The joys and perils of going viral

Picture: Elk in river during wildfire, Bitterroot National Forest in Montana; credit: John McColgan / Alaska Fire Service

Elk fire river photo

Several times in the last few weeks, I’ve watched as photos have gone ‘viral’. In the Internet age, that means that photos receive immediate and widespread recognition and distribution on web sites across the globe. If you’re a photographer whose photo happens to go viral, the joyous side of the equation is that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people may see your image. The one thing that always scares me about the viral nature of such instances is how we as photographers risk loosing complete control over how our images are used, where they might appear, or that they may even be turned into some other derivative type of artwork with absolutely no credit, attribution, or any other means of tracing the original image back to it’s origin or creator.

Viral means Exposure. If you’re an amateur photographer, and never thought to make money from your photos, it must be an awesome sense of pride to be able to strut your wings and say, “I took that.” However, if you’re a professional photographer, the exposure and any potential profit from an image going viral must be weighed against the risk of lost profits due to uncounted unauthorized or derivative uses. (Derivative means someone who either transforms or uses a portion of your art, and incorporates it into their art.)

Let’s look at a few examples, starting first with the above image, one that I’m sure everyone has seen before. It turns out that this image is in the Public Domain, having been taken while an employee of a US government agency, John McColgan of the Alaska Fire Service, was working in the course of his normal job activity. As they said in old newsprint parlance, “Read all about it!” As a Public Domain image, anyone can use this image (with proper credit) whether it’s for a blog post, poster, puzzle, calendar, greeting card, packaging, or even a full scale national ad campaign, any of which can result in thousands of dollars worth of sales to the end user, – except perhaps the blog post. 🙂

Of the two recent examples of going viral, the first would be considered as “mildy viral”, meaning pretty active, but not quite the global millions of views. A photographer I know recently posted an image on Flickr. At somepoint, someone posted a link to a large version of his image on one of the social bookmarking sites, The next thing you know, he claimed he was getting a 1000 views a minute. I’m a fairly natural skeptic, so my first thought was, “Now this I want to see.” And sure enough, by refreshing his flickr page, I could see the views climbing by nearly 1000 views a minute.

On seeing this, the first thought is about what great exposure to be getting this kind of response to one of your photos; like a fine feather in your cap. On the flip side, the photographer had no watermark on his image, and only his name as the sole bit of metadata. Also, in looking over the comments, I was struck by comments that basically said, “Nice, but can we have a Hi Res version.” It seemed obvious that these people had clearly more use in mind than simply looking at the image on their computer screen, or leaving it in the original context. I was left to wonder how many people were there that didn’t ask, but simply took what was available to them under the guise of “If it’s on the Internet, It’s Free.”

We also know that many programs and web photo sites strip metadata, so without a watermark, there is virtually no way for someone to track back whose image that is once someone lifts it off wherever, reposts it elsewhere, or sticks it in an email and sends it off to two hundred of his/her closest friends. (And they send it again to two hundred of their closest friends, etc..) From a professional photographer stand point, this represents a huge potential loss of control regarding how or where your image is used. And with the impending Orphan Works Legislation, it’s even more important than ever to have your source of origin easily identified.

The last example was posted originally on the NGS Your Shot webpage, of a vacationing couple who happened to catch a case of squirrellus interuptus. (Aug. Week 1; image #9) Whammo! It goes Viral. Now there is a website where you can add this exact squirrel to any one of your photos. That’s a clear case of derivative artwork creation, and technically requires the photographers permission. Do you think they have that? Did the creators want to keep the value of the photograph for themselves, or do you think tht they knowingly released it under a Creative Commons License? Do you even think they had a clue about any of this when they first uploaded the photo?

I know that on the NGS Site, by uploading content, you are giving the National Geographic a Worldwide Royalty Free License. (“Free”, as in they don’t even have to pay you, free.) What would be the value for that kind of license for NGS, or even of use on the Squirrelizer site? For the latter, if you’re thinking of saying it doesn’t really matter because the squirrel represents such a small portion of the overall photograph, you’d be falling pray to one of the more common copyright myths. Technically, it’s the importance of an element that counts more than the percentage used that a court will consider if they have to determine damages for unauthorized use. For others, see also: 10 Myths about Copyright.

Picture: Worlds most scenic squirrel shower, near Mount Shasta, California

Opps, did I just violate a copyright? Oddly enough, on the Squirrelizer page you can read the following: “Disclaimer: the website owner takes no responsibility for the content of images processed by this website. Known images of obscene or copyright infringing content will be removed immediately. Please report any such images to the email address above.” I’m almost willing to bet that the squirrel itself is copyright infringing content.

So my question to those that read this far: How do you feel? Would you like to see your photo go viral and have gosh knows how many people posting wherever or doing whatever they want with your image, or would you rather it not go viral and maintain better control? For me: I wouldn’t mind if an image went Viral, but only as long as the image was featured with a prominent watermark; i.e. let’em know who I am and how to find me. And since you can’t count 100% on metadata or credit lines, the watermark is really the best insurance of being found if you get caught up in the virus world. Agree? Disagree? I welcome your opinions.

Comment on this post:
Copyright info for using or linking to the pictures.

19 Comments on “The joys and perils of going viral”

  1. Bec Thomas Says:

    I can’t say it enough! Never up load large files to the net, I keep the majority of mine now days at 500×375, and always watermark; I prefer to do it right across the image center. That way if your image does go viral in the least people may actually know who the photographer behind it is (which if rare on viral images). I have found though that if you take proper anti-theft measures on a uploaded photo your chances of going viral go way down because the image is less appealing to use for “free, cough be stolen”.

  2. Stephanie Martin Says:

    1000 people see my photo versus 1. 1000 people claim my work as their own and not give me credit for my work?

    A photo is the product of the photographer’s talent/craft/gift/work. It belongs to the photographer. Protect and identify your work. If it is misused/abused there may not be much that can be done about such a violation. But is it okay for someone to take your car without permission, joyride around in it? Okay for you to build a skyscraper and let someone else claim credit? A photo is the same to me.

    I detest people taking something others have spent their life perfecting and claiming it as their own. I came across a blogger that was taking articles others had written and was passing them off as her own. I was disgusted, it was STEALING! Needless, to say, I called her out on it, providing proof of what she was doing and it stopped (as far as I can tell).

    Bottom line? I suppose you protect and identify what is yours and hope for the best in this internet saturated world.

  3. G Dan Mitchell Says:

    I enjoyed the article, but I especially enjoyed this line: “Nice, but can we have a Hi Res version.” Except that this request is usually delivered in a more, uh, aggressive and demanding manner – often with some note of anger or derision that we would not provide a full native resolution version… and please no watermark or other ID! 🙂

    While there is probably no way to completely protect your photographs from misuse, any photographer who wants to retain some semblance of control over his/her images should never post large, high-quality versions of photographs and should always include some embedded graphic (watermark or, at a minimum, copyright claim) in the image itself along with metadata.


  4. Mike Says:

    In all honesty I wouldn’t mind one of my images to go viral. Maybe not one of my best ones (though I’m sure it’d have to be to do so), but given my current level of exposure I think it would be beneficial in the long run because there would be a certain amount of people that would certainly trace it back to my website. I believe there are people out there that are interested in the source than just taking it because it’s there. I’m not saying 100% of people are like that, but the ones that count are. However for this reason, anything I upload onto Flickr, Picasa, etc is a) a very compressed jpg, b) always lo-res, c) always have a copyright, and d) minimal processing, ie, I’ll still leave sensor dust in. So in this case, sensor dust acts as an anti-theft tool 🙂

    The way I see it, it’s the internet and it’s not going to change. You can either find ways to embrace it or spend more work than its worth fighting it. As others said, sticking to uploading lo-res files is a good first step.

  5. Mike Says:

    …forgot to add:

    Besides, if you do see your image on another website or used commercially, just send them the bill along with any legal notices that would make sure they knew that it was law that they had to pay.

  6. Youssef Ismail Says:


    I think I would rather an image of mine not go viral as I doubt much ever comes from that monetarily anyway. I mean it might be kind of cool to have an image become that famous but if it gets rippied off and you never get credit or benefit from it then what is the point. Every image I put out on the internet has a watermark of some sort. The larger the image the more prominent the watermark is.

  7. Patrick Smith Says:

    I’m glad you didn’t name the photographer in order to protect the innocent… or would that be ‘the guilty!’ lol.. I will say in my defense that it was an older upload before I filled in the metadata the way I do now.

    I have mixed feelings still. As for Bec’s comments above, if I were to upload a small image and put a big watermark on it, it would not have gone viral as Bec mentioned. Yes, nobody wants to look at a big ugly watermark and nobody will even know if it is a good shot because they will not get past the watermark. I have heard again and again from the so called experts at this year’s NANPA conference, that if an agency wishes to copy some work off of your website and pass it around, they will bypass images with big watermarks. Bec’s watermarks are small enough to not take away much, which is good. But I’ll still upload big photos and take the chance. So far my ‘big photo’ strategy has worked because almost every image I’ve uploaded to Flickr is in the top page or two of the big search tags like ‘california’, ‘hawaii’, ‘landscape’, ‘travel’ etc. They would not be there if they were small and watermarked. Does all that free search advertising usurp the loss via theft? It seems like it but I can not be sure.

    And one surprising thing is that I now have 300,000 witnesses that tell me whenever they see a shot of mine someplace that looks fishy. And they do tell me.

    This ‘protect yourself’ thing is not a black or white issue. There is a bell-shaped curve somewhere in this. Sure, no protection can lead to a rip-off. But too much protection can hurt you more than someone ripping you off because you will never sell as much of your your work as you would have. Also, I’ve seen some very average pictures with big watermarks and I have to wonder ‘why bother?’ Do they really think their precious image is SO valuable that they have to do that? In this era of the photo commoditization and microstock, most images are close to worthless anyway.

    I do make sure now that every image on my website has full metadata. Sure, it can be stripped but most thieves to not bother.

    Still, I’m not sure how long I will continue uploading the big images. It will depend on how badly I’m stung. And I would consider a simple sting to be the cost of doing business. It would have to be a big sting!


  8. QT Luong Says:

    In any use at reduced rates (eg editorial), and that of course include free “viral” distribution, the photographer should be given credit. Watermarks are the only practical way to ensure that.

  9. QT Luong Says:

    > So far my ‘big photo’ strategy has worked because almost every image I’ve uploaded to Flickr is in the top page or two of the big search tags like ‘california’, ‘hawaii’, ‘landscape’, ‘travel’ etc. They would not be there if they were small and watermarked.

    May I suggest that this has more to do with the quality of the photography ? I may be wrong, but I don’t think a discrete watermark (like the borders I am using) would change anything.

    > most images are close to worthless anyway.

    Could be, but it’s certainly not a good starting point to consider one’s own images to be worthless.

    > It will depend on how badly I’m stung.

    You will never find out the extent to which people use your images without proper credit and/or payment, however studies have shown that a huge proportion of image uses are unlicensed.


  10. Garry Black Says:

    Not that any of my photos have ever gone viral, but there are a few of them that are out there floating around on the web more than I would like them to be. I recently wrote a blog article about this The majority of them are on personal web sites/blogs. One way to track usage of your photos on the internet is through Tin Eye Reverse Image Search.

    I got a kick out of people wanting a high Res version. This happened to one of my photos that was used as an album cover, I got a lot of requests but no sales.

  11. Mark Says:

    I am a believer in watermarks as well. In a way, I think it can also serve as a sort of brand identification – especially with logos. If people don’t recognize the style of the photography, the watermark makes it a little easier for them.

  12. Richard Wong Says:

    My goal is to go viral to some degree on everything I submit to the social networking sites, otherwise what is the point? If everything is watermarked to some degree then we’ve done all we could do.

  13. G Dan Mitchell Says:

    +1 on Mark’s comment about branding. To be honest, I think we may hope for a variety of results from including copyright and other information (in the form of watermarks and metadata) in photographs that we “release into the wild.” They might include:

    – Decrease the number of illegal uses since those with a conscious might have to make the overt effort to cover up or remove the ID info. Quite a few people would not go to those lengths, either because they recognize the ethical/legal issue or because it is too much trouble. (Especially when plenty of others put their photos out their without watermarks, etc.)

    – Decrease in the number of illegal uses since those who might use the image will either be doing so blatantly (if they don’t remove the watermark, metadata, etc.) or would have to go to a fair amount of trouble to remove the ID info. (Yes, the latter has happened to me – border removed, embedded copyright clipped out, etc. )

    – making the intent of the illegal use pretty obvious if one ends up following up on it. It is hard for someone to say “I didn’t know it was not open-source” when someone clearly had to go to some lengths to remove the data that proved otherwise.

    – In cases that you might not know about – e.g. someone emails a copy of the photo or it is on a site that doesn’t show up via Google or something like TinEye – you might take some solace in at least imagining that your “branding” could create some awareness of you and perhaps even send someone else to your site. (No, I don’t think that this is all that likely – more in the “winning the lottery” category… but even photographers engage in justification from time to time.

    I do think that it is clearly valuable to have your photography out there on the net where it can be seen. Ideally the photos will be part of a presence that also includes your “voice” via a blog or other types of posting – which can make your online identity more than a watermark. I think that the best ways to do this are those where you have a degree of control: perhaps Flickr, your own blog, and so forth.

    Finally, if someone else wants to give away full sized high resolution versions of their photographs on the web, while I personally think that is a poor idea I think that they and we have an equal right to disseminate our work in whatever way _we_ believe to be best and most appropriate.

    Thanks for the topic and for _your_ online presence and photography, Gary!


  14. Phil Says:

    I would prefer that my images go viral among photo buyers. Lots of views by the public is not going to result in any decent sales checks arriving in my mailbox except in some very indirect way (inbound web links being an example).

    +1 on QT’s comments: putting high res on the web might result in lots of views and good vibes but it also means you lose control of the images. Suppose a company wanted an exclusive use of an image for an ad campaign. Upon finding out that that image had been available in high res form on Flickr for a while, my guess is the company would keep looking elsewhere knowing that exclusivity was essentially impossible for that image.

    >> In this era of the photo commoditization and microstock,
    >> most images are close to worthless anyway

    A fast way to ensure images become worthless is to lose control over them by making them freely available in high res form. If one establishes a name for oneself as someone who gives work away for free (or makes it easily available for theft), its tough to recover from that in the future and charge decent licensing rates.

  15. Patrick Smith Says:

    I see all of your points about losing control etc. But what exactly is a ‘hi-res’ image? People say my 1200 pixel images are hi-res, but in reality you could only use them on a web page. At 300dpi, it would only be a 4 inch wide print! True, you could lose an exclusive deal but that could also happen on a 500 pixel watermarked image, though less frequently I would imagine.

    What we are discussing are matters of degree. The instant you upload anything to the web, it is loose! Self protection via watermark and size is only marginally effective as far as I can tell. And I do include all metadata now.

    I do not believe that I’m giving my work away for free. If you compared my 30×45 prints to my small web uploads, you’d know what I mean.


  16. Bec Thomas Says:

    Just to stir the pot here Patrick but a 1200 p image can easily be printed and sold as greeting cards, bookmarks and other comsummer end products that show up in tons of giftshop and tourist shops..

  17. Patrick Smith Says:

    True Bec,

    You can make cards of marginal quality, but I it takes a lot of effot to get your cards into a giftshop, which is usually highly competitive. The thief would have to spend a lot of time and energy and then you don’t make much money. If it is through a big-time dealer, I will see it and sue them. Also, I am really visible now, and I have lots of people who would notice and realize that I am not the one selling it.

    Yes, there are downsides but the upside seems to be much bigger in favor of no or very small watermarks. I used to have watermarks on all my pics but I took them off and inserted lots of metadata.

    more later…


  18. Jim Goldstein Says:

    Great write up Gary!
    I’m all for watermarks. Watermark + Viral = OK

    Interestingly enough you’ll find Wired’s take on watermarks of interest:
    “The watermark is either the sign of a newbie who doesn’t know any better or insecure photographers who simultaneously thinks their photos are better than they are and that everyone is out to steal them.”

    10 Photography Pet Peeves We’d Throw Down a Black Hole

  19. Harry, Says:

    All comments above make much sense. i usually upload 800-1000px images only, but realize that they can be used for greeting cards etc.
    I know of a writer that gives his books away as PDF’s, as he thinks that people will buy real copies for their friends. That works for him, but the difference is that in this case the author/owner can be traced, which does not happen if there if the exif and/or watermarks have been stripped…

    I have had to tell many websites to stop ‘using’ my images. Sometimes they do, sometimes it results in barter (free hotel rooms :))

    I still have some websites that I need to summon, including a professional site that has been using 2 images as their log and frontpage for a few years now (thanks Tineye &!). Does anybody know of a good no-cure no pay copyright lawyer that can take this on?

    Real story: one time US Men’s Health sent me a message with PDF of an
    upcoming article, about Everest, requesting me to promote the issue on my website. Imagine my surprise when I found one of my images in the article! Uncredited and unpaid. It was only printen 1×1″, but still the had no choice but to send me a $500 check when I confronted them with it.
    I would never have known if they hadn’t sent the article (I am based in Amsterdam and rarely check paper magazines).

    Thanks, Cheers, Harry

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