If you look around at images on the internet, you may be surprised at how few images actually carry a watermark. I’m not surprised when people’s vacation or holiday pictures are posted without a watermark, but I am always more than a little surprised when serious photographers do not watermark their images before posting them on the internet.
As far as I have been able to determine from an unscientific look at other serious photographers I know, there seem to be three major approaches to watermarking images before posting on the internet:
1. those who watermark virtually every image before posting;
2. those who would never watermark an image to be posted on the web because “watermarks spoil the visual effect;”
3. those who would really like to watermark images because they see the advantages in terms of some degree of protection against unauthorized use, but are intimidated by the photographers whose thinking about watermarks has not yet made the mental transition from photographic prints to digital web images. If this third group uses a watermark, they almost apologize for it!
Most photographers I know, when selling a print, either sign the mat (if the print is matted and/or framed) or the back of the print. That is mainly so that the buyer has a record of the image creator, and also partially because reputable labs will not copy a printed image not made by the print owner. In most cases, the signature (or logo, if that is used instead) does not interfere with the visual flow of the image. And, for years, this system worked well for virtually all photographs (as well as other works of the visual arts in a fixed form).
Enter the internet, and protection of one’s images becomes something completely different. I have already discussed the importance of registering one’s copyrights for works created in the United States. But, even works with registered copyrights are likely to be downloaded and used unless people have a way to know that an image is owned by someone who cares about protecting his/her work. Well, it might be downloaded and used even if a watermark has been used, but I’ll talk about what an artist can do about that scenario in a bit.
There are a variety of ways that the creator of an image can be identified. Serious photographs embed their copyright data and contact information in the metadata of each image. Image editing software, such as Adobe’s Lightroom, make this very easy and efficient to do. Once set up, the information can be embedded in every single image exported from the software program. Great, you say. When used diligently by photographers, there should be no such thing as “orphan works,” which are creating a lot of headaches worldwide at present. And, in theory, that is true.
Unfortunately, theory and reality are not always the same thing. Some social network sites, Facebook among them, strip that information from images uploaded there and then downloaded by anyone. And, anyone can download any image on Facebook. Don’t believe it? Upload an image with all your data nicely embedded in the image, and then download it from Facebook. Now, try to find all of your conscientiously embedded data. See what I mean? Once that data has been lost, the image can appear all over the internet and no one will know the creator of the work.
Someone told me not too long ago that it would not matter, because if a photographer uploaded only low resolution files, no one could make a decent print out of it to sell. That is true. But that is only part of the issue. Many photographers make part of their income through licensing their images for use on the internet. That is, selling prints is not the only way photographers earn money in these days of the internet. Many companies find it much less expensive to license images already created than to pay a staff photographer. This is one reason there has been such an explosion in stock photography companies, which license work. If you have an image that someone would like to license, but your connection to the image is not there, there are two possible outcomes: the person seeks another image whose creator can be contacted for licensing, or, your image gets used anyway. In either scenario you, the photographer, lose money. Now, if that image has had the copyright registered, and you discover its use, your attorney can write a nice letter for cease and desist, along with a demand for payment for licensing fees to that point, and a demand for a listing of every place else the image has been used and then licensing payment for that as well. If the copyright has not been registered (assuming the work was created in the US), well, too bad. You can ask for payment, and you may or may not get it.
Back to watermarks. It is possible to remove watermarks from images, but it takes a lot more work than simply stripping embedded metadata. And, there is a huge potential liability for someone who removes watermarks from images and then uses those images. That indicates “willful” infringement. If done on an image whose copyright has been registered, the person is potentially liable for statutory damages, not just actual losses and damages, which can amount to up to $150,000 per infringement. Of course, if the creator claimed a watermark had been removed, he/she would be expected to prove that he/she had used a watermark, and there is no better way to do that than to use a watermark on every single image. It is just good business and good practice to put a watermark on every single image you put on the internet. And, you need not apologize to anyone for doing it! If anyone tries to make you feel guilty, chalk it up to ignorance on their part.
What should a watermark for use on an image to be posted on the internet contain? These are merely my suggestions. I have not yet come across an article with specific recommendations. I think it should contain a name, the same name as used for registering a work. That way, if someone wants to see if the work is registered, or if you, as an artist, register your work, all the person needs to do is search the name in the copyright records. If your name is there, it says that you are serious about protecting your work. It should contain a link to your website, if you have one; otherwise, an alternative way to contact you should someone wish to discuss licensing. It should be visible, and not easy to overlook.
Let me stress that I am talking about watermarks for images posted on the internet. If someone purchases a print, you’ll mark the back or sign the print, or something more traditionally done with photographic prints. If you license the image for internet use, part of the agreement will state whether or not the photographer is credited, but the watermark will be removed when the license is purchased. (As an aside, one of the things I like about Zenfolio as a selling site is that a watermark remains on an image until a client pays. The shopping cart clearly states that the watermark will not appear on the finished product, be that a print or a license for use).
Watermarks – important for the serious photographer who posts his/her images on the internet!