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    Credit: CIPRIANO LANDSCAPE DESIGN

    Contractors aren’t the only ones stealing pictures. When Chris Cipriano used Google’s Search by Image tool to see if this photo appeared on other Websites, the owner of Mahwah, N.J.-based Cipriano Landscape Design found it in a teak furniture maker’s catalog advertised on Sears.com.

A pool designer in New Jersey is using Google’s “Search by Image” tool to crack down on photo copyright infringement.

Recently, an intern at Cipriano Landscape Design spent two weeks searching the Internet for images that belong to the firm and uncovered hundreds of Websites, Facebook accounts and blogs illegally reusing its photos.

“We had well over 1,000 photos used,” said Chris Cipriano, owner of the Mahwah, N.J.-based firm. “Every page had 10 results, and we were finding 15 to 20 pages of results for a single photograph. That’s over 200 Websites for one image.”

Google launched the Search by Image tool in June 2011. The feature allows a user to upload an image from a computer or enter a photo’s URL from a Website and it will look for Web pages containing that image. The results are displayed similarly to a text search. The tool utilizes computer vision techniques to match the image to other photos on Google as well as other image collections.

From there, Google generates a “best guess” text description of the photo and finds others that have the same content. Even photos that have been manipulated (flipped or changed in size, for example) will be returned on the search. The tool is compatible with the browsers Chrome, Firefox 3.0+, Internet Explorer 8+ and Safari 5.0+.

Cipriano first discovered his images being illegally used by others online last year while working on a marketing project involving search engine optimization. This exercise led him to Google’s Search by Image capability and he immediately began looking for his pictures, first by using files stored on his computer, then by the photo’s URL, which broadened the results and shed light on the seriousness of the issue. He was shocked at what he found.

“People in India, Europe and all over the world are utilizing our photographs,” he said.

Cipriano isn’t the first or only contractor to find his images being illegally used by impostors in other countries.

Brian Van Bower and his peers at Genesis 3 Design Group recently have been a target of an India-based firm that went so far as to reuse on its Website the group’s educational program title “Water in Transit,” along with several photos of Genesis 3 projects.

Genesis 3 sent cease-and-desist letters to the company, and the photos have since been removed from the site. But it wasn’t easy to enforce intellectual property rights on a firm so far away that isn’t under U.S. legal jurisdiction, Van Bower said.

“Theoretically, someone can find the coolest project out there and put it on their site and until someone does something about it, people are buying from false advertising,” he said.

Van Bower said Cipriano’s approach is a new and interesting way to track down culprits of copyright infringement.

To combat the offenders, Cipriano will have an intern conduct a search every few months for a two- or three-week period. During that time, the intern sends out notices to the various sites requesting that they remove the photo because they are in violation of International Copyright Laws. At the very least, the site is required to give credit to Cipriano Landscape Design. If the request is ignored, a cease-and-desist letter is the next course of action.

In addition to finding companies using his images internationally, Cipriano also uncovered firms in his own state claiming his work as their own. A pool-building company in New Jersey featured photos on its Website, 90 percent of which were from other contractors, claimed Cipriano. The builder would even use the photos in print advertising, he added. 

One of the misrepresented contractors on that site was Kelly Caviness, president of Caviness Landscape Design in Edmond, Okla. When Cipriano found the photo, he informed Caviness of the copyright violation. 

As it turns out, the photo was actually of Caviness’ personal, award-winning swimming pool.

“It was a picture of my own backyard,” he recalled. “It’s crazy. I called the guy and asked if it was a pool he built, and he said ‘Yes.’ Then I asked where it was, and he said ‘Oh, it’s in this area.’ I asked him if he built it, and he said ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘No you didn’t. I did. That’s my pool.’ He was stunned.”

Caviness eventually sent a cease-and-desist letter to the builder, who is no longer in business.

In terms of preventing the problem, one way to combat copyright infringement is to add a watermark to a photo. But Cipriano doesn’t want to do this because it will take away from the image. It’s also easy to alter the image and remove the mark, he said.

Another option is to delete project portfolios from his Website, but Cipriano, who heavily relies on his Website for marketing, does not believe that is the best solution for him or any builder trying to land jobs.

“The Internet is so important for us to build our businesses,” he said. “You only have two seconds to make an impact and keep someone interested, so how are you going to do that without photos in the pool business?”

In the meantime, he plans to report offenders who refuse to cooperate to Google, which will de-index the site in question until the illegal photo is removed.