How to track down pirated copies of your photos and artwork

Learn how to use reverse image search to find illegal copies of your images on the web.

By Donald Ritchie

In my article on dealing with copyright infringements of your web page or blog, I suggested you use a "plagiarism checker", such as Copyscape, to track down illegal copies of your work. But that kind of tool only works with text. What if people are ripping off, not the words, but the pictures that adorn your site? How can you locate pirated copies of your photos, artwork or other images?

In fact, there's an easy way of doing that, thanks to a Google tool known as "reverse image search". In short, you show it a picture, and it searches the web for sites that contain identical - or near-identical - copies.

How to use it

To use this handy tool, first go to Google's usual image search page (for example, by clicking on Images in the bar at the top of Google's main page). Then click on the camera icon at the right-hand end of the search box (see Figure 1).

Google camera icon

Figure 1: Click the camera to launch the reverse image search.

This will open the box shown in Figure 2. Type the URL of the image that you wish to check. If you're not sure what the URL is, navigate to the page on your site that contains the image, right-click on the image itself, and select "Copy Image Location" or something similar (the exact words will depend on which browser you're using). Then go ahead and paste that into the search box.

Box where you enter the URL

Figure 2: Type or paste the URL here.

Alternatively, open your web page in a new browser window, then simply drag the picture into the search box. If the image is on your hard drive, click "Upload an image", then click the Browse button to locate it.

Search results

When you hit the Search button, Google will show a page of search results, like the one in Figure 3. Amongst other things, this will usually include a section labeled "Pages that contain matching images". These are the pages that you need to review for possible copyright infringement.

Results page

Figure 3: The results appear on a page like this.

The matching images might include pictures where the image is identical, but its size, resolution or color depth has been changed. These too are potentially pirated copies.

The search results might also include a section labeled "Visually similar images". As its name suggests, this shows pictures of what Google believes to be the same subject as the one you're checking, but not necessarily the identical image. Be sure to review these images as well, as they might include copies of the original picture that have been cropped or subjected to minor edits.

Other tools

Google's reverse image search isn't the only tool for this particular task. Another one to consider is TinEye. This works in a similar way, but its results page is sparser. It shows identical copies of the image, including those that have been cropped, rotated, resized or slightly edited. But it doesn't show different pictures of the same subject (which is probably what you want).

TinEye is also available as plug-ins for the leading browsers. These make it easier to launch a reverse image search: you simply right-click on the image and choose an option from the resulting menu.

Whichever tool you use, you can deal with the pirated copies in the same way as with any other case of copyright theft. The techniques that I described in my earlier article work just as well for pictures as for text.

Of course, you need to be sure that the picture in question really is an illicit copy. If the original image is subject to an open license, such as the GNU General Public License, then you cannot claim copyright in it. The same is true if someone happens to take a photo of exactly the same subject as your image, even if it's from same angle and in similar lighting conditions.

But where your pictures really are being illegally copied - and where you are suffering genuine loss as a result - you should certainly consider taking action. In those cases, the tools I've described here will be a great help in tracking the offending copies down.

October 2012

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