“THIEF!! THIEF!! STOP HIM! HE ROBBED ME,” yelled the shop keeper as he chased a homeless youth through Banyan Tree Park, the latter in full sprint and a pair of sunglasses clutched in his hand. I can only guess at the skirmish that ensued, but the shop keep soon strolled back through the park, his stolen article retrieved.

At some point in time, we’ve all had something taken from us – someone stole our lunch, our car or for some, even their identity. And what about photographs? It happens more often than you think.

For instance, this last weekend, after the sunglasses incident, I had a couple stop at my booth and admire my images. The woman quickly pointed to my easel of giclees and exclaim how happy she was with the two 16X20 sunset shots they owned, pointing to two images in my display. The gentleman then bragged about the great deal he got, trading two paintings for my two pieces at a store front on Maui that I hadn’t been involved with in over a year. Needless to say, I was in shock to learn of the “sale” of my images, and someone profiting from the transaction with the artist not receiving compensation.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to go after an unprincipled entity or person for use of images without payment or flat-out stealing art work. Other photographer friends of mine have had similar issues with unscrupulous galleries, print houses, magazines and stores, and while you might think all is lost, it isn’t.

The first thing to remember is that as the photographer, the instant you press the shutter button, you instantly “own” the copyright to the image. It belongs to you and nobody else. In today’s digital age, cameras not only take an image, but collect a whole bunch of data, such as exposure information, the date and time the picture was taken and the camera used, including the serial number of the camera. I can’t begin to tall you how many cases for copyright infringement are won by the admission of camera data.

Secondly, registering your images with the copyright office in Washington DC (www.copyright.gov) will further protect your shots. By registering your images, you basically “fast track” the claims process if you’ve been infringed upon. By presenting the Court with a copy of the registration, it makes it almost impossible for anyone to refute your ownership to the image. After all, you took the time to copyright the images. The copyright office makes this a pretty painless process, and allows you to register images in bulk as collections, so you don’t have to register each image individually, which would be an enormous pain in the back side. The best part is the cost, a mere $35.00.

Next, you’ll want good legal representation. While this can be expensive, if you belong to photographic organizations such as Professional Photographers of America (PPA), North American Nature Photographers Association (NANPA) or American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP), legal representation is part of the benefits package. A single call to the one of the organization will connect you to a staff attorney who is versed in law as it pertains to photographers, especially copyright. The best thing is that there are no legal fees for the photographer to bear.

The last thing to remember is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Before you place your images into a gallery, give them to a store to sell or hand your files over to a print house, get references and call them. Ask fellow photographers for recommendations and take the time to do the legwork necessary to determine the reputation of the purveyor. Just remember to follow your gut: if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.

As for the illegal trade of my images, well, I’m not worried. I’ve made contact with counsel in three organizations I belong to, and the legal wheels are turning. So far, my record is 2 and 0, and my legal team says we’ll have no problem adding another hash mark to the win category.