputation, so may stop advertising if they become aware that the party with whom they're placing ads is a thief. It’s another powerful threat you can make to ensure the thief takes you seriously.

If a content thief advertises with Google, and Google perceives that they're stealing systemically, their ad account will be banned and they won't get it back. As a photographer you need to USE that threat. It's much easier for a parasite to take down the work they stole from you than to replace lost revenue. That's all you have to do. Make taking down your content the easiest option. Then they'll do it. Immediately.

Whether you want to demand financial compensation is another matter. Personally I think it risks undermining your powerbase, because most serious parasites know you’re not going to take them to court and thus they will not consider paying you. So then you have to accept defeat, and that can persuade them they might get away with taking more liberties. It’s best to hit them with threats you know you can carry out, and which you WILL carry out if they don’t comply.

There’s a long road ahead in the fight for fair recognition among photographers, but the old systems of sharing are in collapse, so there’s increasing impetus for sharing resources to change. We’ve seen in other areas of online entertainment and creativity, that when tech providers put the creators’ interests first, the growth they experience is truly explosive. Photographs are the number one means of grabbing instant attention online. So when someone finally comes up with an idea that truly puts photographers’ interests first, the explosion will be unprecedented.

I've taken the subject of copyright protection further in Anti-Piracy By Design.
Bob Leggitt
Post author Bob Leggitt is a print-published writer and digital image creator, multi-instrumentalist, twice Guitarist of the Year finalist, web page designer and software developer.
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