The Sneak Thief: A Digital Pickpocket

There are two paths this post could veer down and I think to attempt both would dilute them. There’s a question of what digital work is worth (and why), and then there’s the topic I want to tackle briefly now, which I’m going to term: Sneak Thief.

What is a Sneak Thief?

Mostly, you’ll have encountered these on social media sites. They’re the accounts who spend all of their time saving/copying and reposting other people’s content (be that photos, artwork, quotes, poems etc) to their own timeline with the aim (usually) of amassing a large following.

I use the term Sneak Thief, because although technically theft, I’m attempting to make it more lighthearted because they usually aren’t trying to monetise it… which is where things get tricky, but I’ll come to that later.


Why is it a Problem?

It’s problematic for a number of reasons:

They’re taking your work.

This first point is the most important. It’s yours. It doesn’t matter if it took you 5 minutes or 5 weeks to complete, you shouldn’t feel bad for ownership of your own hard work.

I’ve often heard photographers’ images described as ‘a quick snap.’ Well, maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but what about the education (formal or self) that they’ve had to get to this point, what about the investment in their equipment, the time they spend honing their craft? There are so many things that can be dismissed when we don’t have that particular skill-set. Here we start getting into ‘digital worth,’ but you get the idea.

You can’t control the quality.

When I upload images, I try to make sure they’re a low enough resolution so as not to be  stolen and used elsewhere (like for prints), but good enough so they don’t look rubbish on social media (I’m looking at you Facebook) when it compresses the hell out of them.

When someone saves an image from Facebook for example, they’re saving something which has already been compressed. When they post it again, it compresses again and the quality can become horrendous. You’ve now got a photograph uploaded that looks awful, and it’s got your name on it.

It’s rude

It’s just bloody rude. Yeah I’m English and we take politeness and queueing to a whole new level, but I still don’t understand how someone can go through the process of saving your work, reposting it and even copying you in… all without asking.

I’ve had similar accounts ask if they can feature a particular photograph. Sometimes I say yes, sometimes no, but it’s the asking that matters.

Motivation, Intent, Reaction

Image from Unsplash

The motivation behind a Sneak Thief is important, even though the resulting issues above are the same. Are they genuinely trying to promote you? I’d say in most cases that’s a resounding ‘no’. Of course they’re not – if they were then why not just share your original post or use the quoting facility within Twitter? They use the intellectual property of others to further their own cause, whether that’s sales of something, more followers… it doesn’t matter; it’s lazy.

Much of the time I think ignorance plays a large part, and I don’t mean that in an insulting sense… genuinely many people don’t know the etiquette of the digital world, but if we stay quiet then that may never change.

Occasionally someone has saved my photograph and reposted it and I’ve kept quiet about it, but it makes me uncomfortable to do so. I try to put any annoyance aside and explain to someone why I’d prefer they didn’t save and repost my images, but it’s still an uncomfortable situation. I find myself wondering why we bend over backwards to politely rebuff someone’s poor behaviour.

Most recently someone did this on Twitter and I politely explained why I’d rather they didn’t. They promptly apologised and removed the image – a good result all around and hopefully nobody came out of it feeling too awkward.

If someone is trying to monetise your work, then that’s a different thing entirely and you should read my articles: What to Do When Your Images Are Used Without Permission and Understanding Copyright and Licensing for Photography.

Comparisons in a Non-Digital World

It can be difficult to reason with people when it comes to digital works. It always reminds me of those anti-piracy adverts on DVDs: YOU WOULDN’T STEAL A CAR, SO WHY WOULD YOU STEAL A FILM…

If I bobbed along to Ikea and took some furniture, got accosted at the door by security, and explained that I get a lot of visitors to my home and putting their sofas, tables and chairs in it would be a great advert for them (really they should be thanking me), then I’d expect to be escorted off to a small room with bars… perhaps even a padded one, because that just wouldn’t fly in the real world.


If an account is looking to post some images, then there are a ton of great stock accounts out there that will let you use their images FOR FREE! Here are a few that I’ve used in the past:

There’s tons of choice, so there really is no excuse for pinching someone’s photograph.

together we create
Image from Unsplash

Be Brave

I try to sidestep accounts like this. If I see something I like from one of them, then I find the original poster (and owner) and share their post instead. While many of the smaller accounts ‘aren’t doing any harm,’ it does pave the way for this to become acceptable and the norm.

I’ve seen many of the official ‘Visit Country/City‘ accounts now doing a similar thing, using implied permission (if you tag us then we can use your image) rather than simply sharing the original post or contacting the person directly. They are, indirectly, monetising your work by doing this and I don’t know about your bank, but mine don’t seem to take exposure as a mortgage payment.

Confrontation is hard, but ultimately it’s the only way we can make a change.

That’s not to say it’s all about the money, it’s not… but the owner/creator of something should have the power to decide how and when their work is used. And it’s only polite to ask first, right?



Has this happened to you? Let me know in the comments.







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