I am asked frequently about this. It's an epidemic. People are having their website content and images stolen and used on other websites and on other products and services.
You cannot 100% prevent your work being stolen. Anything visible on the computer screen can be "grabbed." However, you CAN make it a lot harder for thieves to steal and taking a few precautions can go a long way towards slowing them down:
- Copyright your work and images, individually or as a group. It's not expensive or difficult, it just takes a bit of time. You will need to gather info about each piece of work to document it. Yes, your copyright exists from the moment the work is created. Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney's fees in successful litigation.
- Make sure the images you use on your website are the smallest file size possible that still look good. Why? Besides loading more quickly and making for a smoother browsing experience for your visitors, a small file size means that the thieves won't be able to use the image for much of anything.
By "small" I mean in the 200-400 kb range for a large image with a lot of detail. Small images (an inch or two across on the screen) can be 50 kb or less. Using large high resolution files doesn't always make the image look better, they just slow down your website and make it easier for thieves to use them for print (reproductions, postcards or notecards).
- Another way to protect your images is to visually watermark them (via Photoshop or an online watermarking service) with copyright info or a logo, large enough to see and over an area of the image that would pretty much make the image unusable if the copyright info was cropped out. Also, it's difficult to edit/airbrush out copyright info that's part of the image. Most thieves are lazy, otherwise they'd work for it like the rest of us. Slow them down by making it difficult for them to use your images.
- Digital watermarking and fingerprinting is available and can provide identifying info embedded within the image (visible or not). The embedded info is "persistent" but not impossible to remove (nothing is it seems). Digimarc provides the means to communicate copyright info and track your digital images across the web. They also have plans for anti-piracy protections for publishers and authors, and their system can search the internet for copies of your work.
- Use Copyscape or a similar service to search the web for your content. If something gets stolen, you'll want to FIND the thieves. TinEye can help with their reverse image search engine.
- If you find an image that is being used without your permission, the first step is to contact the user with a "cease and desist" letter. That usually works. If not, you can pursue other avenues if you want. If you don't, at least the image is identifiable as yours and think of it as free advertising.
- To take legal action, get some advice from a good copyright attorney first. I've had clients work with Rebecca Prein, and there are other attorneys who can help put you on the right path.
Here are some resources to help you copyright your work, know what to do in case of theft, and use Creative Commons licenses.
US Library of Congress - United States Copyright office for copyright registration. http://www.copyright.gov/
Creative Commons - Non-profit organization providing creative licenses for image works. http://creativecommons.org/