What to Do When Your Photos are ‘Stolen’

what to do if a photo is stolen

We upload 1.8 billion digital images each day to the internet. That’s one fast-paced online world we now live in. The digital age has made it incredibly easy to get your photos on the internet and in front of a wider audience – something that was a lot more difficult in years gone by. It’s thanks to social media and big photo-sharing websites like Flickr and 500px that we can now do this, but there’s one major problem that comes with this: copyright infringement.

It’s casually referred to as image theft or stealing, but what’s really happening is your copyright is being infringed upon. Either way, if you’ve had a photo used without permission then you’ll know how angry it can make you. How dare someone use and abuse something you’ve worked so hard to create! Plus, it’s just that little bit worse when someone splashes a terrible Instagram-esque filter over your treasured image, only to ruin the scene with increased saturation and contrast

[easy-tweet tweet=”Uploading a photo to the internet DOESN’T mean it’s in the public domain and anyone can use it.” user=”NatureTTL” usehashtags=”no” template=”light”]

I get a lot of questions from our readers about what can actually be done once someone has used one of your photos. It could be that a website has posted it alongside an article or blogpost to illustrate their content. Or, maybe a newspaper has published your photo having taken it from online. I’m not going to go into the depths of what copyright is in this article, but if you don’t fully understand it then you should read What Is Copyright?: Understanding Your Rights.

How to Find ‘Stolen’ Photos

The biggest challenge can be actually finding any unauthorised photo use. The world is a big place and there are so many areas to check. However, it is important not to become obsessive as the chances of your photo being used illegally are fairly slim – after all, there are a lot of photos out there for someone to choose from.

Luckily, it’s pretty easy to search the internet extensively. Google has a great tool: ‘Search by Image’. You can learn how to use it with this article, but it will allow you to upload a specific photo and have Google pull up all indexed websites using that image.

what to do when photos stolen?

Finding photos offline is much harder. You can’t be expected to search every advertising billboard, newspaper and magazine in the world. I tend to rely on word of mouth, knowing that friends and followers of my work often let me know if they see my photos anywhere. Sure I may miss some things, but that can’t be helped and is a fact of life now.

What to Do When Your Photos Are ‘Stolen’

It can be extremely frustrating to have your copyright infringed, and it can be very tempting to go in ‘all guns blazing’. Trust me, I’ve been there. But if you want to resolve the situation then it is important to stay professional and calm when dealing with the other party

There are a couple of outcomes you may want to aim for. Firstly, you can request the removal of the photo from a website and leave it at that. Or, you may want to get paid for the photo’s use and allow them to continue using it under a proper license. You could even go for payment and removal, but this is sometimes harder to achieve. But most importantly of all, you don’t want to end up in court. This is an expensive headache, although sometimes it is unavoidable so it should be your last port of call.

what to do if a photo is stolen
Ending the matter with a court case is a total headache. (Photo: Shutterstock.com)

Finding the Necessary Contact Details

If you’re dealing with a website, then you need to get hold of their contact details. Hopefully these will be on the website already. Have a look in the menu or in the page’s footer (the bottom of the page) for a ‘Contact Us’ link. Can’t find one? Then try Googling “Website Address” Contact Email – make sure to use the quotation marks too. If you’re still stuck, you can do a check on who owns the domain name. Head over to whois.com and type in the website address. It’ll spit out all of the details of who registered that website – unless they’ve paid to protect their information. If you’re lucky, you’ll now have their telephone number, email address and even registered address. Now you can make contact!

It’s worth noting that if the use is on a Tumblr blog or personal website, then you are very unlikely to get paid. People usually don’t understand copyright (although that is no excuse) and will bury their heads in the sand. In this case, it is really just worth ignoring or asking them to remove the photo. Expecting payment is rarely, if ever, successful.

If you’re dealing with a newspaper, then it is easy to find out the relevant con tact details. Head to their website or look in the paper itself, and find the details of either the editor or the picture desk.

Making Contact

Before you make a move, make sure you take screenshots or photos of the unauthorised use. This way you have the evidence should they take your photo down after you make contact. You can also view cached (old) versions of webpages with Google should the photo already be offline before you got a chance to record it.

You should also check that this is definitely copyright infringement you’re looking at. If you sell via an agency or stock website, then it’s quite possible the use is legitimate. Perhaps the website or publication forgot the credit line, so check with your agent before you claim copyright infringement.

Write them an email. You need to keep things as professional and show you mean business, but don’t appear aggressive in your manner. If you come across like you don’t know what you’re talking about, then you’re more likely to have no success and have your bluff called. After all, nobody will actively welcome an invoice for your photo, but at the same time they don’t want to get into legal difficulties. Introduce yourself as the photographer of the work, and include your screenshot/photo. Explain that they have infringed your copyright, which is illegal, and that you have attached an invoice which will allow them to continue using the photo and settle the matter.

how to get paid for stolen photos
An example email for making contact with the person or company in question.

Your invoice should amount to your usual fees for such usage, plus a margin for ‘damages’. The latter is optional though, and remember that the more you charge, the less likely it is you’ll get the matter settled quickly. You can realistically add a margin of anything up to 50%. If you don’t know what the standard usage fee should be, head over to Alamy.com and search for any Rights Managed image. Click the calculator, and plug in the details of the use in question – you’ll then be given an industry standard price you can quote.

I’d then follow up your email every week for a few months – and don’t be afraid of compromising on the amount you have charged if they come back to you with a counteroffer. If you don’t get any replies, try calling them. You need to show that you won’t give up, but at the same time don’t expect a reply instantly. Companies are often very busy, whether they are in the right or wrong.

Still nothing? Well, you can try calling them out on social media. Posting on your Facebook Page, or Twitter account, and tagging their company page will ensure they see it. You can be slightly more aggressive now, showing that you’ve been ignored and won’t stand for it. The support from others commenting and sharing your post will help your cause. Making an example out of them for photographers as a whole usually sparks some sort of response. Any picture desk or CEO in their right mind would want to settle the matter and do the right thing now.


If you’re still suffering from a brick wall and getting no response, then you really only have two choices: ignore it, or take proceedings further. In the UK, you can take someone to the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court (IPEC) for copyright infringement. There is information on how to do this on the UK government website. If you’re in another country, then I suggest you consult a lawyer for legal advice as that is totally beyond our remit at Nature TTL.

It’s worth saying that you should only pursue something in court if the use of your photo was drastic enough. For example, a large scale advertising campaign or someone actively making money from your image. You’ll probably find it cost you more than you’ll win if you’re pursuing a photo only being used on a website or in a newspaper.

In Conclusion

Have you had any problems with your photos being used without permission? Let us know your story in the comments below. Who used it? What was the outcome?

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There’s further reading around this topic for you on the Nature TTL website: “The Problem With Giving Your Photos Away for Free” and “What is Copyright?: Understanding Your Rights“.


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