Protecting Images: Five Methods Explored

With image theft such a large problem, artists and photographers have sought out methods to prevent plagiarism of their work. The cat and mouse game, which is almost as old as the graphic-capable Web browser, has escalated to encompass a wide variety of techniques from HTML tricks to image manipulation.

With so many means of protecting images, it’s worth taking time to step back and evaluate some of the more popular image protection methods and look at how they work, what their drawbacks are and how well they protect.

After all, the first step to achieving a goal is to figure out where we are and where we have to go. Only then can we start moving in the right direction.

The No Right Click Script

The oldest and, currently, most popular method of protecting image content is the use of a no right click Javascript. The code for this script is widely available in a variety of different formats and is easy to implement on just about any site. No advanded programming or HTML knowledge is required.

The script works by preventing people from using their right mouse button while on the site itself. This blocks people from simply right clicking on an image and saving the image to their hard drive.

The Drawbacks

The problems the NRC script creates are many and great. Many people, including myself, use the right click button to navigate around the Web. The right mouse button is also used to open Web pages in a new window or new tab if using Firefox.

Using this script can be very frustrating to legitimate site visitors who have grown used to the ease of use the right click menu provides. After all, the “Save Image As” option is just one item in a long list of the right click dialog and disabling it robs your site of a great deal of functionality to many of the Web’s most savvy users.

The Level of Protection

Perhaps the biggest problem with the NRC script is that is provides nearly no effective protection. The script is easily defeated by simply disabling javascript in the browser. Also, one can still drag and drop the image to their hard drive or simply save the entire page to their hard drive and pull it out that way.

In the end, the NRC script is nothing but a hassle offering no practical security. Though it might be useful in limited situations, such as image popup windows that are meant to be viewed and closed, it’s largely just a hassle and most Webmasters who use it would probably be better off with nothing at all.

Transparent Overlay

The transparent overlay, which was discussed previously, protects images by overlaying a completely transparent image on top of the image that is being protected. This way, when someone tries to right click on an image and save it, they actually save the transparent image even though they appear to be grabbing the one below it.

It’s a technique which can be applied a number of ways, including with HTML, CSS and advanced programming languages, and can be adapted to almost any kind of site.

The Drawbacks

Unlike the NRC script, a transparent overlay does not hassle the end user with limited access to the site. However, it requires a great deal more knowledge and time to execute than simply pasting a few lines of code into a page. Even though new techniques have simplified the process, it’s far from a matter of copy and paste.

Its complexity can make it somewhat tedious to apply over large sites and new Webmasters often find this a very intimidating thing to do. However, its no-hassle approach to protection still makes it preferrable to the NRC script for general use.

The Level of Protection

The overlay relies mainly on the habits of image thieves. Most image thieves simply go around, right click images they want and save them to their hard drive for later use. They don’t check what they save and, generally, don’t bookmark where they got them from. Thus, tricking someone into downloading a transparent image can be a very effective technique against your average thief.

Still, it is an easily defeated technique. Saving the entire page, taking a screenshot or looking through the HTML code to find the location of the hidden file can defeat this technique in very short order.

So, while it’s useful against the more passive thief, a determined one will still have no trouble lifting the original image. Still though, it’s much more effective than the NRC script, that much is for certain.

Segmented Images

Many times, what appears to be one image is really two or more. This works because HTML allows for images to be positioned directly next to one another seamlessly. With that in mind, many artists have taken to cutting up their images and then using HTML to piece them back together. To the viewer, the image is whole but anyone who tries to lift the image will quickly find out they have (quite literally) a puzzle on their hands.

This is because “saving” the image via the right click function will only save a portion of the image. If anyone wanted to steal the entire thing, they’d have to save all of the pieces and reassemble them on their own. Theoretically, anyone who’s good enough with image editing to pull off that feat is good enough to create their own content.

The Drawbacks

Once again, this method doesn’t hassle end users and some even claim it speeds up loading times. However, applying this technique is much more complicated than any other out there and requires a fair amount of both image editing and code manipulation. (Note: Free software is a