Hey, that's mine !!
5 Jan 2011
A JPG member recently asked what they could do to prevent someone from stealing their work if they displayed it on the internet, like on JPG. I thought I'd reprint my answer here for general consideration:
I am a copyright lawyer in Canada. Of course, I'm not qualified to give legal advice on U.S. law, and this should not be taken as legal advice, only commentary.
I can say, generally, that artists - particularly photographers and musicians, who use the internet a lot - worry too much about people stealing their work. This could be a long discussion, but I'll try to keep it short.
What harm is done if someone steals your work? Primarily, you lose money because they should have paid you and didn't. For a court to value your losses, you'll have to show that you have a reasonable expectation of selling your work (maybe a history of sales?), and be able to prove that your work has a certain value in the marketplace. Some jurisdictions also have "statutory damages" whereby you don't have to prove actual financial loss, but the court calculates damages in accordance with what the statute says. Either way, if your work is valuable, and someone infringes your copyright, you can sue them. (In the U.S., you can only sue if you have registered your copyright.) Then probably, after spending tens of thousands of dollars on legal fees, you'll be awarded damages, feel vindicated against the miscreant infringer, and resent your lawyer for charging you that much.
In a more common scenario, artists are still developing their careers and have not yet earned significant amounts from sales/licensing/etc of their work. In such a case, the artist might want to consider the positive value in someone stealing their work. It isn't nice. It isn't fair. But it's a good sign that at least someone values it. If they stole it for their private use, the artist hasn't lost very much financially. If they stole it and sold it, then there is an opportunity to see how the sales went. If the thief made a lot of money from selling the infringed work then the work now has a demonstrable value, and the artist will probably be very successful in an infringement action (lawsuit). If the thief stole it, tried to sell it, and couldn't - then the artist might want to take a hard look at how much damage has really been done. Probably got some free advertising in the process.
In short, litigation can be very expensive, especially in the U.S. It is also unpredictable, even if you think you're completely right. If someone infringes your work, and it is valuable, you can always sue (if it's a financially reasonable gamble to do so). The only way to guarantee that your work won't be infringed is to not display it in a place and in a way that it can be copied. But that might mean depriving yourself of the publicity, etc that displaying it, say, on the internet, would afford. Warning people about the law is pretty much useless. Warnings don't frighten off thieves. They do often annoy the innocent, who just want to look at the work and not read a bunch of threatening legal stuff or squint past a big honkin' watermark.
So I recommend not putting anything extremely valuable where someone can steal it. And don't worry too much about what happens to the work that you do display on the internet, because a "thief" might well be doing you as much good as harm.
Just my thoughts. You should always consult an experienced copyright lawyer if you have a business where copyrighted works are a significant asset.
Oh, and these pictures? They have no connection whatsoever with the words you've just read. They're just here. Available for you to look at and enjoy. And it's the internet, after all, right? So steal them. Go ahead. Make my day.