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Photography/Will using an EXIF editor affect the ability to prove it's your own photograph?

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QUESTION: Hi Steve Meltzer,

I am curious if using an EXIF editor to remove GPS location data from my photograph would in any way affect the EXIF data that I wouldn't be able to prove I'm the one who took the picture, for copyright proving issues? I'm not familiar with EXIF data.

My situation:  For personal use and putting my pictures online, I have a computer program where I can use the time stamps of my camera, and synchronize them with the time stamps from my Garmin GPS tracks, to geotag photograph locations, since my camera doesn't have its own GPS.

The mistake I made:  You have to tell the computer program if there are any time differences between what the camera and what the GPS unit say. I accidentally didn't do that, and so now my photograph is geotagged at the wrong location. Unfortunately, I have deleted a portion of my GPS track, so I can't start the process over again to have the correct GPS coordinates written over the old wrong ones.

So, the second option I have is to drag and drop the photograph onto the map of my Garmin software program, and using the satellite maps on it to see exactly where it should go. The problem is this software program will only let you do this second option of "drag & drop" if there aren't any GPS coordinates already associated with it. Since I have the wrong coordinates (by an hour) accidentally on it, I'm stuck on what I should do.

I'm thinking of using an EXIF editor to remove the GPS coordinates, then start the process all over again.  I'm worried if doing this would affect the photograph EXIF data in any way that would make it difficult to prove the picture is mine?

Thank you for your time!
Nick

ANSWER: The EXIF contains data about how and when a photo was taken, and it is mostly permanent. In fact it records the time and camera used to take the photo. Even if nothing else it shows that the photo was taken with a camera like you have and the time which you can associate with your GPS data.

But personally I am not a GPS fan and prefer an old but reliable strategy--using a watermark program and embedding your copyright in the image. If you truly believe that your photos are valuable and salable this is what you need to do. The GPS strategy is fine but nothing beats an embedded watermark.

Also I have to wonder about your rush to load images onto the web. If you are worried about the appropriation of your images and their misuse don't put them online. I mean all your effort to GPS tag them so you can prove their yours has a built in flaw. How will you know if they were used,EXIF tagged or not? How would you track down a theft?

When I had a photo agency we demanded the return of all original images as well as any color separations that had been made from them. Guess what? It still didn't stop some photos getting out of our control. Digital is far worse. copies can go on forever.

With a photo agency if we found a misuse we could track its origins from our sales records, but how would you do that from an online site?

That's why I don't put images online if I can avoid it. Think about your images and if you really have to share them and you think they are valuable, invest in a watermarking program and or a tracking program. Or don't put the really, really valuable images online, except at a secure site.

Also when I load images on the web for sharing I reduce them to smaller than 900 pixels in the longest dimension. It doesn't solve all the problems but it reduces the usability of the images for lots of uses.

If it were only as simple as GPS tagging images to protect them.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thanks for your response!  However, I think I didn't do a good job of asking my question.  

I am "instead" worried if GPS tagging would make it so I can't prove the image is mine?  I am worried that doing so may leave a time stamp somewhere within the EXIF data, saying that it was changed so long after the picture was taken, and thus someone could say that "I tampered with the data"?  Since my geotagging program put in the wrong GPS coordinates, I don't know if using an EXIF editior to remove these coordinates would leave a record somewhere in there that the EXIF had been tampered with, thus leaving doubt it's really my image?

Also, I'm not worried that someone would steal by right clicking and "save image as", if I post my images on a place like Google Earth.  I'd be worried if they use them for some commercial purpose, then to cover up their tracks they accuse me of stealing their own images and putting them on Google Earth.  With EXIF data, I could show that it was taken by a camera model that I own at as such and such time, as a defense.  So that's why I am wondering if you're aware if there's hidden time stamps showing whether EXIF data was changed after the picture taken date?  That's why I'm worried about using an EXIF editor to correct wrong GPS coordinates.

Thank you for your time!

Answer
Have you noticed that the images on the web are small files generally under 1000 pixels in any dimension?. Here's a tip. Burn your original large JPEGs or RAW images to a disk. If someone accuses you of stealing their images all you have to do is show them the original big file  and ask to see theirs. Since they right clicked to steal the image they won't have the original file--case closed.

Are you putting large files or RAW files on the web. I hope not. So as long as you have the original files with the original EXIF information, the are dead in the water. So stop with the GPS and the time tag and hoping that your story about setting the incorrect time on the GPs will save the day. Just produce the original file with the original EXIF data.  

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Steve Meltzer

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I am a professional photographer and I've been shooting for newspapers, magazines, commercial clients and artists for over 30 years. I have shot stock photography for dozens of years and in 1977 created West Stock (Seattle, WA) which was one of the first to produce stock photo CDs and later one of the first to establish an online stock photo slaes site. I have a new book on digital photography "PHOTOGRAPHING ARTS, CRAFTS AND COLLECTIBLES (Lark Books, 2007)which is available at Amazon.com, eBay.com and in bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders. I have another book, CAPTURE THE LIGHT which will be puiblished in November, 2008. I write 20-30 feature articles and columns for regional and national publications a year. My education includes studying with photographers like Cornell Capa, Duane Michels and Oliver Gagliani (from the Ansel Adams Center.)

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