How image thieves can unwittingly provide free ads

If you run a website these days it’s fairly common for people to copy the address of an image file and paste it on a forum or blog.

This is known as ‘hotlinking’ a file and it’s frowned on because it’s theft. The website pays for hosting the image while the forum or blog gets the benefit and of course there is no link back to the hosting website. Not that a link would make the theft of content OK even there was one…

However the people who do this don’t realise to what extent they are playing with fire… It’s a very simple matter for the webmaster of the hosting site to swap the image for something else.

He or she just renames the original file, updates their own page on which the image appears and adds a replacement picture which has same filename as the original.

Suddenly a completely different hotlinked image pops up on the blog or forum. It could be something nasty or embarrassing and it may be weeks or months before the owner of the site or forum poster realises what has happened.

Many forums don’t permit the writer to edit a post after a certain amount of time, so getting the embarrassing image removed could be difficult. Meanwhile people reading the blog or the forum post wonder why there is a strange unexplained picture for no reason at all.

You could have some wicked fun finding images that in some twisted way match whatever the subject of the post is.

Or how about an image that is 20,000 pixels tall x 1 pixel wide? Creating an enormous gap on the page and seriously messing up the layout.

But is it worth antagonising people? With a little bit of extra work there’s a way to turn this to your advantage instead. How would you like a free ad for your website on those pages that hotlink?

Free ad via hotlinked image

If you’re a bit of a whizz with Photoshop you can knock up something like this in a minute. It’s the same as the image that was hotlinked but with a promotion for your website slapped over the top.

Or if that’s too much work, make something generic that you can use every time.

Free ad via hotlinked image

This works best if you have a short domain name that is easy to type in. Otherwise people are less likely to bother.

1 Comment

  • David Henry says:

    I guess it can be a problem if you are a photographer and then you have every right to be concerned about your content being stolen. HotLinking used to be a bigger problem for webmasters back when bandwidth was much more limited, these days the odd hotlinked photo someone’s cheekily embeded on their site doesn’t pose a leeching problem but it’s rude and technically theft in more ways than one. For Google images though it is it least worthwhile allowing them to index your photos as they link back to the original page rather than just the image alone.

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