How to Stop Content Theft on Flickr

Alien at Birmingham Bull Ring Opening - 4 September 2003

[UPDATE: Please note that this post is no longer valid. Due to Flickr’s Favorites leak, which serves favorited images to scrapers and search engines regardless of your settings, there’s now nothing you can do to stop your images falling prey to scrapers, with Flickr’s blessing.]

A scraper is an Internet thief who uses automated routines to steal unthinkable quantities of creative work, and the huge photo site Flickr is a scraper’s paradise. Not only does Flickr virtually guarantee scrapers usable, categorised and vetted content – it even gives them an official API tool which makes it childishly simple for them to gather it up and re-post it.

I described in my Flickr licences article over on Planet Botch, how I’d spoken to Flickr about scraper sites auto-republishing All Rights Reserved content – content which Flickr publicly says is not to be republished without permission from the copyright owner. The response I got, in a nutshell, was that provided the scrapers use Flickr’s own tools, and link back to Flickr, then Flickr doesn’t care.

Flickr’s advice to me was, if I don’t want my content scraped in contravention of copyright law and Flickr’s own supposed licence ‘protections’, I need to make it inaccessible to public search. Hide it, basically. That takes it off Google and all other search engines. It’s not just scrapers who can’t find it – the general public can’t either. I asked, this being the case, what the difference was between Flickr’s permissive Creative Commons licences, and their supposed All Rights Reserved ‘protection’. I got no further response. Clearly, there is no difference, and the ‘licences’ are meaningless.

As long as spammers and thieves are making them pots of money, many giants of the Web will value such parasites way above the hard-working creatives whose content they leech and proliferate. Statements to the contrary are typically just lipservice. Flickr has epitomised that, by giving spammers and thieves the tools to break the terms of its own licence designations.

I stopped using Flickr for some time after I saw how much disrespect the site had for photographers’ work, but I’ve recently given more thought to the matter. The Internet is what it is, and no matter how much we might dislike the attitude of the people calling the shots, it doesn’t make much sense to shoot ourselves in the foot on matters of principle. If we opted out of everything we don’t entirely agree with online, most of us probably wouldn’t use the Internet at all. That would be stupid. So I pondered the question of whether there might be a way to use Flickr without the usual scrape-frenzy, but equally, without rendering the content unsearchable. There’s actually a pretty simple way to do it: use a blog.

MAKING IMAGE THEFT DIFFICULT WITHOUT LOSING PUBLICITY

The basic plan is to hide all your Flickr uploads from anyone outside Flickr. Start by going to your Privacy Settings page (make sure you’re logged in to Flickr if clicking this link). You need to edit the Hide your stuff from public searches option so it says: “Yes, on 3rd party sites”, as I’ve highlighted in yellow in the capture below…

Flickr Hide Your Stuff From Public Searches

What this does, is prevents scrapers and other outside parties from getting your images in their feeds. It also means that search engines such as Google will not be able to directly index your work, but don’t worry about that – your blog will solve that problem. Flickr users should be able to find your photos via the internal tag system in the normal way. It’s also worth me pointing out that if you select “No” for the third option down: Allow others to share your stuff, the hotlink code generator is disabled for anyone other than you. That makes it a lot more difficult for random bloggers and forum users to re-post your pics if you don’t want them to.

BLOG YOUR PHOTO

It’s simple from here. You now just paste an image’s code from your Flickr account (accessed as shown below), into the Text Editor on a blog post, add whatever text and captioning you want, and publish…

Flickr Code to Paste

Make sure that your blog is publicly searchable. For a WordPress blog the selection for this is found under Settings>Reading>Site Visibility. Once you’ve selected Allow search engines to index this site’, you’re set up…

WordPress settings

What happens now, provided you use relevant post titles and body text, is that your images are picked up by the search engines and begin to appear in the results for your given subject matter. Where in the results they appear will depend on the search status of your blog, and that’s down to how much perceived interest there is in it. However, I can say that WordPress.com blogs do perform very well in search as compared with other free blogging platforms, and one WP photo blog I opened in mid 2011 has easily out-performed my Flickr account on Google Image Search. Many of the images on that WordPress blog come up as the number one Google Images result for their specific subject matter here in Central England.

Remember, in this case it’s the site hosting the post that Google recognises as the source – not the site hosting the image. So if you publicise Flickr photos via WordPress, you get the benefits of WordPress’s SEO.

SO WHY NOT JUST UPLOAD IMAGES STRAIGHT TO THE BLOG?

Flickr has several advantages over direct-to-blog uploading.

  • Better reproduction. Images hosted on Flickr retain their sharpness more effectively – especially when resized. The squirrel photo in this post is hosted on Flickr, and as you can see, the reproduction is very impressive indeed.
  • Logistical flexibility. Hosting images with a third party means you can more easily move the blog elsewhere if you ever need or feel the urge to do so. Simply upload your complete blog backup to a new host and you’re ready to go.
  • Storage space. Flickr gives you the most storage space and/or image size capacity.
  • The additional benefit of the Flickr community if you want or need it. If you like the networking side of Flickr, you can use the blog to publicise your Flickr account and establish contacts. You can still of course comment on other Flickr users’ work and publicise yourself that way too. You can even use Flickr to publicise your blog – it works both ways.
  • But best of all, my experiments with this method have shown that, at least at present, Google Images WON’T allow users to download a full-sized image directly if you’ve set your Flickr to hide it from 3rd party sites. The original pic just doesn’t load. If surfers find your photo on Image Search and want anything more than a lo-res downsize, they HAVE to access the original, via your blog.

CONCLUSION

Ultimately, of course, whatever you do to cut scrapers out of the equasion, as a photographer or imager you’re always going to fall victim to some content theft. None of the above makes it impossible for thieves to take your work and use it for their own gain, but it does make things a lot more inconvenient for them. In most cases the inconvenience will be too much for the type of character who scrapes, re-posts without attribution on forums, or splogs anything they like the look of onto an ‘Internet Marketing’ blog, so it will stop some content theft.

There will always be those who think anything on the Internet is automatically theirs for the taking, and many sites – Google Images in particular – are fuelling that myth with woefully inadequate copyright warnings and a system which cuts the copyright holder out of the loop. But this method, whilst more awkward than just publicising straight from Flickr, will deter a lot of those individuals and prompt them to steal someone else’s work instead.

Author: Bob Leggitt

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