How to Stop Bloggers from Hotlinking to Your Images

We ran posts by Jeff Wignall and Tony Blei last week describing two ways to protect your copyrighted images. But while it’s valuable to understand your recourse under the law, it can be just as useful to know how to use technology to protect your content.

In fact, in some instances, technology may be your only real option.

Hotlinking and the Law

Take, for example, the case of hotlinking. Hotlinking is when another Web site displays an image on its site by pulling the image from your server. The most widely accepted example of hotlinking is what Google does when it displays thumbnail images in its search results. These images aren’t stored on Google’s servers; they are stored on the sites that host the images.

It’s very easy for any Web site to hotlink to the images on your site. And as the courts have ruled in Google’s case, hotlinking is judged more favorably under copyright law than the uploading of a photo onto an infringing server.

In the 2007 case of Perfect 10, Inc. v., Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that hotlinking (“in-line linking”) as used by Google did not violate copyright law. Specifically, the court stated:

Because Google’s computers do not store the photographic images, Google does not have a copy of the images for purposes of the Copyright Act. In other words, Google does not have any “material objects…in which a work is fixed…and from which the work can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated” and thus cannot communicate a copy. Instead of communicating a copy of the image, Google provides HTML instructions that direct a user’s browser to a website publisher’s computer that stores the full-size photographic image.

Providing these HTML instructions is not equivalent to showing a copy. First, the HTML instructions are lines of text, not a photographic image. Second, HTML instructions do not themselves cause infringing images to appear on the user’s computer screen. The HTML merely gives the address of the image to the user’s browser. The browser then interacts with the computer that stores the infringing image. It is this interaction that causes an infringing image to appear on the user’s computer screen.

Hotlinking doesn’t have to result in a thumbnail image; it can display as a full-size image as well. If you have a photography blog with an RSS feed that displays your images, it’s a simple matter for any Web site to pull that entire feed, images and all, onto its site without ever hosting one of your images on its own server. And it uses your bandwidth every time a site visitor calls up one of your images.

Hotlinking is not a bad thing in and of itself. If the Web site that hotlinks to you also gives you credit for the image and links back to your site so that new visitors can find you, it can be well worth the tradeoff, particularly because bandwidth is so inexpensive.

But if you don’t want sites to hotlink to you — or you don’t want certain sites to hotlink to you — your simplest and most effective recourse is not the law. It’s to change the code on your site to block offenders.

Blocking Hotlinkers

One way to ban hotlinkers is to use the Apache distributed configuration file called “.htaccess”. While it doesn’t work for all sites, it does work for most. Apache is the most popular Web site server, serving more than 100 million sites. (If your site is not on an Apache server or you do not self-host your site, check with your provider for options to block hotlinks.)

Jonathan Bailey at Plagiarism Today says blocking hotlinks is “one of the easiest and most basic tasks that can be performed with .htaccess.” It can be used to ban all hotlinkers, ban specific hotlinkers, or to send an alternate image (imagine the possibilities!) to offending sites. You can find instructions for adding an .htaccess file to your site here, and get help with configuring your .htaccess file here.

You can also use .htaccess to block sites from “scraping” your site’s RSS feed — basically, taking your feed and then displaying it, in all or in part, on their site.

Feedburner and Flickr

Unfortunately, you can only use .htaccess for images and feeds hosted on your own server. Feeds hosted by Feedburner and images hosted by Flickr are another story.

Feedburner enables you to see “uncommon uses” of your feed content, which can help you to identify image thieves, but it won’t block their ability to receive content. Here’s Feedburner’s advice:

You may ask what you can do if you see a domain using your feed in a way that you feel is not appropriate (e.g., the feed content is posted on the site without proper credit to the source of the material). In this case, you should contact the domain or the domain host and take up the issue with them directly. You may also want to use the FeedBurner Creative Commons Service (on the Optimize tab) which adds a machine-readable Creative Commons copyright license to your feed.

The same kind of limitation applies when you host images on Flickr or other photo-sharing services. With Flickr, you can identify the sites that are accessing your images, but the only way to block them is to make the images “private,” which blocks virtually all visitors.

So in these cases, you’re back to contacting copyright violators directly and pursuing the legal path.

In addition to contacting the offending Web site, it’s also a good idea to report the site that is using your images to Google and to other search engines. The search engines may respond by no longer indexing or hosting advertising on the site, putting a serious damper on its ability to make money from your content.

Or, if you want to turn the image grab into a boost to your own site’s traffic, there are a number of plugins for WordPress and tools in Blogger to help.

11 Responses to “How to Stop Bloggers from Hotlinking to Your Images”

  1. I'm confused. Your title indicates you're going to tell people how to block hotlink access to web resources, but you never really do provide any advice.

    You also post a court ruling that hotlinking is not copyright violation, but you later refer to "copyright violators" who are hotlinking images on Flickr. Are you contradicting yourself, or just contradicting the court ruling?

    Hotlinking is not infringement. If you put something on the web, you are sharing it with anyone who wishes to access it. Just because they access that resource directly, rather than in the path that you expected, does not mean their actions are illegal.

  2. William, the section on .htaccess explains how you can use that tool to block hotlinks. You can visit the links provided in that section for the specific code to insert in your site.

    Many photographers consider the unauthorized display of their copyrighted images a "copyright violation," whether or not this is achieved through hotlinking, and whether or not these copyrighted images have been uploaded to Flickr. Others don't. But you're right, the Google ruling would seem to suggest that "copyright violators" is not the best term.

  3. One nice feature of htaccess is "rewrite" which allows you to send to the offending site a substitute image instead of the one that's been hotlinked. In the past I've sent a transparent gif file, 1 pixel high by 2000 pixels wide, which completely wrecks the other site's formatting and takes the site owner ages to identify as the source of the problem.

  4. This is a very helpful post. I did not realize that hotlinking was viewed any differently by copyright law. From the viewer's perspective, there is no difference. When I have found these and asked the person to take the image down, they have complied. But there's nice to know there are things I can do on my end also.

  5. John, thanks for the suggestion!

    Sanger, thanks!

    Personally, I'm not an anti-hotlink Nazi (although there are many out there who are.) People hotlinking to images on your blog can actually help your search position and bring visitors to your site. But what if you don't want porn sites or hate sites displaying your images, as just two examples? .htaccess provides a way to have at least some control over who is using your images.

  6. I use .htaccess and highly recommend it. It's not about whether hotlinking is protected by copyright or not. It's about giving yourself as much control as possible over where your content appears, especially when the hotlinker is using YOUR bandwidth to post your content. If you won't stand up for that, then you'll fall for anything.

  7. Great post Scott. Hotlinking is a definite problem. I've had folks who are selling on ebay hotlink to a picture who think nothing of it.

    The kicker is my picture was just a simple screen grab showing a version of an operating system.

    That was just plain laziness. Google images makes it easy for people to behave that way.

    Enter some keywords, get the link and presto, instant picture without breaking a sweat.

  8. Thanks SB and Peter!

  9. I don't mind that my images can be found by hotlinks. I have, however, decided to display my name or website name and copyright notice on each image I place on the web. This way everyone knows who is the rightful owner.

  10. "If the Web site that hotlinks to you also gives you credit for the image and links back to your site so that new visitors can find you, it can be well worth the tradeoff."

    I have been blogging for a long time but somehow I never ran across this "hotlink" problem, and now I still can't see the difference between a "link" and a "hotlink".

    I have a little thumbnail of the Omaha beach landings. This thumbnail is linked? or hotlinked? to a great US university picture. My blog is small, an average of 200 hits a day. On Sunday my thumbnail received more than 60 hits from people who must have landed on the university site. What is wrong with that?

  11. To John:

    How terrible! Don't you understand that these things are not generally known! I have read law, copyright law, blogs about law etc: I am a translator and by now practically live only online. And I saw this "hotlink" thing for the first time absent-mindedly some days ago and then clearly yesterday on a site showing off Oliver Stone's Alexander the Great.

    I could not believe my eyes. I cannot understand that a big movie company would not want its big morbo picture of Alex on his horse vs a Persian on his elephant traveling all over. A movie company! Not a little photographer trying to make money with his photo of the sun setting in the Sahara.

Leave a Reply