What to do when your photo goes viral


I mean that as a question. What to do when your image goes viral... What to do, what to do? I've had to ponder this recently, and I think I have my solution.

It happens sometimes that a photo becomes so widespread that tracking use of it is an exercise in futility and frustration. This photo is my first experience in it. Sure I've had photos used without permission quite a few times in the past. You can't put something online without running that risk. But they are usually one-off instances. This photo, though, has been another thing entirely.

I photographed my dog for an article with recipes for baking a dog birthday cake. We went down to the store and picked out party favors for decoration, and he got to dive in to a couple pup-cakes. I posted the photo along with some others on Instagram and included them in the published article. And off it went.

It ended up being submitted by random people (representing it as their own) to some major animal social media accounts for Facebook and Instagram. It took off like wildfire, being shared all over the place, being uploaded to blogs and websites and people's personal pages. It has ended up everywhere from tech blogs to cute-overload-style sites to a producer working with MTV asking me to use the photo (of course, when I gave him the link to license it, I never heard back). My wife even saw it printed out as a birthday card on a co-worker's desk. When she asked how they got a photo of her dog, they said they just Googled "birthday dog." And yep, sure enough, this photo is at the top of the Google search results.

I have not made a single penny off of this photo. There is a decent chance I will never make an income from it, not with people able to save it or print it for free after finding it in a two-second Google search. I also could never possibly hope to contain all the misuse of this image anymore. But I can stop it when I see it. Or can I?

When I see someone using a photo of mine, I look at whether or not they are using it commercially and if there is credit. If credit is given then I usually write it off. If it is on a non-commercial website, or is not being used for branding or drawing in new users to a site and so on, then I write it off. But if a site is using it without credit and for gain or for branding, then I feel justified in asking for it to be taken down.

Much of the Internet, however, doesn't agree. Most people seem to think that anything on the Internet is theirs to take and use. But it isn't. So often I hear, "Once it's on the Internet, just expect it to be stolen." Well, yeah. To an extent. But it is never okay. Or worse, I hear, "You should watermark it," or, "You should disable right-click-save." Yes, these are mildly helpful deterrents but it puts the blame back on the photographer if their image is stolen, not on the person who took without asking. And none of these perspectives mean a photographer shouldn't stand up for their rights as the creator and owner of a photo when it is taken.

Fitting a request to take down an image in 140 characters on Twitter looks like this: "Hi. Your profile photo is a copyrighted photo that I took. I have not given permission for it to be used. Please remove it." The second warning looks like: "Ur profile pic is my copyrighted pic.Using it violates Twitter's TOS & my rights.Pls remove it so I don't have to report it." Pretty average language requesting someone stop using my photo as their profile photo or background photo (as in, using it for their branding). I could go straight to Twitter or whatever social media site and submit a report of copyright infringement. But it's nicer to ask first before putting someone's account at risk.

Yet that simple request has earned me backlash, especially with followers of one of the people whom I have pinged. Their profile said they were 96-years-old -- and I thought it was a character, an act. Nope, turns out she really is a 96-year-old woman (go figure, some unbelievable Twitter bios are actually true. Makes me wonder about that Bronx Zoo snake...) and with a mini army of followers ready to hate on anyone who isn't perfectly kind to her. And apparently sending a take-down request is beyond the pale. Well, that one was a whole can of worms. Had I researched the account and back-story first, I probably would have put two or three pleases in there rather than just one. But frankly, why would I research every person using my image before sending a calmly worded take-down request? After figuring out she was a real person (and a total sweetheart, hence the angry horde ready to overreact on her behalf) who recently had a scary experience thanks to social media, I told her she can go ahead and use my image for free.

Anyway, age aside, it's the same story: If the site or account responds (and often I am completely ignored), they typically take it down while saying they didn't realize it shouldn't be used.

I just don't get this. It seems so simple. Is it yours? Do you know whose it is? Did they say you could use it? Just like with every other thing in this world, if the answer is "No" to these questions, then you probably shouldn't use it. Sharing is one thing; linking to a source and sharing a photo, video or article via social media is of course desired. You're sharing the source of the photo and providing credit that way. I'm not knocking that. But uploading an image and using it for anything, from a birthday card to a profile photo, without permission is another thing entirely. Then it's not hard to stop and ask those three questions, to consider that someone spent time and energy creating that image and perhaps their income relies on sales of their work. If you can't find who created the image, it still isn't yours to use as you wish.

But too many people don't stop and think about this. So what happens when your photo goes viral? For me, in this case, the answer I've landed on is: donate it.

See, it's not just my photograph but also my dog. My fur-kid. It's jolting to see his face somewhere I didn't authorize it to be, especially a profile photo. The sheer number of times this photo has been taken without permission, without credit, has sapped the joy out of it for me. What do you do when you don't want something taken from you? You give it away.

So, I'm donating this photo to nonprofits who want to use this image for fundraising. If you are with an organization, from animal welfare groups to health awareness organizations to child welfare and anything in between, please contact me with a link to your nonprofit's website, a description of the work you do and how you would like to use the photo. I will donate a high-quality print-ready file to your organization. I will also provide design work if you want your logo or message on the image. You can use it for anything from marketing material to cards to calendars to key chains.

For the most part, I can't control where or how people use the images that have gone up already. But I can at least improve the quality of the photo when it is used. Perhaps that will bring back some of the joy I had in making and looking at this photograph.

So, if you're wanting to use this photo in a real way to do some good in the world, then please get a hold of me so I can get you set up with a free high-quality file.

And if you're a for-profit business or website who wants to use (or has used) this photo on your site, or if you're someone who wants prints or a license for personal use, please throw us a bone and license the image from here or email me to order prints. It's not only the right thing to do but also we'd literally be able to buy more bones. This little guy loves them.

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.