Copyright and Watermarks

Posted on 21 Aug, 2014 by Scott Jones
Jorge Lorenzo's helmet and Yamaha in parc ferme

In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes, and that photographs posted on the Internet will be used without your permission. – Benjamin Franklin (updated by the author)

Note: In this article I speak only for myself, and not necessarily for the other photographers who contribute to this web site’s content.

If you like photography and you frequent the Internet (since you’re reading this you probably do both), you may have an opinion about copyright notices and the use of overlaid logos that may websites and photographers add to their images.

I have observed that those who own the rights to images often have different opinions about such things than do those who want simply to view and enjoy the images.

If you happened to read the article on our mentor site, Asphalt & Rubber, in which editor Jensen Beeler explains how the new PHOTO.GP came into being, you may recall his line: “I want 10,000-pixel-wide shots that anyone can download without a watermark…”

I would like very much to supply that very thing. But if you are a photographer, you are in the business of selling photography. That was a much different business before the Internet. Now that the vast majority of photographs are consumed/enjoyed via digital delivery, the creators of images no longer control their work via unique access to negatives. Once an image is posted a single time on the Internet, it can be duplicated, edited, and reused, indefinitely. The photographer has lost control of the work he created, and the higher the resolution of the image posted, the more ways it can be exploited without any compensation for its creator.

The Internet has really complicated things for photographers, writers, videographers, graphic designers, anyone who creates something that can be presented in digital form. If you put your goods on the Internet, you immediately lose at least some of your control over what you created. From a business standpoint, you have to balance whatever you get paid to create the artwork with the degree to which you give up control of your creation.

When you go to the dentist you expect to pay for his/her service and expertise. When you go to the store to buy a product you expect to pay for the raw materials, the processing to turn those materials into the product you desire, a fee to the producer for the time and resources spent filling your need, a fee to the store for stocking the product so you can acquire it. If the product is a pack of gum, each pack of gum on display in the rack is paid for by an honest customer, or it is stolen by a thief.

The way the Internet works is much different. A photographer receives a fee for a single use of an image, and moments later it is being used at other web sites without the creator receiving any compensation whatsoever. Sometimes the photographer doesn’t receive that initial fee because the image was shared on social media. In that case the ‘share’ becomes a donation to those who earn revenue by publishing the work of other people without paying for it.

Copyright laws are intended to prevent this, but on the Internet they are very difficult to enforce. Even registering an image with the Copyright Office helps only if a lawyer thinks the infringement is substantial enough to warrant the threat of litigation. I have learned this the hard way. Individuals who know better have infringed my copyrights and gotten away with it. It really sucks to have someone caught red-handed and see them walk away because your lawyer thinks it’s not worth the trouble to take to court. When it comes to copyright infringement of Internet images, crime pays.

The only way I’ve found to fight such infringements is to prevent them from happening. The only way I’ve found to do this is to add a digital watermark on top of the image, such as the one shown above. That one is emphasized to show what it would look like at its most effective as an image theft deterrent. Unfortunately, this also renders the image itself useless. The happier the honest viewers are with an image, there happier those who want to steal it will be as well. This puts photographers in a tough position.

We want to show our work in its best light, to please as many people as possible, and to attract paying clients so that we may continue our careers. At the same time we need to protect our work from theft. So each of us tries to balance those two sides of the coin as we think best.

Some photographers limit the size of images they post on the Internet. The higher the resolution of a posted image, the more likely it will be used without permission. The images I supply to Asphalt & Rubber are the most frequently stolen because those are 1270 pixels wide and do not include a watermark. They have enough resolution that they can be up-rezzed with software to provide good looking desktop images for sites that trade such JPG files to drive ad traffic, or printed to be sold on ebay or other website that have no permission to do so. The watermark makes it clear where the image belongs (or where it was stolen from) and also makes printing it for illegal usae more trouble than it’s worth.

At PHOTO.GP we show smaller images without the large overlay, but add a light watermark on the 1020-pixel version. For each image, that large watermark is adjusted to balance the enjoyability of our viewers with our desire to make unauthorized users look elsewhere for their victims. Instead of the opaque watermark above, this compromise looks like this:
Jorge Lorenzo's helmet and Yamaha in parc ferme

If the image is stolen anyway, which happens all the time in spite of these measures, at least we get some brand exposure when the image is used elsewhere.

Why all the fuss about others using your images?

A photograph, even a digital one displayed in a web browser, is a product. But it’s a peculiar type of product in this Internet age. A loaf of bread in a market and a motorcycle on a dealership’s lot are both products of the conventional sort in that most of us understand it is legally and morally wrong to take either one without paying for the permission to do so.

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  • Late Braker 2014-08-22

    I can’t agree more with you. Knowing the amount of money and hard work you put to get those images, seeing your work stolen and used somewhere else is heart-breaking.

    I always try to contact image owner if I want to use them, but of course not all of them even reply. But I really appreciate them, even if they don’t want to share with watermark intact. Because we wouldn’t see these stunning images, like yours, Scott.

  • GeoCrash 2014-08-22

    This is a great post! I couldn’t agree more with your insights and thoughts on the subject.

    I struggle constantly with social media and the blatant rip off of images. Furthermore, what compounds the issue more and more lately is the expectation from those in the media business for cheaper and cheaper or even free work. I know that we are fighter losing a battle as more and more “photographers” come on scene and are desperate to get their work out, that they will accept the cheaper and free offers.

    In the meantime, I’ll just continue to use my current watermarks, like as you said, at least it’s branded if not credited.

    Keep up the great work!

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