5 Easy Ways to Protect Your Work Online

It happens all the time—the big guy steals the little guy’s idea, makes all of the money and leaves the little guy with nothing. That’s what allegedly happened with designer Tuesday Bassen and Spanish clothing and accessories retailer Zara. You probably remember the controversy that started with a few disgruntled tweets calling out the brand for copying her enamel pin and patch work. The whole ordeal raises a big question in the art and freelance world: How do I protect my online work from being stolen?


We live in a world where digital rules all. If you’re not sharing your work online, you’re not getting noticed, you’re not making money. But as soon as you upload something new, what’s stopping others from snatching your hard work and claiming it as their own?

The hard truth: Nothing really.

As soon as an image is posted online, nearly anyone has the ability to download, copy, screenshot, alter or just plain steal it.

You can, of course, register your work with the Copyright Office of the U.S. Library of Congress. The process is fairly easy. Log on to the Library of Congress website head over to the Electronic Copyright Office (eCO). From there, simply fill out the required documents and pay the fee. This is the best form of protection when dealing with copyright infringement.

But if you’re like many artists who post new work every day, registering for a copyright can be time consuming and expensive.

So what else can you do to keep your work safe?

1. Add watermarks to your images

The easiest and probably most recognizable way to protect your art is to add your own watermark to the image. Check out any stock photography website. Their images are covered in watermarks to prevent thieves from using the images without paying.

Pros: Easy to do, not time consuming

Cons: Watermarks can be distracting from your art, especially if you’re posting to an online portfolio

Work watermark

Screen grab from Shutterstock user BlueOrange Studio demonstrating watermark

2. Digitally image everything you post

Metadata, a fancy word for “information about data,” is created every time you take a photo or upload something to a website. For example a digital camera (including the one on your smart phone) will mark what day a photograph was taken, the time it was taken, what type of camera was used and even the location of the camera at the time. By creating digital copies of your work, you are storing important information that says when exactly a piece was created. In a case of copyright infringement, this can help prove that you were the originator of an idea.

Pros: Happens automatically and gives an exact date for the creation of work

Cons: Doesn’t actually prevent theft. And is totally terrifying if you really think about it too much.

Work data

Gif by GIPHY user hateplow

3. Disable right-click

When you visit a website like Facebook or the New York Times, downloading an image is as simple as right clicking with your mouse and choosing “save file as.” You worked hours to create that image, and someone can snatch it without your permission in less than 30 seconds. Disabling the ability to right click on an image prevents (some) users from saving copies of your work.

Pros: Deters particularly lazy thieves

Cons: Requires some knowledge of coding, doesn’t prevent screen grabs

work how

4. Publish small or low-res images

Pretty self explanatory. Who wants to steal crappy, low-res stuff?

Pros: Really good at preventing someone from directly stealing your images

Cons: Really bad at showing off your work

work kittens

Imagine if these kittens were lower resolution. Would they still be cute?

5. Add copyright warnings to your website

Adding a copyright warning to your website is a nice reminder to viewers that you do, in fact, own the art on display. According to Plagiarism Today, “having a copyright footer on your site is probably a good idea just because of the large amount of confusion on this issue and it does put potential infringers on notice, reducing ‘innocent infringer’ claims.” A simple © 2016, your name and the rights you claim is plenty.

Pros: Easy to do, universally recognized

Cons: There’s still a lot of confusion around what the © symbol does and does not protect

work travolta
Imagine if these kittens were lower resolution. Would they still be cute?

Protect yourself. Protect your work. And help prevent art theft.

Many graphic designers confuse copyrights, trademarks and design patents. Moreover, some well-entrenched rules of thumb are mere myths that—if followed—can get you into legal trouble. HOW Design University is here to help. Brush up on your legal knowledge with the Intellectual Property Rights for Designers Course