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May 11, 2008

How Do I Stop People From Downloading My Graphics?

I am on a wazillion email lists. At least once a week, on one of the lists, someone will appear and ask:

How do I stop people from copying my graphics?


Isn't there something I can do to let people display my graphics without downloading them?

I've written a wazillion answers.

I finally broke down and wrote this page.

How Does the Web Work?

Before you can understand how to protect your work, you must understand how the web works.

Let's say that someone wants to see your page at www.MyGreatSite.com.

What happens when they type your URL into their browser and click to go to your page?

  1. First, their browser uses the Domain Name Servers to figure out where www.MyGreatSite.com really is.
  2. Then it requests, of your server, a download of the document named www.MyGreatPage.com/index.htm
  3. The browser downloads the document named index.htm and stores it on the "browser computer", the computer the surfer/visitor is using to browse your page. (This is important. Note that the browser downloads and stores the document on the browser computer.)
  4. After their browser downloads and stores that HTML document, it then evaluates that HTML document. It looks for HTML code that references graphics.
  5. When it finds code that references graphics, it requests, from your server, a download of each and every graphic.
  6. The browser downloads each and every graphic needed and stores it on the browser computer. (This is important. Note that the browser downloads and stores the graphics on the browser computer.)
  7. Then the browser uses the HTML code that it has downloaded and stored together with the graphic files that it has downloaded and stored to display the page. (This is important. Note that the browser uses the downloaded and stored HTML and the downloaded and stored graphics to display the page.)

How Does the Copy/Paste Function Work?

When the browser user clicks to copy a graphic or to copy the displayed text, it is not downloading from the server. Rather, it is copying from the browser computer. By the time that a browser user starts to "download" your work, a complete download has already been made!

The browser requested a download from your server and stored it all on the browser computer. The copy/paste only takes some of this material from one spot on the browser computer and copies it to another.

Why Is It Important to Understand That?

People talk about downloading or copying from their site or their server. These are incorrect. This downloading happens when the page and graphics are requested by the browser. The fundamental architecture of the web is that your server sends to the browser a complete copy of the HTML and a complete copy of the graphics.

When a person displays your page, all the HTML and every graphic has already been downloaded and stored on their computer. It is the way the web works.

All the person is doing when they cut/paste is to copy from one part of their computer to another.

Or, in other words, you need to understand that a complete downloaded copy of your page already exists on their computer. It is how their browser can display it.

So Are Copying and Theft the Same Thing?

No. Copying occurs every time someone looks at your page. Theft only occurs when they misuse that copy. When you put something on the web you are granting an implicit license for that person to download and store a copy on their browser computer for the purpose of displaying your page. The theft occurs when they use that copy for other purposes (e.g., using it on one of their own pages).

But Can't I Just Turn Off Right Click?

Yes, on Windows platforms, Right Click is used to access the "Save Picture As" function. Yes, turning off Right Click makes it difficult to do that. And, yes, JavaScript exists that makes it difficult to use Right Click.

The problems are:

  1. Right Click is a Windows platform standard. Other platforms and other browsers use different commands.
  2. Right Click is used for more than "Save Picture As".
  3. Turning off Right Click does not stop copying,
  4. It is easy to turn Right Click back on.

What Else Is Right Click Used For?

The most common use of Right Click is "Open in New Window". This function permits people to create a second window to hold the link while keeping the original window open.

This is one of the major uses of Right Click. On any page that disables Right Click, I cannot open the new windows while keeping the old window open. The solution would be to first create a duplicate window (e.g., File / New / Page) and then to use that window to load the linked page. This is so inconvenient that those who routinely use Right Click for "Open in New Window" are extremely "put off" by Right Click disablers.

Other uses of Right Click include:

  • Back
  • Create Shortcut
  • Add to Favorites
  • Print, and
  • Refresh

Having these available from the mouse is very convenient.

If I Turn Right Click Off Doesn't That Stop the Theft?

Nope. One easy workaround (in Microsoft Internet Explorer) is to use File/Save As. This will save the entire page, including all HTML and all referenced graphics and even adjust the HTML graphic references so that it refers to the folder containing the saved graphics!

Another workaround is for the user to just go to the folder on the browser computer where the browser stores all these graphics and get them from there. (This is commonly called the browser "cache".)

How Can the User Turn Right Click Back On?

There are a variety of ways.

The first (in Microsoft Internet Explorer) is Tools / Internet Options / Security.

Once there you can disable JavaScript processing.

The technique I prefer is to use a tool. I use AdSubtract Pro. It will "filter" JavaScript and is configurable on a site-by-site basis letting me turn it on for some sites and off for all other sites.

(It also filters advertising, pop-up-windows, Java Applets, referrer information, cookies, background music, background graphics, animations and auto refresh.)

Even Easier!!

It turns out there is even an easier way. It doesn't require a tool. It doesn't require turning off JavaScript.

(I'd love to take credit, but a colleague (Cheryl Wise) found this on Hywel Jenkins' website.)

Here is what you do when you come across one of those "you can't do a right click here" pop-up windows.

  1. Press and hold the right mouse button. Hold it.
  2. While you are holding it, the pop-up message pops-up.
  3. Press enter.
  4. The pop-up message disappears.
  5. Now, let go of the right mouse button and voila, the right-button menu pops right up!!

Give it a try the next time you encounter such a page. Or, if you think you've protected your page, try it and see!

So If Turning Off Right Click Doesn't Work, What Does?

There are a variety of ways that graphic and multimedia content can be protected from copying by the more casual and novice user. These include:

  • Flash
  • Java Applets
  • Streaming Media

Flash downloads a file (file type is swf) but only someone who understands Flash would know how to extract the graphics. And some additional protection against opening is available.

Similarly, embedding your graphic into a Java Applet provides a measure of technological protection because the applets encapsulate the graphics.

(However, in both of these cases, nothing protects the Flash file or Java Applet file themselves. These are downloaded and stored on the browser computer.)

Streaming media players such as Real Player play the media files from the net and do not save a downloaded copy on the browser computer.

All of these techniques are possible. However, they are most appropriate to protecting individual graphics or galleries such as images of photographs that a photographer offers for sale. They are less useful for protecting the graphics used as integral parts of the web page.

So What Does All This Mean?

Let me summarize:

  1. By the time the user sees your page, all the HTML and all the graphics have already been downloaded and stored on their machine.
  2. Turning off Right Click doesn't stop downloading.
  3. Turning off Right Click doesn't stop copying.
  4. Turning off Right Click irritates everyone who uses it for other things.
  5. Users can turn Right Click back on.

In other words, there is not a (simple) technological solution to this issue. Rather the solutions are cultural (respect for creators' rights) and legal (e.g., copyright).



  1. nice info...keep posting dude...

  2. very informative site

  3. that was really informative brother... thnx a ton..

  4. nice post..very informative..

  5. learnt many new things from this post !!!

    keep posting tricks like this !!

  6. Great info!

    Thanks a lot man!