Copyright and Watermarks

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


A photo on a web page, however, somehow seems already to have been paid for, right? Somehow it got there, someone paid for that to happen, so why should it be paid for again and again?

Or perhaps it’s that taking it for your own use is so easy, and there’s so little risk of getting caught. Sometimes it’s simply ignorance about where the image came from, who created it, and that the photographer relies on people buying photos in order to continue creating them.

To answer my own rhetorical question, the Why comes down to the cost of production. Like a loaf of bread and a motorcycle, a photograph has a production cost. It is not free to create, in other words, any more than a loaf of bread or a motorcycle is. The components of bread cost the baker, the components of a motorcycle cost the manufacturer, the components of photograph cost the photographer.

Consider the image above. How much did it cost me to produce that image? If that were the only photograph I’d made on my trip from California to Barcelona, the answer is: $2,460.18

Here’s something you’re likely only to see on this crazy website: an actual expense report from a MotoGP photographer.


$2,460.18 was the final bill for the trip to Montmelo. Fortunately for me, I made several more images than the one shown above. The costs on this expense report are spread out over the range of images, so the per-image cost is considerably less. That’s a relief!

But for a freelance shooter, every euro and dollar I spend from the moment I leave my house to the moment I walk, or stagger, back through my front door, must be offset (and preferably exceeded) by sales of the photographs I create on that trip. If not, I’m: OUT OF BUSINESS. Those who like the way I see and show motorbike racing don’t have my work to enjoy any more. Ok, that’s not the end of the world, but I’d like to avoid it for as long as possible.

I admit that I’m simplifying my business model a bit here. As I also do rider-signed prints and signed limited editions, my images continue earning money after I stagger home through the door from a given trip. But it’s a good thing they do! As a freelancer, I rely on this to stay in business.

Signed prints present another complication. Did you know that you can buy ‘rider-signed’ prints on ebay for a few dollars, pounds, or euros? Where do these bargains come from? While you may find an odd instance of a genuine article, someone who had a print signed at an autograph session and is now selling it, beware of the print signed not by the rider but by the shyster telling you it’s the real deal. Folks in this business (a business known as fraud) don’t bother to pay for the image used to produce the print, either. They find a decent hi-res version on the web, produce a cheap print, forge a signature, and put it up for sale. Caveat emptor indeed.

If I released a hi-res version of the First in Flight shot without a watermark, it would be downloaded, enlarged with software, and sold either unsigned for autograph fans to bring to races, or sold with Marc’s forged signature, thus infringing on the authentic product collectors pay a premium price for.

Several magazines wanted to use this image in print. I turned them all down because I am not willing to let the hi-res file of a Limited Edition shot out of my control. It was uncomfortable each time to deny a request, but earlier this season, one of those same magazines used one of my images IN PRINT without permission. They know better, but they did it anyway. I’m glad I didn’t trust them with First in Flight!

A website self-described as “an online motorcycle media & content provider “ is currently displaying the First in Flight images and description as content to collect ad revenue. They include the url (not linked) of the order page, but they have taken this content without contacting me to see if I wish them to do so.

It goes on and on. It’s simply part of using the Internet at a time when there are no effective ways to protect your work other than the watermark. So while none of us likes adding those distracting overlays, we must do so unless we want to make it easy for thieves to put us out of business.

On this site we try hard to make this fact of life as painless as possible for viewers by adjusting the watermark opacity for every single image we display. We are grateful to our fans who understand why we must do this and who support us by calling out image theft when they see it.

Given the ineffectiveness of copyright laws for Internet image theft, this kind of criticism from the public may be the best deterrent. But even those who speak up are likely to be frustrated by their good intentions. Fellow photog Kevin Keyes recently had this exchange with a Facebook page that shows many motorcycle related images that have mysteriously (not really) had their copyright info removed.

Kevin Keyes Facebook copyright conversation

So we are to believe that some anonymous fan of your Facebook page finds images, crops them to squares while removing the copyright notices, then sends them to you because you’re such a swell brand? Wow, can you smell the stink of that story? It is ripe. And for taking issue with this, Kevin received a denial of responsibility and then a ban.

As with most things in life, the majority of people involved are honest and fair, but a small number who aren’t ruin it for everyone else. So as a photographer I try to find the best compromise between protecting my work from theft and showing it to those I’ve invited to enjoy it. I hope you’re able to do so in spite of the watermark.

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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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