Hotlinking? What Year is it Again?

During this morning’s feed reading, I came across a great post from one of my new favorites, Emails from Crazy People, another hilarious UGC-based blog from the Cheezburger Network.

These guys provide various forms of hilarity to brighten your day, including I Can Has Cheezburger? and the Failblog. Incidentally, they have the best business model on the interwebs, EVAR! Create a place for people to share their witty and snarky content, drive millions of pageviews a day, sell a ton of ads, print money. Rinse, repeat.

Genius really. From what I’ve read, it happened by accident spurred on by the LOLcats meme.

And yes, this is my own content if you're wondering.

Anyway, today’s email, is funny and disturbing all at once. In a nutshell, the sender is angry because the images s/he hotlinked from another site had been moved by the (presumed) content owner, causing upsetness and broken images. While most people reading this blog understand that hotlinking is a no-no for a number of reasons, I’m guessing that the majority of people out there with blogs don’t have a clue and/or don’t care.

Case in point, several blogs have hotlinked here over the years. Not enough to matter to me, but enough to convince me that people are generally clueless about it.

Whether or not the (presumed) content owner realized the site was hotlinking and moved the images to avoid a stink over email, the issue of how to protect your content online is one that will get worse before it gets better.

Little known fact: US copyright law protects pretty much every piece of original content you post online (photos, videos, blog posts, etc.), which is why when you upload an image to Flickr, the default setting is “all rights reserved”.

This means if someone uses your content, regardless of the purpose, you must consent to its use. If you don’t, you have legal recourse. Most people don’t care, but they might if their funny pictures of that party last week end up with snarky captions on the Failblog.

Hotlinking an image makes it easy to track down who’s using your image and for what, but obviously, it’s nearly impossible to track image downloads and how and where they’re used. Most content owners find out by accident or by word of mouth.

I’ve covered Creative Commons a few times here, and over the years this blog has been running, and I’ve learned on the job about the right (and wrong) ways to use images and properly attribute content I use to spice up otherwise boring posts.

Creative Commons is a great way to offer content owners a way to share their work and safeguard how it’s used, but even so, enforcing a CC license isn’t easy. I have several friends who take photos for a living and lament how tough it is to educate people on how they can use a CC licensed photo. CC is great, but it’s not good enough considering how much effort goes into educating people about licenses.

This is why some people have abandoned it entirely, not wishing to sink large amounts of effort into fighting with someone over email. Beyond effort, enforcing a CC license with a lawyer’s help is a cost that most people can’t afford.

This is probably why the (presumed) content owner moved the images in question, rather than send an email.

Talk about your double-edged swords. On the one hand, the interwebs provides a great way to get your content out there and easy ways to disseminate your work. On the other hand, ease of reuse and publishing makes it nigh impossible to protect your content.

I don’t have an answer, but I will stay this, if you use images in your posts, be aware of the licensing for them. Lately, I’ve switched to using only CC attribution licensed images (the most lax of CC licenses), images for which I have explicit permission to use and obvious Fair Use images in posts that don’t reflect negatively on the content depicted in the image.

So, any of this matter to you? Want to educate me about CC and image use?

Find the comments and add your thoughts.




  1. People sometimes hotlink stuff off my site. However, as my site's running on IIS, it's not so easy to prevent it without installing a 3rd party application on the server which I'd have to pay more for. To prevent it, I save the name of the image folder in an include file, and change it from time to time, so that anyone hotlinking to the stuff will lose the link.

    It's a lot easier to write a rule in the .htaccess file on sites hosted on apache sites to prevent hotlinking, or to replace the image they're replacing with a funny message, like the one in your post. But I guess you already know all that.

    You said you were finding it hard to find things to blog about Jake – seems like you're keeping up with the same high quality content to me – getting my AppsLab email is the highlight of my working day. Everything else is tedious!

  2. Wow, it's been a while since I've heard someone running on IIS, at least a consumer-side site. I suppose I should switch images to prevent hotlinking, but it happens to us so rarely that I don't think it's a huge problem.

    Still, maybe I should check the logs to see how much bandwidth they're stealing. Your case is typical for content owners: how to balance the cost of blocking hotlinking with the effort involved.

    Thanks for the kind words and glad I can brighten your day. It's been a struggle lately. I may just be experiencing general boredom with my usual topics.

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