October 25, 2016

Graham Ashton

Watermarking Photographs: an effective remedy for image theft

Featured Photo: (C) Alexander S. Kunz

This guest post comes from Alexander S. Kunz, a passionate landscape photographer and a long-time Pixsy user. Recently, Alex reached out to us debating our previously expressed opinion on the photo watermarks being somewhat redundant for artists. During our discussion, Alex made some brilliant points in support of watermarking and we couldn't resist inviting him to share his thoughts on the matter.

Introduction to Watermarking

The discussion about whether to watermark photographs when posting them on the internet probably dates back to the day when digital photography and the internet first met. There are reasons for and against it. The reasons against watermarking mostly have to do with aesthetics. The reasons for watermarking mostly have to do with copyright infringement and protection of one’s intellectual property.

Now, unless you place an ugly watermark over a large portion of your photo, it would be foolish to assume that a watermark can actually help to “protect” a photo from image theft. That’s not how it works. Watermarks are usually easy to crop out or clone away. So why not leave them away entirely?

The Basics

A proper copyright notice as a watermark qualifies as “visible copyright management information.” When an infringer removes copyright management information, it can strengthen the case against them because it is a violation of the DMCA, and is a strong indication of willful copyright infringement. Conclusion: it’s probably a good idea to add visible copyright management information in the form of a proper copyright notice.

If you agree that such a watermark is a good idea, make sure you’re doing it right: a proper copyright notice contains the copyright-symbol “©” or the word “copyright”, the year of first publication, and the name of the copyright owner. It must include the name of the copyright owner to qualify as copyright management information. If your watermark does not contain all three of these elements, it is not a proper copyright notice. If your watermark is a fancy and largely illegible logo because you’re an artist, it’s not copyright management information (in other words: you might as well leave it away, and spare your viewers the optical intrusion).

I think we can all agree that it is unfortunate that creators essentially have to disturb their own work with a watermark in order to be eligible to a more complete remedy against copyright violations, but that’s how it is. Keep it unobtrusive. It will still be effective, and the good thing is that if you have one copy without a watermark (say, on your own portfolio site) and another copy with a watermark (on your social media channels), the added benefits as described above still apply.

Be Findable

I want to offer another argument pro-watermarking here, and it has to do with marketing. I’ve adjusted my watermark to meet the criteria for a proper copyright notice – and I’ve also added my website address to the watermark.

If there's one thing I regret about sharing photos on the internet, it's that I haven't always been adding a watermark with my website address to my images. I have a small number of photos that have gone truly “viral” in certain circles – at a time when I did not add a watermark. When I do a Google Image Search for one of these popular photos, I get pages upon pages of search results, in languages that I can neither read, nor even recognize. And here’s the thing: none of these appearances point back to me and my website. With regards to marketing, these photos don’t do much for me. Among all the search results I see, my own website as the true “origin” of the photograph doesn’t even show up on page one of the search results.

So I add my watermark as a reference to the origin of the photo. If it's unobtrusive enough, people who will use it in their "42 amazing photos" blog gallery probably won't even feel the need to remove it - and I think the majority of the "hunter gatherer sharers" (by that I mean people who copy the image and upload it to their social media account, instead of doing the right thing & sharing just the link) won’t bother either.

Maybe it's delusional, but what if one million viewers saw the watermark, and 1000 came back to my website. And I could maybe convert just one into a future buyer, or licensee? Think about it. It's not something that will happen in one day of course. But some of my most popular photos were surely seen by more than a million people.

(C) Alexander S. Kunz.

Proper copyright notices in the digital workflow

Adding a proper copyright notice can pose a problem in a digital workflow, because digital asset management software needs to support the differentiation between creation date and publication date. Unfortunately, that is often not the case.

If you make a photo on December 30th, take a break on December 31st to party (and on January 1st to sober up;-), to then process and upload the photo to your stock agency on January 2nd, your creation date and publication date are in different years. If you have an editing and processing backlog like many photographers do, especially for their personal work, that may be the case as well.

Now looking at the most popular digital asset management software, Adobe Lightroom, which you’re most likely using or at least heard of if you’re a photographer, you have a problem:

  • You’ve probably added copyright metadata when you imported the photo
  • Lightroom does not have a field in its database for the year of first publication.
  • Lightroom does not have an option to adjust the copyright metadata when you export the photo (but the export is really the important date, when the photo gets on the way to publication).
  • Lightroom does not allow the creation of dynamic copyright presets with year of publication.

Considering that we’re at the 6th major version of a software that is entirely aimed at photographers, the lack of support for copyright management in Lightroom is simply astonishing.

If you’re not watermarking photos locally, maybe you’re using a plug-in (for WordPress etc.) to automatically add a watermark to the online version of your photos. I am not aware of any plug-in that would manage the year or first publication at all, to incorporate it into a watermark and thus produce a proper copyright notice.

As it is today, adding a proper copyright notice to a photo requires extra consideration in a digital workflow. I have created collections in Lightroom based on the year of first publication. That way, I can quickly find out when a photo was first published, and can apply the correct embedded copyright information as well as the correct watermark to it when I need to export the photo again.

Why Not Use Embedded Metadata Instead?

A common argument against visible watermarks is that embedded metadata serves as “copyright management information” just as well. While that is certainly true, it is much harder to ensure that embedded metadata remains intact.

If you upload your files to social media sites like Facebook, you can be pretty sure that they’ll remove the metadata when they optimize the photo (they also compress all image quality out of your photo). Some social media sites even have a phrase in their terms of service (TOS) in which you give them permission to remove the metadata. By comparison, a visible watermark can’t and won’t be removed by Facebook and other platforms.

Or take WordPress, one of the most popular content management systems: if you upload high quality, high resolution files, WordPress will automatically create lower resolution files that may appear as thumbnails or embedded in blog posts, etc. - those lower resolution files do not contain the metadata of the original! It is thus very likely that you could be (unknowingly) serving files without any embedded metadata to your visitors, from your very own website. This won’t happen with a visible watermark that you add before you upload a photo to your website.


Alexander S. Kunz is a landscape and nature photographer from Germany who now lives and works in San Diego, California. You can view his work online here.

Graham Ashton

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