How to Find Images That Have Been Stolen from You

November 27th, 2017

Recently, Architectural and Interior Design Photographer George Gutenberg of Palm Desert and Las Vegas had commented on this post.  I think his comment is worth highlighting. The following is an excerpt from his comment:

The other day, I did an “infringement search” using my Pixy account. The result is 3,204 infringements!

As I started digging deeper into some of these, it appears to me that the vast majority of these images were swiped off of Zillow. Not off of Zillow property search, but off of Zillow Digs which has nothing to do with a home being offered for sale. Take a look at Zillow Digs and ask yourself whose content is being used to sell all kinds of advertising and merchandise? Yours and mine!

So why does this bother me so much? It’s because 3,000+ web pages out there are using my images without authority or compensation. Up until the last 6-8 years, I was typically earning $100k plus/year from additional licensing/stock sales. Today, that is down to $10k. The fact that my images are being used without compensation has essentially dropped my earnings by more than 50 percent. Not because I’m not shooting as much (I am) but because my product is being used by entities that have built their business on finagling access to my work through 3rd parties, in this case, the MLS without compensating me for their use.

There are two key points here:

  1. When your clients upload your photos to their MLS, they end up getting sent everywhere. The more websites they go to, the more opportunities there are for them to get used without your permission and compensation.
  2. is a great mechanism to track where your images are being used. It helps you send DMCA take-down notices and take legal action for unauthorized use.

The YouTube video above explains how works.

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13 Responses to “How to Find Images That Have Been Stolen from You”

  • I only did a quick search on the Pixsy web site and didn’t see the legal terms. I did see that they keep 50% of anything they recover for infringements, but that could be a very large sum of money for a serious infringement. One thing to watch out for are terms where you agree that any images you upload/search using their service gives them exclusive rights to represent you in any settlement/suit. One of their attorneys might not feel that it would be worth the effort and you do but your hands would be tied at that point. Frankly, I’d rather pay a fee to use their service and choose my own attorney if the prices were reasonable.

    Sending a DMCA notice is a good option when it’s obvious that the infringer wouldn’t have the funds to pay a settlement, but then again, looks can be deceiving. The only result is that your images may be taken down. If they aren’t, it’s off to see a good lawyer.

    @George, How could you tell the images were taken from Digs? Do they get watermarked with a Digs logo?

    Register all of your images at least every 3 months without fail. If your images aren’t registered, you can’t take an infringer to court (there are some very technical exceptions).

  • How does one go about registering and or copyrighting their photos?

  • I love Pixsy and have been using it for a long time. With that being said, if you *do* find infringements do not expect them to be settled quickly. My last case was opened September 2016 and there is still no agreement.

  • We use ImageRights. We pay a monthly fee with less percentage and always come out ahead each month. Some images ie real,estate we copyright ourselves and some we let image rights take care of it. We always copyright anything we sell or put on the web for our own marketing.

    We also are active in ASMP and PPA that have guidance on copyright on their member sites

  • @ Ken Brown,

    No, Zillow Digs doesn’t logo images which is one of the reasons why people like to copy/pilfer images off of Zillow. The fact that they also seems offer larger and better image quality than the typical MLS (often without the MLS watermark) makes those image all the more attractive. As far as tracking an image Google Image Search is pretty easy way to look at where a given image is on the web.

    I should point out, a lot of this could be remedied by the various MLS systems allowing photographers to include watermarks on images thus not only clearly showing that the image is copyright protected, but also that would mitigate some of Zillow issue.

    Like Suzanne, I also copyright register just about every image I produce.

  • We have to blame ourselves is the truth. Why can’t we all just say “no more mls photos unless we are able to watermark”? Nobody is going to take care of things for us, we have to do it ourselves.

    The way these organizations get away with all this is in their terms of uploading. They usually state the uploader has the copyright or a license to upload, and grants us the permission to do x, y, z with the photos.

    It’s so ridiculous! Imagine for a second if a Hollywood movie was uploaded by a non-copyright holder, and then the platform it was uploaded to was able to play the content in ways that made money for them. I know it sounds totally ridiculous when you put it like that, but that’s exactly what’s happening to us. We just don’t happen to have high paid lawyers and lobbyists to put a stop to it. That’s the only difference.

  • I just made an anti copyright group on Facebook. Feel free to join. Maybe we can effectively fight this stuff one day if we get enough members and are organized…

  • @George
    One of the issues might be exactly what I do for my customers. Zillow accepts and displays much higher resolution images than the local MLS and I provide those images formatted exactly for Zillow for the agent to upload directly. I am going to have a chat with a few of my customers and see about watermarking images that I output for Trulia, Zillow and Realtor. The GAVAR MLS is 767pixels wide and while lower resolution images are infringed all of the time, a their might prefer the higher quality images and a quick search on Google would find them. The bonus with watermarks is if the infringer crops out the watermark it makes it more likely to be ruled a “willful” infringement which makes a judgement go way up and quite possibly settlements too.


    Forming a group on Facebook for abusive rights grabs is very ironic. FB is one of the worst offenders. They claim all rights short of Copyright assignment (which they can’t do) for any media posted to FB’s servers by users.


    If you haven’t signed a Work Made for Hire Contract or are making pictures for an employer, you automatically have the Copyright as soon as you push the shutter button. It doesn’t matter if you are using somebody else’s equipment. If you take the photo, you hold the Copyright. It isn’t worth a whole lot if you don’t take the next step and register the images. Jack Reznicki and Ed Greenberg have a tutorial on Kelby One that takes you step by step through a registration as they register a batch of photos live during the taping. There is also a couple of seminars on Youtube from them that were filmed at BH Photo, but those aren’t as detailed. You can also visit the US Copyright Office’s website at and there are PDF instructions you can view or download. The Kelby tutorial only covers unpublished images (anything posted where the public can see the photos should be considered Published). For RE where you will be registering published images, there are a couple of extra steps and you only have 3 months from publication to register for full coverage. Registration is currently $55 per registration and that can include thousands of images. If you find any tutorials that show how to register by mail, skip them as being out of date. You can still register by mail but you might not get your certificate back for a year and you need that to file in court or to show to an infringer’s attorney to get them to settle. Without a registration, your threats can be safely ignored.

  • If you want to join a group to to help improve the copyright situation, I suggest you join one or more of the established trade organizations that are already dealing with this, such as the ASMP or the APA.

  • @David Eichler

    APA has some great information on their site. The document on Social Media Copyright problems is very good.

  • Suzanne, David, Ken and Andrew, et al,

    Yes, I’m aware that they various associations like APA, ASMP, PPA, etc. etc. all “work on” copyright issues (primarily educating new members), the problem is that nobody actually does anything about addressing the biggest sinners.

    For instance, the only way Zillow, and others that clearly abuse the current situation is going to be stopped, is by being sued. It’s that simply. A significant class action suit would stop it instantly. Yet, the trade associations do nothing but try to influence the political establishment to enact new laws that would address copyright issues. We already have laws, they are not being enforced! This is easy, stripping meta data is a copyright violation.

    Step number one is to force the MLS systems to allow us to watermark our images. If they do not, then when they allow pass-through to other entities, they are in effect facilitating copyright infringement. It’s a s simple as that. Once they allow watermarking, it will be really easy to pursue anybody who uses the images, especially if they are stupid enough to remove the watermark, as they would then be guilty of willful violation which would constitute a possible $150,000 penalty per violation!

    This is where a RE specific photographers associating would help. If that organization “explained” to all the nations MLS systems what the problem is, their potential liability in facilitating copyright theft – I bet we’d be allowed to have watermarks/copyright notices very quickly.

    I am currently working with my attorney in addressing some of the many stolen images. 1 or 3000+ doesn’t matter, I’m going after them all as I’ve had enough.

    My 2 cents

  • George, I think a real estate photographers’ association just ghettoizes the genre. Real estate photography is just a part of the broader genre of commercial marketing photography, and I think that real estate photographers associating themselves with the practices of that broader category is the better route. Of course real estate photographers face some challenges specific to the particular client base with which they work, but I think think it is better to try to maintain standards and protect our intellectual property by working with a larger group for strength in numbers. If the current trade associations are not doing an adequate job of representing photographers, then I think we should either pressure them to do so or to try to form alternative trade organizations to replace them, since intellectual property rights are fundamental to what we do.

    As for enforcing laws, what would you propose to force the relevant regulatory agencies to do this? These agencies have limited resources (and will probably have even less in the current political climate) and they tend to have other priorities that they deem to be more important.

  • Hi David,

    I would suspect that the vast majority of “real estate photographers” on here, don’t belong to any of the typical professional photography associations, or even understand what the loss, or non-enforcement, of copyright means as it relates to their future income.

    My photography career started in 1978 and didn’t include real estate until about 20 years ago. The fact that I was focused on architecture and interiors, made real estate an easy fit. You, me, and a few others on here, have essentially gotten here the same way, it’s part of our photographic careers as architectural photographers.

    It looks to me, as if most RE photographers have not come into this genre as part of a lifelong photography career, but have landed in it in the past few years as part of other work/life changes and the lure of easy money. After all, the internet made images much more important, more importantly, the barrier to entry very low compared to other photographic specialties. I’m absolutely not knocking them, simply saying that the majority have not spent a significant part of their careers in photography and thus do not view traditional photography issues as issues at all. We’ve both seen lots of comments about not caring about licensing, the sharing of images, contracts, registering their copyright, etc. etc. Typically somebody will tell us that the business is changing and us oldies better get with the program, or get out of the way.

    Anyway, like I said, the easiest way to start working on a big part of the solution, would be to get the various MLS organizations to allow us to watermark the images (at least those of us who care about copyright and lost earnings). That is an issue directly related to photographers who shoot real estate, not other commercial photographers, right? I just doubt that PPA, ASMP, or APA are ever going to take on that task as 90 percent of their membership couldn’t care less about MLS. That is why I think a RE-specific photographers organization would have a better shot at getting MLS to listen. There is ablsolutely no reason for MLS not to, after all – they do need our images!


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