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Hotlinkers Strike Again

December 14th, 2005

In this day when there are numerous free photo hosting services, I’m still getting besieged by hotlinkers. First, let me explain what “hotlinking” is.

When you own a web site, you pay a monthly fee to a “web host,” who has banks of computers with high-speed, 24/7 Internet connections and technicians to take care of them. They give you disk space, and you use it to host your web site. That means you put all your web pages (“html” files) and images, and whatever else, in that disk space. You are also allotted a certain amount of “bandwidth” or “traffic,” meaning that you have limits on how much data you send and receive. As a result, data coming and going from your web site has a price tag–it costs you money.

Now someone else comes along, usually someone who has a blog or other kind of personal page on a free service, like MySpace or Blogspot. They don’t know much about how web pages work, probably. But the free web site they use gives them the option to put images on their web site. Most give them the option to host the images in their own space, but they also give the option to hotlink, which is easier.

Hotlinking is when you have a web site, and instead of using images in your disk space, you decide to use images on my disk space. It’s actually pretty easy to do: in the web page code, just paste the address of the image from another site. When anyone looks at your page, their browser will see the address for the image, go there, get it, and incorporate it into your web page.

In short, even though the image appears on your web page, the actual photo resides on my web site. And every time someone views your web page, my web site gets hit with the traffic charge. This all happens seamlessly in the background; the person viewing your site has no idea that the image they see on your page came from somewhere else. They don’t get alerted that their browser is actually accessing multiple sites to patch together the page they’re looking at.

For me, it’s a bad deal all around. Someone is using an image I own without my permission. But worse, they’re making me pay for it. I pay to host the image and for the traffic charges. And 99 times out of 100, the hotlinker gives no credit to me at all. I wish I could come up with a layman’s analogy, but there’s nothing exactly like this in the physical world. It would be as if someone arranged it so that when they used their car, gasoline from your car’s gas tank gets used up.

To even be aware of this, I have to carefully study my statistics, which tell me things like a certain web site accessed a certain photo image on my site 1,330 times in the last few days. That happened to me–somebody on MySpace used a large wallpaper image of fireworks from my site as their wallpaper, hotlinking the image. The image is 350 KB. 1,330 accesses of that image costs me half a gigabyte in bandwidth.

There is an option in my web site control panel that blocks hotlinking. The problem is, if I turn it on, half of my visitors can’t see any images on my site. Clearly not all the browsers work right in this regard.

There is one rather vengeful solution: whenever somebody hotlinks to an image on your site, you control the image. If you change the image, the change instantly appears on their site. In the gas-stealing analogy, that means if you spike your gas with sugar, their gas tank gets trashed. I do that sometimes, if the hotlinker is obnoxious. I first have to change my own blog post using the image so it instead uses an alternate copy of the image with a different name. Then I alter the original image which someone is hotlinking so that it says or shows whatever I please, shrinking it so it only takes up a tiny amount of space. Presto! The hotlinker’s web site now proudly sports whatever image I chose to show.

I wish people (mostly teenagers making “kewl” free pages or referencing my images on private forums) would get a clue and use better netiquette. Free image hosting is rampant on the web, and while it may take a few more mouse clicks to do it, it’s honest and you don’t have to worry about the images disappearing off or changing on your web site, out of your control.

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  1. December 15th, 2005 at 01:30 | #1

    I hadn’t a recent round of hotlinkers due to everyone selling their original Xboxs. I had written a blog post showing pictures of the Xbox 1 and the 360, and had a solo picture of each up. As everyone went to do their Ebay auctions, at least three of them hotlinked to the Xbox 1 picture I had up. After discovering this, I altered the picture to let everyone know they really should buy an Xbox from someone with such lousy netiquette. Sad thing…only 1 of the 3 changed their image and they did that after only 3 days and they then hotlinked another site! Morons.

  2. ykw
    December 15th, 2005 at 03:22 | #2

    How often does an image get hijacked?

    Have you considered swapping an “inappropriate” image in?

    Have you considered placing “copyright blogd” on images?

  3. December 15th, 2005 at 05:21 | #3

    Good Post. I gave a friend space for a site on “zoids” a popular toy. His photos of these zoids became hotlinked so much that it completely dominated my stats . I essentially had no stats. The traffic to the images was 50 times the traffic to any of my pages.
    I eventually had to shut my friend down completely. Suddenly hundreds of sites were affected.
    If you are reading this out there and are hotlinking, stop it.

  4. December 15th, 2005 at 16:58 | #4

    Spot on,

    I commented on exactly the same a short while ago and picked up a comment in my little corner of the great WWW from someone else who was very “miffed” because the pictures are his living.

    I did exactly as mentioned, had a wee chortle to myself as I redrew in mspaint a couple of the leeched pictures. You can see it here: http://www.coditoergosum.net/?p=224 (the Mr Nasty Post) – although I fear by posting that link I’m going to get crap loads of advertising spam!!!

    Seasons greetings,

    cheers

  5. December 15th, 2005 at 22:59 | #5

    You can use the hotlink protection, but you’ll need to enable your own site to be able to access the files. I’m guessing that is probably why your visitors are having trouble seeing them when it’s turned on. It’s keeping your site from being able to load them because it thinks it is hotlinking them. Basically, in CPanel just add your site to the list, and all variations of your site urls that could get used

    http://www.blogd.com
    blogd.com
    blogd.com/something
    etc….

    Whatever you’ll be using. This way they will all be accounted for.

  6. Luis
    December 16th, 2005 at 06:53 | #6

    YKW: Hotlinking goes on all the time. One solution that I’m considering is to simply block any access from “myspace-dot-com” in the .htaccess file. Spammers can cut through that, but it should work for casual accesses like this.

    I don’t like the idea of “inapppropriate” graphics, no matter how richly they might be deserved. But replacement graphics which chide or embarrass the hotlinker, certainly.

    Putting copyright notices on photos would not be viable. First, I would rather not pollute the image with text, not to mention that anyone with Photoshop can erase that out unless you put the text in a detailed part of the center of the photo–and I don’t want to go that far. Second, it would not solve the bandwidth theft problem. And third, I already have 1800 photos in my image bank.

    Dave: Probably 99% of that comes from Google Image; the search engine picks up your image, then people get it on a search. The better the image, the more people snag it. For future reference, you might want to research how to make the Google Image search bots pass over your site–I forget if that goes into the .htaccess (I think that’s right) or in some other file. But if you can do that, then any images posted after that will not be found by that search engine, and should be relatively immune from substantial hotlinking. I don’t know if you can turn off Google Image without turning off Google itself, though.

    Acs: Posting a URL will not lead to spam–en email address, yes, but not a URL. At least I don’t think…

  7. Manok
    December 20th, 2005 at 21:00 | #7

    The .htaccess file works great. You don’t need to DISallow certain sites, but you could only allow it for your site, AND for “no site”. (Some browsers don’t send where they are coming from, so for these you will need to allow “blank” accesses.) This will give you a solution that is 80% effective, and does not require any maintenance or monitoring at all.

    Do this only for the image directory, else links to your blogd site might not work anymore.

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