Yunghi Kim: Protecting Our Images

By Yunghi Kim

DURHAM, NC (June 3, 2013) – I’m going public with this to share my experience in pursuing unauthorized use of my images. I believe my experience can be helpful to my fellow photographers. 

A few months ago, I happened to do a Reverse Google Image Search on some of my work and was shocked to find several of my images had gone viral. There were 10 search pages on one image alone. Some of my photographs were even in music videos posted on YouTube. (I was pleasantly surprised when the reverse image search found these images.)

One of these stolen images, if it was properly licensed, would have brought in about $14,000 worth of fees.

Most of the photographs stolen from me are unique images with historical content. Many have won awards, like my work from the War in Kosevo, refugees in Rwanda, and the Comfort Women of Korea. One image was published on a single Internet site (my own), and was clearly watermarked.  It was copied, the watermark was removed, and it is now viral. You can see it on numerous different sites. I tried to limit the damage by posting several DMCA Takedown Notices. This was a great learning experience, but also a losing battle. Once an image goes viral, it’s impossible to stop. Not only does it consume a lot of time, but it is also frustrating. The longer it went on, the more upset I became. Most of the unauthorized use was on overseas sites. 

One of the advantages of working as a photojournalist for 30 years is that I have many friends in different countries. Using my personal connections along with agency connections I been able to find lawyers in other countries who know about recovering fees for unauthorized usage.

After getting a rough idea of how the copyright laws work in different countries, there are two rules I always follow before going after image thieves. Europe and the United States have stronger protection laws than other parts of the world.  First, I only take action if a local lawyer thinks I have a strong case. Second, as local laws vary, I make sure the legal fees are coverable from the infringer.

There are also commercial services you can use like ImageRights, ICSC, and others. These businesses were created to recover fees in the expanding field of unauthorized use.  I haven’t used them myself. I’m going to stick with using individual lawyers for now. I may use them in future. (The PDN archive has stories on companies that recoup fees for photographers.) 

I’ve found that defensive measures like watermarking do help in deterring theft, but it’s not foolproof. There are plenty of thieves who will still copy and publish a watermarked image. Some will remove the watermark whereas others don’t even bother. Legally, the watermark helps to establish ownership and makes it easier to pursue fees.

There are risks in my methods. If the accused doesn’t settle, I could potentially be stuck with legal fees (although this hasn’t happened yet). One advantage to pursuing these claims in Europe is that the legal fees are less than they are here in the States. I figure if I’m successful 75 percent of the time I’m still ahead of the game. Also, to limit my exposure, I only go after one offender at a time and settle that case before moving on to the next.

Another advantage to using a lawyer is it gets the guilty party’s attention. I’ve gone both routes (with and without a lawyer). The recouped fees tend to be lower and the hassle higher when I’ve done it alone.

Your images have value. That value comes in part from how much you have been previously paid to license your images. Think twice before you settle for pennies from legitimate outlets. Future settlements can be based on past settlements AND previous sales (especially if you go to trial).

Remember, infringers don’t set the price of your work. You do! My settlements range from 1,000 to 3,000 euros plus legal fees for a single unlicensed image used for editorial purposes.

When I do a reverse image search,  I bookmark the results. I take screen grabs of every offense. Everything gets saved to my copyright infringement folder and every few months I check it. 

In the United States I try to register all of my images with the U.S. Copyright Office before publishing them. It’s fairly easy to register a batch of unpublished images. It took me awhile to figure out how to do it online, but now that I have my system in place it has become a habit. There is an ASMP Tutorial online here.

As a photographer, this is the modern landscape we’re working in now. For me, trying to recoup fees and protect my images was like trying to solve a riddle in a foreign tongue. It was difficult but not impossible. All of us need to spend a few hours each month working to create a system for protecting our images. Photo District News has reported that only one in eight published image is properly licensed on the Internet. This problem is multiplied when you realize many of those images will be stolen again and again. 

Everything is getting published on the Internet and it’s the future. There’s no getting around that. Yet legitimate publishers and everyone else thinks this content should be free, or at the very least cheap. Then once it’s out there everyone else, including sites selling advertising thinks it’s theirs for the taking.

We need to map out a strategy for properly licensing our images regardless of who is publishing them. We can no longer afford to simply accept the rampant unauthorized use of our work. Photojournalism, photography, journalism isn’t dead; it’s just an easy mark. If it wasn’t popular, if people didn’t want to see it, it wouldn’t be stolen.

As it stands today, it’s like someone has tapped into the coffeemaker at Starbucks and is standing outside selling lattes for a dollar. The thief doesn’t make the coffee, doesn’t pay for the beans, has no rent or employees to pay. People love coffee and people love a good deal. With no overhead the thief doesn’t care how much he sells the coffee for. It’s all profit.

This is what we’re dealing with as an industry and for the most part our response has been to do nothing. We have copyright laws. They apply to the Internet. So I’m going to use them. Unless there’s a financial penalty, unless infringers are constantly bombarded with takedown notices and lawsuits, they’ll continue to steal from us.

I don't care about the millions of other images uploaded everyday. What I do care about my images and all the hard work that went into making them. I'm going to do what I can to protect them, and when they're misappropriated I'll try my best to recoup the lost fees. That's the value I put on my work.

A contact list of Internet Service Providers (ISP) for sending DMCA Take Down Notices is online here, and also here from the U.S. Copyright Office.

A big thanks to Ken Jarecke for helping me with this. 


Yunghi Kim has covered biggest global stories of the past 30 years. She is a recipient of two Overseas Press Club Awards, numerous World Press Photo Awards and Poyi Awards, Poyi Magazine Photographer Of The Year, and was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize. She’s a special contributor to Contact Press Images. Follow her on Twitter, @yunghi