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Orphan works and what it means to you

Like other serious photographers I tend to browse through a variety of photography blogs and sites. I am also an active member of social sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and a few others with photography sub-groups. Not only are these sites a great way to learn they are also a great way to stay in touch with and share ideas about the business of photography.

For some time there have been discussions (and scares) about what is termed orphan work and how it impacts photographers who use the internet as a marketing and networking tool to showcase their images. The most recent scare was when Instagram declared they would have rights to images posted on their web site by default. Meaning the could do what ever they wanted with your images. The mad rush to removeimages and resign from Instagram caused them to rethink their policy very quickly. However, the current ruling on orphan work as set forth by the copyright office is still one that all photographers need to be aware of.

If you are unaware of what the current copyright laws are or the definition of orphan works I suggest you take a few minutes to read this article dated September of 2008 to get a brief idea; "The Importance of Orphan Works Legislation". As you can see, this issue has been around for a very long time. Here are the Cliff Notes; Orphan works are images that are posted, re-posted, shared and tagged from site to site that after a while it becomes difficult to determine who the rightful owner is. If someone wanted to use that image commercially but the owner could not be determined after a diligent search the image is deemed orphaned and therefore free game for use.

In one respect I can understand the need for such a law and, when you research the why, you can sympathize for the ruling. On the other hand, it opens photographers up to theft with nothing short of a "mea culpa" defense.

Unfortunately current image technology has no real fail safe way of branding or encoding author information. That should not preclude you for becoming lazy about your image processing duties though. Here are three simple steps can be used to deter image theft for commercial gains.
  1. Embed your contact information into the image file's meta data. This is part of the image's EXIF information and most major editing software allows you to modify this data. Some even allow you to do this as an action or script and can even do it automatically on import into your image catalog. Take advantage and embed your name, web site, phone number or other contact information into the meta data.
    Keep in mind that this data is just as easily removed as it was to add. Some social sites even strip this information out to reduce file size on their servers and they don't need your permission to do so.
  2. Watermark your images effectively. A watermark is a visual signature you place onto your image that brands you as the owner. If you own a photography business you would watermark it with your studio name. If you are a hobbyist, you would include a watermark like this (c)2013 Your Name. This will at least give a small clue as to who owns the image.
    Be careful where and how you place your watermark. You want people to be able to enjoy your images without having a big COPYRIGHT shooting diagonally across the image. You also don't want to squeeze it into the corner where a simple crop will remove it. Most watermarking software allow you to add a transparency to the watermark. This lets the viewer see the image but makes it hard to edit the watermark out.
  3. Scale your images down. Effective screen resolutions make for lousy prints. At 600 pixel wide a photo will look nice on your laptop but would only print at 4" on paper. Not very useable for commercial printing. Sharing a full resolution image on the web has no advantage if all it's going to do is be displayed on a computer screen.
    With the popularity of larger and higher definition monitors the 600 pixel size is becoming obsolete. Small smart phones and tablets will benefit from the small image sizes but, other than that, if you want your work noticed bigger image sizes are being requested. Some image sharing sites like 500px and PhotoShelter and others offer various levels of protection such as image overlays, flash embedding and other disabling tools but they are not failsafe.

The first line of defense is with you, the photographer, and you need to understand the current state of affairs. In the end, if someone wants to take your photo, turn it into a stupid 'meme' or 'demotivational' and post it on Facebook there is nothing you can really do. Think of it as flattering and learn to move on. But if someone wants to use it illegally for profit without consent or recompense, having some form of deterrence goes a long way.


  1. Good article Duck! To support your points, watermarking can be easily done in Lightroom from the Print section and should never be ommitted when pushing an image out to the Web. Keep in mind that the EXIF info can be easily removed by anyone who has access to the image file itself, but should always be provided without fail when you publish your images to the Web. Again, the EXIF is easily managed with Lightroom. Use care that GPS location info doesn't ride on the EXIF if the image was taken in the vicinity of your personal residence (a common problem with smartphone photos). A protection step I would like to add is to avoid publishing to the Web any image that is so high of quality that you might be able to license it one day. Publish an alternative image or a heavily watermarked version of that image. We are in a catch-22 situation where if we never show our work, no one knows what we can do, yet if we show our work our work can be stolen. Best to use discreation and not blindly push our work to the Web. Also, use care that your image is not "rebranded" as creative commons by the service you use to publish your images.


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