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How To: Copy Protect Digital Photo on USB Flash Drive

I want to copy protect a digital photo on a USB flash drive. The answer wasn’t as obvious as I had hoped, but I did find it.

Below is the process I used to get what I needed.

The first thing I want to emphasize is that I want to protect a digital copy of a photo rather than a physical copy of a photo.

So, how to prevent a digital photo from being copied from a USB flash drive is a difficult question to answer. My first thought is about the medium I intend to use to send a digital photo to someone.

  • Do I offer a download link?
  • Do I send them a digital copy on a storage device like a portable hard drive or USB flash drive?
  • Do I provide them a weblink to view the file from a hosted server?

The more I considered a delivery method, the more questions I had.

My first thought was to host the photo on a private webpage. Only users with access to the page could view the photo.

This isn’t going to work. I realized that once the viewer is on the page and viewing the photo, they can save it or screen capture it. After that, they could share the digital photo with whoever they wanted. There isn’t much protection here.

My next thought was to put the digital photo in a password-protected zip file. That is a good idea. The photo can only be viewed by someone who knows the password.

Oh wait, that doesn’t work either. I end up with the same problem as the hosted webpage. Once the file is accessed, the user can do anything they want.

So it occurs to me… I keep returning to an encryption solution rather than a copy protection solution. Encryption is useful because only those with the correct password can access the photo; however, it is not the same as my ultimate goal, which is to copy protect a digital photo and prevent it from being copied.

I guess you can say encryption is a way of keeping the honest people… well, honest.

I need a way to protect my photo regardless of the recipient’s intent. I realized I needed a solution in which everyone can see the photo but no one can do anything with it. Is it even possible to find such a solution?

When I was talking with a neighbor who is an IT guy, he mentioned a concept that I’d heard of before but didn’t apply to my thinking. Rather than a digital method of sending the photo, he proposed a type of physical dongle that held the photo. He explained that without the physical device, viewing the photo is impossible.

The lightbulb went on!

The least expensive “dongle” that has memory to hold my photo, is a USB flash drive. With this new approach to solving my problem, I Googled “copy protect a flash drive” and sure enough a solution presented itself.

I found a “Copy Secure” flash drive which offers copy protection for digital photos. The solution copy protects other files as well, like MP3 audio, MP4 video, PDF files and even HTML pages. But I digress…

My digital photo will be encrypted and saved to a USB stick using the Copy Secure drive. Other files are included during the encryption process, allowing the file to be opened. PCViewer.exe and MacViewer.app are the files. These standalone programs are the secure viewer programs that allow users to view the photo while also preventing them from copying or screen capturing the photo. This is exactly what I needed.

But what if someone deletes the photo off the USB stick and calls me up asking for another copy? Isn’t that a form of getting a duplicate copy without paying for it?

Here is the nice part, a Copy Secure drive locks itself after the photo is loaded to the USB stick. This means the flash drive is read-only and the file cannot be deleted or formatted off the drive. Okay, so this really is secure.

The PCViewer is a program which runs directly from the flash drive and a Windows computer user will use to access the file. The MacViewer is a program a Mac user will use to access the photo. Logical. Simple.

Yes, the file is encrypted, but the difference with this type of encryption is that no one knows the password, only the PCViewer and MacViewer programs. Further down the rabbit hole, when the USB is authenticated as an official Copy Secure drive, only the PCViewer and MacViewer will run. Okay, we’re talking now. My file is secure, as is the flash drive, and there is an authentication process in place before anything is displayed (my photo).

These programs detect screen capture software and close the applications before my photo is displayed. I understand a user could use a camera to take a picture of the photo on their monitor, but that never works. A moire pattern is formed between the parallel lines of the monitor and the camera’s grid so you always get a line affect and a poor quality photo. I can live with that.

copy protect photo, moire pattern

Although I am not a professional photographer, it appears that this type of copy protection is ideal for those who make a living through digital photography. It allows the artist to share their work without fear of illegal copies being made. Ultimately, profits will be increased while risks will be reduced.

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Matt LeBoff

Kicking around in technology since 2002. I like to write about technology products and ideas, but at the consumer level understanding. Some tech, but not too techie.

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