Hotlinking: What Is It, And Why Is It Bad?
Also, What Is "Bandwidth Theft?"
So, you've found a great graphic on a clip art website, or you've found a Creative Commons graphic that's perfect for your needs. You've made sure you're allowed to use it, and in return, you've given the original artist or photographer credit and a link back.
Feeling proud about being a responsible webizen, you copy the image's URL and paste it into a tag on your page.
Hang on! That's Hotlinking! You need to upload the graphic onto an image host or right into your post.
Why Hotlinking Is Theft
Even if You Have Permission to Use a Graphic
When I first started on the web in 1993, I hotlinked! We all did. Heck, Harvard's first IT website did it.
I thought it was theft to take a graphic from a clip art site and upload it onto my own website. Wasn't it better to leave the file on the original site, where its origin was clear, and then use HTML to display the image on my own page, like this?
No. I didn't think about how graphics are displayed on the web. Each and every time someone looks at a webpage, their browser has to call up the image host and say, "send that image file over to me." It's like making a phone call.
A few dozen people viewing a clipart gallery doesn't put too much load on the image host.
But what if twenty people want to display that graphic on their own webpages? What if two hundred people do? What if there are two hundred different webpages ALL displaying that graphic, and there's ten people looking at EACH of those webpages? Multiply that by hours, days, and months, and then multiply that by the number of graphics on a clipart site. You can see why hotlinking puts a substantial load on an image host. That load is bandwidth, and someone has to pay for it.
John McCain Busted for Hotlinking
In 2007, John McCain's Myspace page used hotlinked images without permission.
Since he was running for president, you can just imagine how much bandwidth that used!
The graphics' owner fought back by replacing one with an embarrassing and amusing image.
McCain is lucky. Many people replace hotlinked graphics with something obscene.
The Cost of Bandwidth
Bandwidth is Like the Minutes on a Cellphone Plan
Transferring files from a web host over the internet is bandwidth. Bandwidth is part of the cost of webhosting. When someone builds a website, they pay a fee to the webhost where their site -- or clip art -- is stored. Along with storage space, they are allotted so much bandwidth per month.
If we exceed our bandwidth limit, there are penalties. Some webhosts take away our high-speed internet and leave us on dialup speeds until the end of the month. Other webhosts temporarily shut down the site. Photobucket, a popular free image host, replaces images with a small, low-detail "bandwidth exceeded" graphic that uses very little memory. My webhost, like many others, charges me an extra fee for "exceeding my bandwidth." We may lose our site if we don't pay the penalty.
Before I figured out my graphics were getting hotlinked, I had to pay $10 in bandwidth penalties for a few months in a row. And I'm not running a well-known clip art gallery; I've just got a few small pages of clip art.
You can see why some clip art galleries shut down. Others code NO HOTLINKING graphics which will display on your website, or even create rude and horrible images that appear in place of hotlinked graphics. Me? I've set my account so that my images won't display anywhere except pages I specify manually.
So How Do I Avoid Hotlinking?
1. Find a stock photo, public domain or Creative Commons graphic.
2. Download the image to your computer.
3. Upload the image into a Squidoo module like a Text module, or use an image host. See How to Upload Images on Squidoo for all the different ways to get a graphic onto a lens.
Congratulations! You're a good webizen.
Addendum: Affiliate Marketing and "Embedded" Content
If They Say It's Okay, It's Okay
AJ2008 asked me a good question: what about featuring product photos for affiliate marketing programs like Amazon Associates and AllPosters?
Most of these services give you HTML codes which include hotlinked images. In that case, don't worry about it: they're providing photos to help you sell things for them.
Zazzle asks associates to hotlink, too. They can handle the bandwidth. Their members retain the right to remove designs from Zazzle if they choose (so you may want to leave fan mail letting them know you're promoting their art).
Similarly, YouTube gives you "embed" codes which allows you to display its content on other sites. On YouTube, that's fairly standard: users can turn off embed codes if they wish, so if they leave 'em on, it's fair game.
Photobucket and Flickr also give you "embed" codes, allowing you to use them as your image host even if you didn't upload an image to their site. But be careful! Other people use those sites as image hosts for their own, copyrighted images. That means that just because you found an image on Photobucket or Flickr doesn't mean you're free to use it. It has to be marked Creative Commons.
Let's make sure that we do our part to give credit to photographers, artists, writers, and anyone who is offering their work for free.
And let's ALL contribute something to the web for others to use, since most of us have used clip art or other free graphics at some point.
Questions & Answers
© 2010 Ellen Brundige