Monday, April 1, 2013

Milky Way Photo Theft

The Jackson Lake original on the left and the "Lake Titicaca" impostor on the right ~ © James Neeley 2010
When does Wyoming become Peru, or how does Jackson Lake become Lake Titicaca? James Neeley isn't sure, but "I hope some poor soul doesn't travel to Lake Titicaca and expect to see that view!" This was his recent comment after discovering the Internet theft and transformation of one of his Milky Way landscape photos. (The photo on the right is incorrectly labeled as "Milky Way over Lake Titicaca, Peru"—as are hundreds of other versions similar to it.)

The "original" original
James had originally taken this photo on July 16, 2010 at Jackson Lake, in Grand Teton National Park with his Nikon D3S and a 14mm lens. It's original title on his Flickr photostream was, "Onward and Upward". A few days later, he decided to go "... for an 'off world' look by orienting the image with the plane of the magnificent Milky Way galaxy rather than our humble planet..." He flipped the image on it's side and curved the horizon with the warp tool in Photoshop. He posted this new version on his Flickr photostream as "Children of the Stars".

Mr. Neeley figures someone must have swiped his image, rotated it, and retouched out the watermark. What was the purpose of the theft? James doesn't know, but the oldest version that your editor can find has a post date of January 17, 2012. If one does a Google search on the exact title of this page, "Milky Way over Lake Titicaca Peru", there are over 132,000 web pages with this phrase—and a random spot check shows that virtually all of them carry a version of James' stolen image! (A reverse Google Images search of the stolen image shows over 240 versions on the web.)

Why do they do it? Why do people post images on social media sites such as Pinterest, Google+, and Facebock that are not theirs? With many it seems to be a game to see who can get the most views, comments, and unearned accolades—even though this is a form of theft by deception.

What can be done? Although one can use copyright law to sue for damages, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to shut down the offending websites, this can be an arduous task, much like trying to find and recapture a bag of windblown feathers. In this case, the stolen versions are thousands of times more popular on the Internet than the original, and virtually all of them without credit or links to the real author. Even when source links are occasionally given, they usually lead to a another theft or more miss-information. All of this clutters the search engines and makes it harder for the original photographer and his photograph to be found. (In fact, if you do a reverse search now, using James' most original image, only the theft versions appear in all but last pages of the search results!)

Beating them to the punch: One of the sites on the Internet most responsible for the sharing and proliferation of images is Reddit. Many people find their images first on Reddit that they share on the social media sites. A stolen version of James' image was recently shared in the 'pics' section of Reddit and received over 2400 positive votes and over 360 comments.

An image exhibiting this kind of popularity might easily receive over 50,000 views and hundreds of re-shares. Internet-savvy photographers have learned to be the first to share their watermarked images on Reddit, linked to their own websites (i.e. their Flickr photostream), and flood the Internet with good links before the thieves do it with stolen versions that have dead-end links! (Other popular sections on Reddit for sharing night photography images are the SpacePorn and the ExposurePorn pages.)

Example: This Reddit post by your editor was responsible for many of the 40,000+ views and dozens of re-shares (with proper links) of this John Moulton Homestead photo.

More of James Neeley's photography can be found at his website, with additional links to his blogs, workshops, and Flickr photostream. (A review of James' night photography can also be found on this blog.)

Advertisement: Hot Weekly Photography Deals - Amazing discounts (updated twice a week).


  1. There is absolutely no way to avoid theft short of never posting to the internet but you can minimize what the photos can be used for by keeping the size to a maximum of 640 pixels. I've had many photos ripped off but the best payback was when a photo of mine with Masterfile was found on a commercial website. There are third party firms that scour websites that match the results against a database. If there is a match a human being looks at it and then the stock photo agency is contacted. They get a finders fee.

    The offenders had to pay a premium, much more than if they would have bought the photo in the first place. I got a nice little cheque of almost a thousand dollars and the law breakers ended up having to find a new cover for their website.

    There are happy stories resulting from internet theft but they are few and far between.

  2. Before I sold my stock photo agency back in 2007, I employed the use of companies like PicScout ( ) to do the services you are talking about. PicScout will also work with individual photographers, as long as the images are under a Rights Managed licensing model and not a Royalty-Free model.

    I found that most of the offenders were nobodies in 3rd world countries. This is even more prevalent today. To go after them is a waste of time and money. This image of James' was 640 pixels. They did a screen capture, rez-ed it up to 700 pixels and retouched out the watermark. 90% of website commercial usage is under 640 pixels. The purpose of my blog is to teach people one of the ways to get a jump on promoting and getting links for your images before the "nobodies" flood the 'net with dead links to your images--making harder for the search engines to find your legitimate images, and paying clients to find you and request a paying license.

    1. Steve Martin commented on Google+ "some more of what to do when your images get stolen. " -- Great info, Steve (and the service is free).

  3. Experience unrivaled vitality with Monster Rabbit, featuring the finest royal performance honey. Elevate intimate moments with our premium blend, crafted to enhance endurance and satisfaction. Unleash the power of passion with Monster Rabbit's distinctive royal performance honey for a heightened and satisfying experience.

  4. An Accessible Playground is a specially designed recreational space, ensuring inclusivity for children of all abilities. Equipped with ramps, wide pathways, and sensory-rich elements, it accommodates those with mobility challenges, sensory sensitivities, and diverse needs. Inclusive play structures, adaptive swings, and braille signage promote a welcoming environment.

    These spaces foster social interaction, fostering friendships regardless of physical or cognitive differences. By prioritizing accessibility, these playgrounds contribute to a more inclusive society, promoting the idea that play is for everyone, irrespective of abilities or disabilities.