Almost Fearless

The Great Internet Opt-Out

This is an open letter to social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google and Tumblr.

My new watermark. Do you like it? I hope it doesn’t detract from the photo at all.

Dear Internet,

I love Pinterest.  I love the concept, the pinning, the inspiration, the sharing, and above all, the beautiful photography.  However, recently I’ve become aware of the fact that many professional photographers are quite angry that Pinterst is essentially using their images without permission.  At first I thought, “Wait, what’s the difference between Pinterest and Google Image Search, Facebook sharing, Twitter preview, Google +, Tumblr or any number of other sites that grab images based on user shares?”

The answer: Not much.

Now, there may be some legal technical blahblahblah that protects you as long as no photographer wins the lottery and decides to spend several years in court suing your ass off.  Since most photographers don’t win the lottery, and they don’t have the deep pockets of the film, publishing or music industry, there is a virutal free-for-all when it comes to the illicit use of photography online.

Think about it this way, what if instead of Google Images, there was Google Music and it just let you search every piece of music ever posted online?

The music industry would shut that down immediately.  

What if every book was scanned and placed online for free?

The publishing industry wouldn’t allow that.

What about film?

Wait, Youtube already pulls illegal clips of TV and film that their users upload.

What about photographers then?

Under the law, photographers have the same legal rights as musicians, writers or filmmakers regarding copyright, but they don’t have the deep pockets to protect their rights.

That kind of sucks.

The good news is that there is a really simple solution.  Let photographers (or anyone else) opt out of being shared.  Just like you can prevent Google spiders from scanning your site and indexing your content by placing a small line of code on your website (invisible to users), social media and sharing sites could let individual websites opt-out.  When a user tries to share from that site, it would be automatically blocked.

So simple.

What would this do?  

  • Drop the illegal sharing of copyright protected photography significantly.
  • Protect artists who don’t have the financial resources to pursue litigation.
  • Make the internet more awesome.

Some users would find work arounds, but this will be a much smaller number and those accounts can be addressed individually.  For Pinterest especially, most people are sharing from their friend’s share pools.  Removing the source means that someone would have to maliciously go find that content and pin it, subversely, not something that I think the average Pinterest user is interested in or motived to do.

What happens if we don’t do something?

  • Startups will struggle with growing legal consequences of user generated content <– so small companies can’t make new sites, only the big boys can, swinging even more online power to Facebook and Google.
  • Content creators will create more and more barriers to their content or go dark, taking their work offline.  <– Bad for everyone.
  • Internet killing bills like SOPA have more justification.
  • Paywalls, watermarks, crazy javascript codes to prevent theft and other bad stuff will start showing up more <–  Yuck.
  • Photographers and artists who are financially hurt by online theft will STOP MAKING COOL ART!  In other words, the internet will be officially evil.

Now, we just need the developers at Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google and Tumblr to listen.

Are you listening?

Love XOXO,


(Just one little blogger who likes the internet too much).

P.S. By the way, I like it when people share my photos, but then again, I get free traffic for it and it’s not like I’m licensing my photos for thousands of dollars.  However, I don’t think that just because I am okay with it that it’s okay for more traditional artists to have their rights ignored.  For the polar opposite point of view, see Trey Ratcliff’s recent article here.

Update: Pinterest just added new code (looks like in the last 24 hours, but I’m not sure if anyone is reporting on it, however it is in their help section) that allows you to block people from pinning from your site. The problem, however, ISN’T that people are going to download your photos and reupload. Sure that might happen, but really the problem is Tumblr, which is often the source for these images and THEY don’t let people opt out. I was looking through my pins and a surprising number (maybe 30-40%) are from Tumblr blogs, not the original source. Maybe Pinterest should look at blocking Tumblr wholesale as it’s basically no better than The Pirate Bay when it comes to copyright infringement.

The score card:

Facebook – no
Twitter – no
Pinterest – yes (see the code in the help section)
Google+ – no
Tumblr – no

Christine Gilbert

I’ve been dragging my husband around the world since 2008 always with the promise that, “Yes, Drew there will definitely be hammocks there.”



  • Pinterest does have an opt out code that you can put on your website to stop people pinning from you. The issue of course is that someone may then just take your work manually and pin it without any link back at all. I’m not a famous photographer, so to me pinterest is a way of getting more visibility. If my photography was my income stream though, I suspect I’d be a bit more pissed.

  • Hi Christine – I agree that opting out is good (and already available) but I think that isn’t the biggest issue. As a wedding photographer and a blogger, I love pinterest. I get lots of potential clients and readers through it.

    I’m not offended by a snippet of my work ending up on pinterest as long as there is a link back to my blog/site as the case may be. The biggest problem is sites that don’t link to original sources. Link with Love has started a grassroots campaign to draw awareness to the issue:

    I’m not sure if it would even be possible for pinterest to create an algorithm that could differentiate original sources from sketchy uploads. However, a community monitored solution where you could “report an improper or unlinked pin” would go a long way. A lot of us “long term” pinterest users only pin things linked to original sources – or we comment that the source is missing.

    • Thanks for the link to that post, I’ll check it out.

      RE: sketchy sources, I think this is why it’s NOT just Pinterest’s problem but Facebook, Google+, Twitter etc. If someone has a “Best Wedding Photos” tumblr account and people are sharing those unsourced images on Facebook, Pinterest etc, you’re losing traffic all over the place. I don’t think it’s fair to expect Pinterest to clean up the entire internet, I think other sharing sites (that are now becoming sources for Pinterest) have to clean up their policies too.

      Personally, I’m more in favor of a systematic coding or tech change than community reporting.

      We’ll see how it goes. I am encouraged to see that they’ve made some moves to address it.

      • I just read your update and I totally agree with your comment on banning Tumblr (and all the *gawker sites while they are at it). Maybe not the later if the *gawker sites could fix their linking. Tumblr is the worst offender.

        I do agree that a systematic change would be better – I think the problem is that it would be difficult for an algorithm to differentiate between a real original source and any other website (other than the big name offenders). It’s a tough one for sure.

  • Great post. Whether people agree or disagree, you have clearly made your case on this issue. I am not quite sure where I stand yet. I do want photography to be more of an income stream for me, and I do want more people to discover my website and photography.

    • I suspect, and I don’t know if this really the case or not, but I think Pinterest just made it obvious in a visual way what unsourced image usuage looks like and how rampant it is online. It was happening before, to the same or greater degrees, I just think this is the first time that people are like, “Wait, that’s like a lot of people looking at my photo without crediting me…”

  • What’s next? Asking a photographer for permission to view their work on their website? If a photographer wants to put his/her work, un-watermarked (see iStock and shutterstock for watermarking) and as a jpg (or similar) downloadable file, on website which is open to the public and they get in a huff about someone liking their work and sharing it to social media, they should really have a long hard look at their logic. This is the internet, people say stuff, people share stuff, if you want to play on the internet, you’ve got to play by the internet’s rules.

    • I suspect Christine isn’t against others viewing her work. It’s more about others knowing it’s Christine’s work (not Tumblr’s or Pinterest’s).

      Bottom line, it’s stealing (& benefiting from) the value in that work. Web traffic is like currency and anytime you present someone’s effort as your own to draw more traffic, you’re diverting that currency from them to you.

      In short, it’s stealing money from the creator ….unless of course, you give some credit where credit’s due.

      If you really appreciated a photo, wouldn’t you rather know who’s photo it was, so you see more?

  • Christine, I’m pleased to see things moving to respect the rights of content creators. I sent feedback suggesting this as one of the actions they could take, soon after I signed up. I guess lots of other members have as well.
    The point about SOPA is very worrying. When a few faceless corporations supported SOPA / PIPA there were millions who stood up and opposed it. Those corporations will not give up and will come back and try to get allies in the form of millions of named photographers. Let’s take responsibility for our sharing online and take away their ammunition!
    I Pin this on the first of my boards and encourage this or similar initiatives. When there is a community of Responsible Pinners we can Repin from these members in relative safety.

  • As a photographer and a geek, I’m really beginning to have a problem with my fellow photographers constantly whining about their work being pinned/shared/etc on the internet. I’ve had my images stolen and used without my permission. Yes, it sucks. And I’m all for reasonable measures to prevent that from happening and a reasonable path for getting images taken down that have been used without your permission.

    However, it’s a different world now. The internet has given us the ability to have our work viewed by literally millions of people. The cost of that is there is the potential of having an image stolen. There is NO way to prevent that from happening if your image is on the internet. For an image to be displayed in a browser, it must be downloaded by the browser. So there is ALWAYS a way for someone to steal it.

    If you don’t want it to be stolen, don’t put it online. And recognize that the fact that, because your work is on the internet, your being viewed by infinitely more people than it would be otherwise.

    Does it bother me when Facebook’s TOS says they can use my images? Sure. But, the flip side of that is my images will be seen and shared by hundreds, if not thousands, of people. It’s a trade-off.

      • Sure. I just think that you’d be shooting yourself in the foot. And you also must realize that “opting out” is, in no way, going to prevent your photos from being stolen and shared anyway.

      • For the record, I wouldn’t opt out. I have an online business. I sell ebooks! I write for online publications. My model is perfect for social sharing. I just have sympathy for people who are content creators who aren’t creating for that market.

        And when you say “opting out is in no way going to prevent photos from being stolen and shared anyway” I think it’s like this… you can’t prevent someone from stealing your bike, not really anyway unless you never ride it anywhere and never leave it. But you can put a simple lock on it and reduce the theft risk significantly.

        I know for myself, I’m not going to run around the internet looking for images to steal if there are plenty of creative commons ones available (look at flickr — anyone can steal images and some do, but lots and lots of people search for creative commons pictures only and credit the source.)

  • And, by the way, there is a Google Music and Google Books and they’re doing just fine, despite the objections of a few content creators. The majority have figured out that the world has changed and they need to take the risk if they want to stay relevant.

    • There is not a google site that uses music or books without the copyright holder’s permission. Unless I’ve missed something. Which could have happened. I remember a big hub bub about the publishing side and which authors would opt in or not. The key is OPT IN. Not, have their content scrapped, without attribution.

      • has basically any song available to listen to for free. Most record companies are for this service, with a handful being against it.

  • PS I am actually in favour of sharing on the internet and have the Pin It button on my blog. I’d love to see the adoption of a new license supported image format that holds creator details and if / how it can be shared. There are technology / logistical problems involved but the big players could achieve this.
    Perhaps when the power of Google Goggles improves further the original posting of am image can be verified along with sharing permissions. Then the social media sites may be able to verify if the image is authorised for sharing.

    I know. I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.

  • I’m a photographer myself, and I believe that internet should be free. If someone uses my pictures commercially, that’s wrong but as far as sharing (showing) pictures with each other is concerned, I think its good. I mean if my picture can bring a smile in somebody’s face, I feel paid, and paid good.

  • Thanks for this Christine 🙂

    Yes I understand that for people who have an online business based on Social Media, it’s a great idea. But I for example, create photos and wish to sell/license them.
    Having a ton of traffic on my website doesn’t bring me any money.

    Putting photos under Creative Commons to bring in money is a myth. How many people check the original authors of Wikipedia photos? Or Flickr photos? Trey’s example is false. He became popular for his flashy-eye-bleeding photos and his marketing. Not because he shares photos for free.

  • I’ve always stayed away from pinning on FB because they can use your photos. Google + lets you retain your copyright so I’m going to look more into posting there for coverage. It does piss me off that Pinterest can use my photo – personally I don’t see why any commercial company has to do this? If they want to use it for something they should contact you and pay you for it or at the very least ask you. I’ve had photos stolen and it makes me angry.

    But with all that said the fact still remains that the absolute worse thing for any artist is obscurity.

    Pinterest & the internet can change that quickly and put your work in front of thousands of people. I’ve been realizing that in order to play the game I need to play smarter – I need to get more photos out to more places but I need resize all the photos on my site so that they can never be used any larger than what shows there. Everything.

    Sure someone could maybe print a 4×6 but who really cares about that? The point is if they are small to start with then no one will be able to use them for much without my permission but I could still reach the eyes or editors, potential clients – who knows maybe even Nat Geo will see one. A watermark helps for identity reasons as well.

    One thing is for sure though – if I keep them all to myself then no one will know about my images and it’ll be more work to try and sell myself as a photographer who doesn’t put their work online. I might as well get back and spend 15 hours a day in the darkroom and then cold call editors – ugh.

    I agree with you that some solution needs to be created. This is just the best way I’ve figured for me but I love to hear what other people have to say on this issue.

  • Pinterest has some language in their etiquette section which pisses me off. They ask users to link to original sources, and then they go on to give examples of secondary sources: Google images and blogs.

    Blogs?! They are saying that our content is not original. 0_0

    I emailed them yesterday and asked them to change this language. Of course, I’m probably the only one who will ever read it, but still, it’s wrong. It also leads back to this discussion about copyright ignorance. If the people operating Pinterest don’t even know what an original source is, how can they be expected to respect original works or set an example of respect?

    I’m fine with someone using my stuff. I just want a link back to my site. I don’t think people will ever understand that, though – it would require giving a rat’s ass.

  • I think the great opt-out should be not using the sites if you don’t like them. Simple. If someone doesn’t like the TOS from a site, simply don’t use it.

    Besides, all of these sites are essentially free for the user, so yes, they are going to have to take liberties with your data because at some point, they are going to have to make a profit. In this case, they want to be able to make a profit from your data. Sometimes I feel like the internet is a free donut shop: people get all kinds of great donuts for free, but as soon as the donut shop wants to know your favorite donut flavor is (in order to sell to other for-profit donut shops), people all up in arms. Either stop eating the free donuts, or go make some at home.

    • They are using photos of people who don’t use the site! That’s the rub. Even if you never log onto FB, Pinterest, Tumblr etc, someone can visit your website and then share your page with their friends. Now, they’ve uploaded your image to that social network and it gets reshared, the link gets lost, the attribution isn’t there, it’s your creative content, floating around a social network.

      If you’re an artist who doesn’t like that then not using those sites isn’t enough– > we need an opt out.

  • Christine, I’m really glad you approached this subject. Everyone says “this is the way it is; get used to it.” I say: we need to educate people! If not, 100 years from now we’ll have zillions of images with no information and we’ll all be ignorant because folks couldn’t do more than click, pin, copy, share, like. Gawd forbid, someone think:) It’s not like everyone has to be a journalist but a one liner about who, what and where along with the source would be very informative. Quick example: gorgeous antique photo pinned on Pinterest. Commenter: How beautiful! I wonder who she was? I would love to know her story. WELL, just so happens it was actually an image that did link back to a Flickr post and the woman was identified. But that original commenter couldn’t even be bothered to click on the image and check the source!! That’s the lazy “sharing” the Internet is teaching people. I sell digital scans of antique images. FOlks say: they’re copyright free. OK, fine. Do you think copyright free images get posted on the Internet all by themselves?! Someone has to BUY /Obtain the original paper item. SO my posted images aren’t quite as ugly as your sample, but almost:) And when I do post them as “freebies” or sell a scan, I’ve started extending the ‘canvas’ and adding my copyright/blog info so at least the source is already attached. My online business is my ticket to a little stream of income when it comes my time to get to travel round the world.

    • Agreed! Plus we HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY to do this better. I mean can analyze data and tell which of their customers is pregnant but hasn’t told anyone yet (by which sites the visit etc) and start sending them baby product emails. There’s a lot of sophisticated logic around Google Ads too. But we can’t let content creators specify how and where their content is used in a simple universal fashion? It’s total BS. 🙂

      • Also, I’ll add that Youtube even has code that detects video that is copyright protected! Automatically. It also can tell if you are using a song you shouldn’t be using. But these other sites can’t protect images? I think it’s just the the film/music industry would have sued Youtube into non-existence if they turned a blind eye to copyright issues and photographers simply don’t have the $$ to do the same to these other social network sites.

  • Speaking as a photographer who uses Tumblr to get my work out, I couldn’t agree more on the whole pirating issue. Unfortunately what I have had to come to do is just add water marks to my pictures. It can’t stop people from downloading it, but at least I know the pirated pic will be marked up.

    • Hi Jeff,

      I hadn’t read that but I did read the post they linked to as the source. I think it’s all very interesting from a legal perspective, but if Tumblr hasn’t been sued yet, I’m guessing that this issue won’t go to court for Pinterest either.

      RE: Google Images, while they may be legally in the clear, my point is that it would be relatively easy from a tech perspective to let people tag their content as “don’t scan” or “don’t share”, just like Google does for Search. They don’t do that for legal reasons (as far as I know) but to let people decide whether they are included. I think any site that curates the web should allow individuals to opt out.

  • Christine,
    I have been reading your blog for a few months now. I friended you on Facebook to stay updated on your blogpost and to not miss out on any of your lovely stories or photos.
    The only reason for this is Pinterest. I stumbled upon a picture from Thailand (I spent some time there in the last year as well) that you had taken and one of your fans pinned it.
    I pretty much read ALL of your blog. I was hooked when I read your post about the scam border in Cambodia as something quite similar happened to be on a bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and I know my boyfriend had fallen for the border scam years ago.
    I am a Journalism major in NJ and I am taking a class in multi media writing. We were asked to write about the blogs we read and who’s content we admire and want to emulate. I wrote about you. Because I saw one picture a few months ago on Pinterest.
    In my opinion, you should maybe be embracing all the attention you can get from Pinterest. It is not easy getting your blog read, but you produce such quality content that people don’t want to just see it, say it’s nice and move on about the infinite web. They want to collect that sentiment or beauty they encountered and keep it forever (or however long Pinterest stays popular).
    Thanks to Pinterest, you have plenty more people reading your blog, some people who can’t wait to see this documentary your making, and one girl with a travel blogger to look up to. Not to bad for a free w/ little to no effort.

    I swear I don’t work for Pinterest.

    Thanks for all the inspiration and hope you give me,


    • Thank you Amy. I think I’m very lucky in that regard. However, for a photographer who doesn’t have a blog, who might be represented by Getty Images only, then they wouldn’t be very happy to have Pinterest use their images. In fact, they might be really, really angry about it.

      To be clear, I love Pinterest, but I just want to use it without feeling guilty that I might be hurting photographer’s business. I don’t think it takes much for them to put these kinds of things in place.

      I am exactly the person who SHOULD speak up, because it’s in my best interest to say nothing. I benefit from Pinterest and I want to make it better for everyone! 🙂

      Thank you, though, I really hope that you don’t take this post as me being ungrateful. I feel immensely lucky to have the readers I have and I definitely don’t take it for granted!



  • It’s sad to hear that, but the truth is you can’t really do anything about it… there are hundreds of millions of people around the world that can use your images once they are up in Google image search and you can’t do anything about that unless what you suggest becomes possible.

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