Reverse Image Search on Google: How and Why

Story & photos by Frank Gallagher

As I write this article, many photographers are confined to their homes or immediate neighborhoods and large parts of the world have shut down because of the COVID-19 crisis. No tours, no workshops, no flying to exotic locations on assignment. So, what do you do with all that extra time? You can spend it moping around the house and making yourself crazy or you can start doing the productive tasks you didn’t have time for previously: cleaning your gear, updating your website and doing some reverse image searches.

What Is a Reverse Image Search?

It’s just what it says it is. You choose a photo and use a search engine, like Google, to scour the internet looking for other instances where that photo appears. Google’s reverse image search also returns an assortment of similar images for you to review. It’s a quick and easy way to see if someone is using one of your images without permission.

There are also several automated services that regularly scan the internet for unauthorized use of your images and a couple of apps that do reverse image searches. These are geared more towards pros who generate a significant part of their income from stock and other image sales, who’ve registered their images with the copyright office, and whose livelihood is affected by unauthorized use of their photos. Some of these services will manage everything from the reverse image searches to notifying infringers to taking legal action to collecting damages to paying you a share of the damages they collect.

This article, and reverse image searches on Google, are aimed more at photographers who don’t expect to receive a lot of money from their images, but who have singular images that do generate regular sales. Image sales do not make up a significant part of my photography income. However, I have sold a lot of copies of some images, like the frog photo at the top of this article, so I do want to keep tabs on it.

Why Do a Reverse Image Search?

These days, sadly, a large number of people simply don’t understand what an artist’s copyright means. They grew used to finding all sorts of free things on the internet and just assume they can use anything they come across. Sometimes businesses and large organizations also seem cavalier about using artists’ work. Recently there have even been several high-profile cases of popular entertainers using copyrighted photos without permission. Doing a reverse image search can help you find out if anyone is using one your images without your permission.

Click on Images near the top right to initiate a reverse image search.
Click on Images near the top right to initiate a reverse image search.

How Do You Do a Reverse Image Search?

The easiest way, for me at least, is to use Google Chrome on my computer. I just go to images.google.com either by typing in the URL or by clicking on “Images” on the top right of the Google homepage.

Once there, click on the camera icon in the search bar.

Upload an image or link to an online image.
Upload an image or link to an online image.

You can upload the image you want to check or, if it exists on the net (such as on your website or blog), either type in the URL or right click on the image and select Search Google for Image.

From a Phone

Using the Chrome browser tap and hold on the three dots at the bottom right of your screen. From the pop up menu, scroll down to Request Desktop Site and continue as above. This may not always work with browsers other than Chrome.

ON a mobile device, you can switch to desktop and follow the steps outlined above or tap and hold on an image to start a search.
On a mobile device, you can switch to desktop and follow the steps outlined above or tap and hold on an image to start a search.

If the photo is online, say on your website, tap and hold on the photo. A pop up menu will appear and you can select “Search Google for This Image.” I have an iPhone, but the process is similar for Android.

Reverse image search results page for one of my images of the Bas Harbor Light in Maine.
Reverse image search results page for one of my images of the Bas Harbor Light in Maine.

You’ll quickly get a results page. If your shot is of a well-known location, Google is likely to identify the subject, as it did here for my shot of the Bass Harbor Lighthouse in Maine. It’s telling me that there are no exact matches, but there are a lot of similar photos. I can scan those to make sure no one has made minor alterations (like adding text or logos or formatting into a tourist brochure) but, in this case, there are no exact matches. Cool! No copyright infringement.

Reverse image search results for the frog photo.
Reverse image search results for the frog photo.

Let’s try another. I’ll do a reverse image search on the photo at the top of this article, that frog in the pond with the red maple leaves. In this case, Google found the image in a blog post I wrote a couple of years ago for a photography education website. Google has also picked up on the topic of the article, Eliot Porter’s concept of “intimate landscapes,” and added information related to that. No duplicate images were found and even the “visually similar images” aren’t remotely close. So, once again, no unauthorized use of my photo.

What if I Find Someone Using My Photo Without Permission

If you do find an identical photo, it’s possible that someone’s making unauthorized use of your photo. The first thing I’d do is go to the infringing website identified by Google and carefully examine the photo to make sure it was mine. There are dozens of near identical photos of the Bass Harbor Lighthouse, for example. Is there anything unique about my image that makes me sure it’s my photo someone is using?

I might want to take a closer look at the visually similar images. This page lets me zoom in.
I might want to take a closer look at the visually similar images.

It’s entirely possible that someone didn’t realize your photo is protected by copyright. A simple email to them explaining the situation and asking them to either credit you as the photographer or remove the photo can sometimes do the trick. And that may be enough, if you’re an amateur photographer, or don’t generate income from the sale of your images. But who knows? They might even agree to pay you to license the use of your photo.

If you don’t receive a satisfactory answer, you have options and you have rights. Copyright law and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) spells out your rights and remedies, the circumstances under which they do and don’t apply, and details some of the ways you can get recourse, including “Take Down Notices.” An important NANPA Member Benefit is access to sample DMCA Take Down Notices you can customize and send to the infringing party and to the ISP which hosts the offending website. They’re in the Members’ Area under the “Protect Your Photos & Nature” section.

There’s a lot more to copyright infringement and how artists can protect their rights but that’s a really big topic that needs its own article.

By the way, did you know that NANPA has a long history of advocating for the rights of artists? NANPA is a member of the Copyright Alliance and the Coalition of Visual Artists, and is actively advocating for modernization of copyright laws, for passing the CASE Act (to establish a copyright small claims process), and a variety of initiatives that protect artists’ intellectual property. You can learn more about NANPA’s advocacy here.

Give reverse image searches a try. They don’t take long. You can do them a couple of times a year to check on your most popular images. And you might be surprised by what you find.

Frank Gallagher is a photographer and writer who lives in the Washington, DC, area. He coordinates NANPA’s blog, edits Expressions, NANPA’s annual journal and co-leads NANPA’s DC area Meetup Group. He works mainly with national and local nonprofit organizations but also teaches youth photography. Frank built up his photography business following a 25-year career in nonprofit associations focused on education and technology, during which he developed extensive experience in storytelling and communications.

Photography has been a passion of Frank’s since, as a child, he watched his dad carefully composing with a Speed Graphic. He, enjoys travel and spending time with his wife—exploring new places and rediscovering old ones.

See more at frankgallagherphotography.com, Facebook and Instagram.

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