How to Protect Images of Your Artwork From Being Stolen Online

Published Feb. 18th 2011


“How do I protect my artwork from being copied from my website?”

If you have a portfolio website to display your art, or post images of your artwork on your blog, or elsewhere online, I bet you’ve wondered this question yourself.

It’s hands-down the most common questions I answer here at EmptyEasel, and for good reason. . . as artists, we have to protect our art, whether it’s online or hanging on a gallery wall.

Unfortunately, I have bad news.

And it may go against everything you’ve been told. So please keep an open mind and hear me out. Ready?

Once you put an image online, there’s nothing you can do to prevent it from being downloaded, copied, and stolen.

Truly.

Images are just digital bits and bytes. When you load a website in your browser, your computer is “downloading” everything on that page. Even the images. And yes, once your artwork images have been loaded in a browser, they can always be copied and saved to the viewer’s computer.

Here are three things that people TRY to do to keep their artwork safe:

1. Disable right-clicking on images

Many art website providers will tell you that disabling the right-click option stops image thieves, because then the thief can’t right-click and select “Save Image.”

This simply isn’t true.

There’s a key on your keyboard (every keyboard, actually) which is marked “prt scr” or sometimes “print screen.” It’s one of the extra keys, usually found up by the F keys, or above the number pad.

The purpose of this key, as you might guess, is to copy everything visible on the computer screen, including images. Once you press that key, you can “paste” an image of the screen right into your favorite image editing program.

Honestly, I’d say it’s a bit quicker than using the right-click “Save As” method.

2. Place a watermark over images

While a watermark may make it harder for an image thief to re-sell your artwork, it won’t stop them entirely. Anyone with Photoshop and a little patience can remove a watermark from a photo.

The larger the watermark, the harder it may be. . . but of course, the larger the watermark, the more it obscures and distorts your image.

Perhaps there’s a middle ground that will work for you (something not too large, but not too small) but in my opinion, using a watermark is just throwing the baby out with the bathwater—it partially ruins your artwork in an attempt to protect it.

3. Add aggressive copyright warnings below images

I’m seeing this fairly often, even though it really doesn’t PHYSICALLY stop anyone from copying your images.

It might deter a half-hearted thief, or someone who doesn’t realize that taking your artwork is wrong, but other than that it doesn’t offer much protection.

(NOTE: I DO recommend adding a copyright notice at the bottom of each page of your website, since that will help in court if legal action becomes necessary.)

So what’s the solution for image theft online?

Well, here’s what we do at Foliotwist (the art website hosting service I run). And as far as I know, it’s the only real solution:

Whenever one of our artists uploads an image, our system automatically resizes it to no more than 600 pixels by 600 pixels, at a resolutions of 72 pixels per inch. This is not large, by any standard. But on the screen it’s a decent size, and certainly large enough to view comfortably.

Now, what this means is if someone copies or downloads one of these images, the best quality picture they’ll be able to print is a 72 dpi image at about 8 by 8 inches.

Just to give you some reference points, a regular black and white newspaper will use a resolution of about 150 dpi (and you know the quality of that). A glossy magazine will typically print at 225 dpi or more, and a fine art print will almost always require 300 dpi before going to print.

With a low resolution of 72 dpi, a high school student could print one of these images and use it in a school report, a potential buyer could email the image to his wife to see what she thinks about it. A fan could even share the image on Facebook.

But if anyone tries to print one of these images at a decent quality (225 dpi or better) they would HAVE to reduce the overall height and width of the image to about 2 and 1/2 inches (smaller images equate to higher dpi).

Obviously no one would be able to profit off an image that small, which is why we believe that it’s the best possible deterrent for would-be art thieves.

And honestly, I don’t think the REAL problem is that someone is copying an image. The question is, what’s their intent? Do they plan on printing it? Selling it? Claiming it as their own?

By using a small to medium size image (I would recommend no larger than 600 pixels by 600 pixels) you can avoid the most serious problem—which is someone printing and selling your work.

Now, I understand that you may want to show larger images of your artwork online. That’s fine, if it’s what you choose to do. It just comes with increased risk.

Or, you may want to use a watermark. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, despite my personal opinions about them.

But if you choose to do ONE thing today to protect your images, I hope you choose to keep them small. Re-size them in Photoshop, or any image editor, and upload those smaller versions to the web. No one will want to steal them.

(And you can always keep the high-res copies for yourself.)

I hope this information helps, folks. . . stay safe out there, and above all, don’t be afraid to put your art online. Just be smart about it. :)

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