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Can You Prevent Someone From Linking To Your Real Estate Photos?

Published: 09/12/2014
By: larry

copyrightCraig asks the following:

One of my agents called me the other day to say that a seller she had been working with had decided to go "FSBO" and was using the photos I had shot for her. I sent him an email that basically said "stop by midnight tonight, or I'll consider legal action..."

He apologized profusely and promised to take the photos off his site (by the way he is a copywriter and has language on HIS website that forbids un...).

Here's the problem: The agent called late to say that she had received another email from the seller stating that he had to take the photos down, but wrote "Here is a link to some fabulous photos!" which linked to a Trulia page of those same photos. I think the guy is a tool and I'm intrigued by his apparent lack of ethics ...but do I have a leg to stand on?  I know you're not a lawyer, but do you have any thought on the subject?

In other words, do you think I can forbid him to even link to the photos since I own the rights?  Can I single-out a user to keep them even from linking to a site like Trulia?

Craig, you're right, I'm not a lawyer but here is my non-legal opinion:

Two things relating to your question:
  1. Per "courts generally agree that linking to another website does not infringe the copyrights of that site, nor does it give rise to a likelihood of confusion necessary for a federal trademark infringement claim. However, different kinds of linking raise different legal issues, and the law is not entirely settled in all of these areas." See: for complete details.
  2. The original listing agent can get an account on Trulia or Zillow, claim the listing and delete it. If the agent doesn't do this the listing and listing photos will eventually go away, but it will take a while. I have personally done this for listings on Zillow but never done it on Trulia.
So, I doubt it will be worth your while to try to prevent the guy from linking to the photos. The fastest way to handle this issue is to have your client that licensed the photos delete the active listing on Trulia.

20 comments on “Can You Prevent Someone From Linking To Your Real Estate Photos?”

  1. That stinks. I can't stand the attitudes that some people have, especially when he is a copywriter and knows right vs. wrong. It sounds like he wasn't happy with the agent, and unfortunately you are being caught in the middle. I would do what you can to try and get the photos removed from the big sites, don't forget Redfin if they are in your area. With the amount of syndication that goes on, there will probably always be a site that has the photos, so you won't be able to remove them all. But if you hit the big ones, at least it'll make it difficult for him to send out links. And at the end of the day, he's not posting them to the FSBO site and claiming he got them from Trulia, is he? He's just linking to Trulia either in the ad, or to prospective buyers? If he continues to use the photos and claims he got them from Trulia, that's such a shame.

    If he does end up posting the photos to a FSBO site, it would be worth shooting them an email. Send them your copies of the photos, along with a receipt and have the agent sign a licensing agreement or something. Tell them that the photos were not licensed to that homeowner and they may remove them. I know a real estate photographer who did this with a web host company because an agent took the photog's photos off his site to build an agent site! The web host IMMEDIATELY took the site down.

    As far as "real" legal action, I wouldn't waste any time on it. I paid a local web developer $6750 to complete a project and he failed to do it. He said he would give me my money back, but went silent. I have spent over $1000 taking him to small claims, winning 100% judgment against him (he even brought an attorney) and taking advantage of every possible avenue I have to try and get my money back. I haven't seen a penny. If anything maybe send a demand letter, but just the filing fees for something like small claims won't be worth your time/money in my opinion.

    Hope he does the right thing and doesn't list his property with them - keep us updated.

  2. The solution is ridiculously simple.
    Simply send the host of the website a DMCA takedown letter. The web host company is required to remove the photo (video in my case) unless the posting party can prove they have the rights to it.

    OTOH, why make enemies, and how many people in your market can this ex-client poison for you? Just tell them, "I own the photos, I paid $xxx. They can be yours for the same price I paid for them."

  3. Beyond all legal aspects, the answer to the post's title is "No." Ofcourse there are a few technical actions one can take to make it harder to successfully link to images. But most of them have downsides, some of which I have put in brackets.

    1. Block the right click with some script to prevent showing the link to the image and the source code for copying. (Downside: bad usability of your website which may annoy other users)
    2. Put the image into the background of a transparent container. Thus it cannot directly be linked. (Downside: bad for SEO)
    3. Constantly rename image files and source code. Thus you will cause dead links / images on his website. You can play this game until he will finally give up. (Downsides: lots of efforts, bad for SEO again)
    4. Use watermarks with © on your images. (Downside: may influence the image's over all impression) This will find a lot of haters, but since they can mostly be found amongst other photogs, this does not really matter. Most final viewers would not complain. Maybe the client wouldn't like it, because he would not reveal the identity of a 3rd party photographer (strange minds are always around, but since they pay for it ...)

    How these tips may work or not on other platforms than your own, always depends on the amount of control you have over the this system and your technical skills, ofcourse.

  4. If the images are not registered with the copyright office, you can't file a suit in court. You can send a properly formatted (if it's not done exactly, it's worthless) DMCA notice to the service that hosts the website where this seller has his/her listing. The host has to take action within a very short, 24-48 hour, window or they will lose their "Safe Harbor" protections and become additionally liable for the infringement. At that point, there are remedies I have heard of that do not require a copyright registration. Legal action would depend on how P.O.'d you are and how much money you would want to give to an attorney. You could get the house that's for sale on the best outcome or just be down some thousands of dollars the other way around.

    Look up a sample DMCA notice online and fill in your particular information and send it to the web site host. Be sure to take a screen shot of the page showing your images and the URL in case you need it later.

    Linking isn't always a copyright violation, but in this case it's plain to see that the intent is to steal the use of the images for commercial purposes. I think a judge would agree, but it costs money to find out for sure.

  5. It would be great if you could go in and change the photos by placing a banner on them that says, "These photos were stolen from..." I remember a photographer did that to his image after Huffington Post used his image without permission and refused to even give a photo credit.

  6. Ken Brown - Actually, if the images are not registered with the copyright, you *CAN* still file a suit in court. The issue is that no lawyer will represent you because any award from the court will be limited to actual loss...nothing punitive or for "damages." So there isn't enough money to be made for the lawyer if the images are not registered.

    For Craig - Perhaps, since the the home seller seems to be somewhat reasonable (despite his confused ethics/ignorance), you could post the images on your own site and request that he link to your website instead of Trulia? Or if he still uses the link to Trulia, maybe he could add "Here is a link to some fabulous photos BY CRAIG AT http://WWW.CRAIGSREALESTATEPHOTOS.COM" At least that might get you some traffic.

  7. Unfortunately, with the current state of web programming and image file formats, there is very little that can be done to prevent images that are displayed to the public from being stolen. The main disadvantage of many of the methods mentioned is that they don't work. Right now, if it can be seen on a browser it can be stolen.

    So this leaves us with damage control. Asking for photos to be removed, sending DMCA notices, etc.. For most photographer, using a copyright watermark that clearly states the photographer is the best choice. You should also make sure that a internet search on that name returns your contact information. At least that way you get some advertising off the stolen images.

    Also Standard linking is never a copyright violation. The content is not displayed on the linker site, so they have not copied anything. If fact this is what has made the internet such a great tool. For example, PFRE has hundreds of links of this nature to different articles across the web.

    In case you don't understand the difference between standard linking, embedding, framing and hot linking, here are some quick definitions:
    Standard link: An object that when you click on it redirects your browser to another site. It can also open the site in another tab or window.

    Hot link: Using another's server to host images displayed on your site. So when the webpage is display instead of getting the image from it get the image from

    Embedding / frames: both of these are methods of making a portion of your site display parts of another site. Think of them as windows that you can look through and see another site.

  8. If the seller decided to go FSBO surely the original listing agent has the means to remove his/her listing from any and all MLS type services. This is presuming you sold/licensed the images to the agent. Would that not solve the problem?

  9. Hello all!

    I am the original poster of the email. Thanks for all of the great input and thanks to Larry for posting. I've always wanted a post to be on PFRE, but wish it wasn't THIS one!

    I try to be fairly 'giving' with my business and even have a program of the occasional free first shoot for very new - very poor - agents. Please don't kill me for that policy everyone! I have got many long-term clients with that concept and have made lots of money in the long-run.

    As for this issue, I am normally quite calm when I find out my photos are being used. I simply assume ignorance and write a politely-firm letter. I get paid 99.5% of the time, but this one seemed ridiculously premeditated.

    For some clarity:

    @Stephen- the client (agent) is the one who alerted me to this FSBO, so she is completely on board with shutting this guy down if I'm able to. She would never betray a trust, but her silence as to his personality was deafening.

    @Mike - this agent does take down the photos after every listing expires or sells. In fact she is the ONLY agent I have who does that. This one just seems to have gotten stuck in the syndication universe.

    I think I may try the DMCA route just to see what happens. I'm definitely not going legal Not enough hours in the day and, after 5,000+ houses over the years, it's too rare an occurrence (so far)... (I hope).

    I'll let Larry know of the outcome, if any.

    Thanks everyone

  10. The best advice is to just walk away with your reputation and good will with the agent. The agent will be a repetitive customer, the owner will only be there this one time. Educate the agent to remind the client at the time of picture capture that he/she owns the rights and if the contract ends, unless the client reimburses the agent and you, the images cannot be used again - and get both the owner and agent to sign a property release that states this. I find with some of my coaching clients they forget to get an owner signature with a property release and a restriction on the images. The photographer should then read this clause to the owner and agent as they sign the paper.

  11. I have to ask and please forgive my ignorance, especially if I'm not understanding the question - I am new to this occupation:

    Legalities aside, why does it really matter? You were paid for the photos. They were used as intended by the person that paid for them (if anything, shouldn't they be the one worried about it?)

    I see my "stolen" [non-real estate] pictures floating online all over the place. Frequently. Often I look at them in amazement; how much better I've gotten since I took them. I wouldn't want the "credit" anyway.

    New to RE photography but after 60 years of living... can't say much for sure... but seems like tripping over dollars to chase pennies is time ill-spent. Just my 2c...

  12. @Dave Spencer, We aren't paid to take pictures, we are paid to license the images that we create. If a party wants to use my pictures, they have to pay me for the right to use them. It doesn't matter if someone else already paid me to take them.

  13. A link is not a copyright infringement. The other agent isn't doing anything wrong by gving out a link to content housed on a public site. For him to have infringed, he would have had to actually copy those pics and post them somewhere else.

    If there is an offender, it might be the Tulias and the Zillows... but that is exactly the service they offer to realtors, to highlight the property. As soon as you give any realtor your photos, there's a high probability they will end up on these sites.

    Best advice is - get over it as far as the big sites are concerned, but watch to see if the individual agents are copying & reposting.

  14. Also, it depends on whether the photos were already on Trulia (and that where he got them), of whether Trulia aquired the images because of his copy/repost.

    If they were already on Trulia, I don't think he's at fault for sending a link. But if Trulia got them from him, he's 100% to blame.

  15. @Dave Spencer, as Beau stated, we are paid to license photos, but take it a step further. Should your client who PAID for the licensed photo subsidize others COMMERCIAL efforts - beyond their syndication agreements. While the original question was FSBO, it is not limited to that. What I typically find (via complaints/frustration of my client) are other Realtors using them for their business development benefit, placing my client in the position of subsidizing their competitor with the "free" raw material. One issue was the agent who brought the buyer using my elevated front shot (with the MLS watermark on it) for a "Just Sold" postcard farming the same neighborhood my client was farming AND listing on their and their broker's website as recently sold properties. That is business development in it's most basic form, and worse, misrepresentation as a quick review of their active listings had sub-par DIY photographs.
    Had a variation yesterday. An agent made videos of properties, including one of my clients (removing For Sale signs branding it, etc), and posting on YouTube with a website of that autoforwarded to his account at Zillow that showed the MLS photos. Her broker is following up on that with a formal complaint to MLS as there are 'exclusive right to sell' contractual issues. But it also raises the issue with Zillow (and others) as their sales model is to get the raw material (photos and agent's narrative) for free, then repackage and sell them, bordering on extortion of the listing agent. Buy this product and will give you all the referrals, otherwise it is to realtor who bought our service that we created at your expense.

  16. Trulia feeds off the MLS. The solution is to have your realtor client take those images off the MLS. It may take a few days but the images should disappear form that link.

  17. @Andrea, there might not be enough money in an actual damages suit to cover the costs of filing the suit. The main point is to register all of your images. There is a 90day window to register published images which helps RE photographers since registering each job is not cost effective.

    I find it a bad idea to let infringers off when they are found. Not only does it create a bad precedent, one's paying customers are not happy when the images they commissioned and licensed get used by others for free. I'm going through the process now with some very high profile infringements that may pay me more money than I made in all of 2014. These infringements are by people/companies that know better. It's getting worse since almost all photographers won't do anything to protect their work and these people know it.

  18. After reading all of this post, first thing that comes to mind is some kind of Photographer Union. We all get together and get a few lawyers together that specializes in these sorts. Potentially getting rights put through on the web to helping photographers around the world. Ok, maybe that's far fetched! But atleast get something set in stone for our country (US).

    I would have to say that if a client and/or home owner wants to link a potential buyer to the photos. Let them, no big deal.
    As for someone or another company/business (profit organization) coping and pasting, that's not good business for anyone. Especially after you had handed out your "RIGHT AGREEMENT" and have fully expressed all rights go to "only" and have had them sign and agree to all terms.

    Here's the problem I see with letting the unpaid for rights just linger (your photos floating around all over the place).

    1. They will continue to float for who knows how long "?". You are not being paid from several thief's using the photos that are yours.
    2. Who knows, the house may go back up on the market in a year or so and you or another photographer may lose on that potential client due to. They (home owner) think that because their are already photos up of the house, that they have rights to use these because they now own the house. Unknowing about the terms of the original agreement. Reusing photos AGAIN, and AGAIN your not getting paid.

    In my own experience (not fact, no studies prove this) I have found around 85% of people are ignorant on the rules of photos and the right of each individual photo all go to the photographer that snapped it.

    Basically to some this up, in my own point of view.
    These problems will only get worse. Eventually, We as RE Photographers will end up losing business, potentially losing are businesses. I believe something needs to be done. I believe we should act now before it gets worse.

    P.S. I do fully agree with using a watermark. I think if we all got into a habit of using them, the hate of them will be a thing of the past. I also feel it is a effective way to slow down the stealing process. In addition, it says "Hey, you are stealing, you are in violation of rights". Your watermark stands out first!

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