share your work without getting it stolen

For the longest time, creative entrepreneurs were encouraged to keep their work close to the vest until they were ready to unveil it. What if someone copied it? What if it you never finished? What if you showed off early iterations of the work and it wasn’t well-received?

More recently, though — in part because of the internet, but also because creative work is rapidly becoming more of an open collaboration across all mediums — the message has changed. Now, successful creative people from a range of disciplines are advising up-and-coming makers and doers to share their work. Artist and author Austin Kleon even wrote a whole book on the subject. But several lingering fears remain —Most notably, what if I share my work and someone else steals it?

This is a concern for everyone from photographers to writers to crafters, and the rules for smart sharing change depending on what kind of work you’re making. Though, to be clear, it’s highly unlikely that the consequences of sharing ever outweigh the benefits.

“The simple fact is that many people are too lazy to steal your idea. They won’t likely take the effort to try to recreate your venture,” writes Patrick Hull for Forbes, who recommends that creative people share their work, even in the face of potential theft, because “collaboration and sharing ideas is an important tool to grow a business.”

There are, however, ways that all kinds of creatives can protect themselves and their work to ensure they get paid what they deserve, and that they don’t end up seeing work that looks all-too-familiar somewhere they didn’t authorize.

The first step toward sharing in a smart way is understanding where you’re sharing and to make sure to read the fine print. For example, know that when you share an image of your work on Instagram, that photo can be embedded alongside your user name and a direct link back to your feed. Which may seem sketchy — do you really want someone being able to easily embed your photo somewhere? — but is actually kind of smart, because it discourages people who may want to use the photo from taking a screen-shot and dodging having to give you any credit. Instagram also doesn’t state in their Terms of Service that they own your work once you upload it, but they do state that they can use it as an advertisement in the future.

And, despite what you may have heard, sharing photos or work on Facebook doesn’t give Facebook the rights to your work; they explicitly state that you own all of your content. They may, however, use your intellectual property for advertising or almost anything else they want, as long as it’s on the site. And, if you share publicly, you are leaving your images or ideas vulnerable to potential re-sharing without credit. Ask yourself if that exchange sits right with you, and always, always weigh the pros and cons of sharing on various social networks. And always, always make sure to consult the terms of service.

Even if you know who has the rights to images and ideas you share, you might still find that nefarious people or organizations might want to “borrow” your ideas. To thwart it (and protect yourself), it’s a good idea to patent or copyright what you make.

If you’re a crafter, this is an especially good idea, since it’s not just a rumor that some major retailers look through sites like Etsy and definitely cross the line between borrowing and outright stealing. This trade publication has a good how-to if you’re thinking of obtaining a patent, though not every craft is eligible. You can also check with the government (U.S. or otherwise) about patents and intellectual property rights in order to find out the best next step for you and your work.

If you share a lot of work, or don’t have the time or money to copyright or patent every single thing you create, it’s a good idea to at least watermark your images, so that even if someone does re-share without credit, your logo is baked in. This is pretty easy to do in Photoshop, and doesn’t take very long at all. Digital Photo Secrets has this useful tutorial about creating your own watermark.

Watermarking your image is also a good idea if you share your photos on Creative Commons. Creative Commons is a good way for photographers to get their work out there (and blogs like ours love getting to use the work of real photographers), but a watermark can help make sure you get the credit you deserve. Additionally, brush up on the rules and regulations surrounding Creative Commons sharing — that way, you know what you’re giving people permission to do with your work.

Traditional social media sites — like Twitter and Facebook — aren’t the only way to share and collaborate, either. Sites like Behance and Dribbble are specifically targeted for creative people who want to share work and get critiques and feedback. They also allow you to control who can see and interact with your work, which makes sharing on these sites a little less widespread, and the audience, a little more specific. These kinds of sites can be a great way to put your work out there, without feeling quite so vulnerable to predatory users.

It’s also important to decide what kind of things you want to share. Again, for Forbes, Hull says there are some things that you should keep to yourself.

“I’m not advocating that you share all your proprietary information or exactly how you plan to execute business strategies,” he explains, “What I’m trying to encourage is entrepreneurs to be more open about their larger ideas and the vision for their companies.”

Instead of sharing your actual business plan, or the specifics of how you make your jewelry, share final products or works-in-progress. You can even talk about your process without going into the kind of detail that would make it easy to recreate your work.

The decision to share your work is a personal one, and one that every creative person has to come to on their own. And even if you take every measure to protect yourself from potential theft, you might still find something of yours on a site you didn’t expect or desire to find it. But sharing your work can also lead to incredible opportunities, give you a huge confidence boost, and provide a forum for feedback that’s actually really valuable. Plus, sharing your work is a smart marketing decision if you’re trying to make money with what you do; most social networks, marketplaces, and industry-specific sharing sites are free to use, and can be a great way to find new audience members, clients, or customers.

Sharing your work can be risky, but if the rewards outweigh the benefits, the best you can do is share smart, know your rights, and keep a sharp eye.