While recently going through traffic logs for my personal blog, I discovered a lot of traffic that made no sense. Having run into this problem before, I immediately visited the referring pages that were sending my traffic, and, sure enough, there were some images from my site being used. Oh, hotlinking, will people never learn better?

For those of you unfamiliar with the practice, hotlinking is the practice of inserting an image into a website, blog or forum that all you do is enter the address for it instead of uploading it somewhere yourself.  This is also known as "inline linking" because it then shows the image to people visiting that page.  The problem is that while you may have done this completely without knowing it causes a problem, the site that you found the image from, and used their link, is the one paying for the bandwidth to serve that image.  Depending on the type of account the person has the more bandwidth used, the higher their bill.

stopThere are ways for sites to disable hotlinking by using some code, but I've gone this route because it also messes with me using my own images as an avatar on some forums and so on. I want the ability to put pictures from my server where I want, and I'm not going to disable that ability if it also hurts me.

In general though, this is a bad practice for people to do, but I also know that a lot of times it is done out of ignorance.  This problem became especially bad when MySpace was at the height of its popularity because the teenagers wanted to spruce up how their profiles looked, and would just use any old image they found via Google Images.  Lets say they wanted to use the image you see to the right here, they would visit the image and see the URL at the top that reads as https://www.technobuffalo.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/stop.png, they would copy that and paste into their MySpace page, and there you go, the image appears.  They didn't know it could possibly cost the site owner money, and they really meant no harm, I get that.

Most of the time I e-mailed them, explained the situation, they would apologize and take it down.  No biggie.  However, then there were the people you know they knew what was going on, and they would never respond to you, and that is where hotlinking becomes dangerous for the person doing it.  See, so long as I control that image, I can change it to anything I want, and so long as it is in the same location with the same name, it will change the image where you are using it.  I could change the image to anything I liked and the only way you could stop me was if you removed the link.

The only time I have been overly mean with the tactic of changing the picture was a guy who kept hotlinking an image of an original Xbox I had on my site for use in his auctions where he was selling refurbished consoles.  I swapped the image for a picture of a sex toy, nothing graphic, just a simple image of a sex toy … three months later his auctions were still showing that image because apparently he never looked at his own published auctions.

There was actually a man back in July 2009 that wanted to sue someone for deleting their website because he was hotlinking all of his site's images from them.  Luckily his lawyer talked him out of it.

I know that hotlinking comes with the territory, but its 2010 and it just surprises me to see it still happening.  It is definitely less than it used to be thanks to Facebook hosting just about every picture ever taken, but it does still happen, so it felt worth a mention.

What say you?  Any good stories about how you fixed someone stealing images from your site?