The Pros and Cons of Watermarks

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Tastes vary, but I've never seen an image with a watermark that wouldn't have been better without it.

The disadvantage of using a watermark is obvious. It introduces a distracting visual element that doesn't belong in an image. The effect of a watermark on an image ranges from mildly distracting at best, to ruinous at worst. When I see a photograph with a watermark, the watermark is almost invariably the first thing I look at. If it's large and obtrusive, it's also usually the last.


Why do people use them? I've heard two rationales: marketing and theft protection.  

There are probably some photographers, such as those who do portraits and wedding pictures commercially, for whom the marketing advantages of a watermark outweigh the disadvantages. Having your name on a portrait could lead to business from those who see and admire your work. I certainly wouldn't second-guess anyone who has considered the pros and cons and made a considered business judgment that using a watermark is advisable. But I suspect that such individuals account for a fairly small proportion of the photographers who use watermarks. 

What about theft protection? You can find many articles encouraging photographers to use watermarks on their images to guard against theft. With all due respect to the authors, I disagree.  

 
  

I make my living as a lawyer, and I've handled a fairly large number of cases involving copyright infringement. I'm not about to give legal advice over the internet. My insurer would have a conniption fit if I did. In light of what I've observed and what I think I know about the law, though, I don't use a watermark to guard against theft.

If you don't use a watermark, an admirer may copy an image that he or she likes and print it, thereby robbing you of a potential sale. If you use a watermark, maybe they won't copy the image...but they probably won't buy a print, either. The watermark may foil the admirer, but it probably won't bring you any extra revenue. 

The risk that an image will be stolen for commercial purposes, rather than copied by a cheap admirer, is relatively small. Reputable businesses are very unlikely to steal images. They don't need to, and they know they'll be in trouble if they do. Sleazy businesses and individuals sometimes steal images for commercial purposes. What are the odds that they'll swipe yours?

You may have noticed that the internet is flooded with photographs. However much we love them, your images and mine amount to raindrops falling in an ocean. I might wish that my work was so exceptional and compelling that thieves would single it out for attention. I have enough of a grip on reality to know better. It could happen. I could also get run over by a truck. I'm not going to worry about either possibility.

If someone does misappropriate your image, it's not likely to cause you a significant financial loss. The thief isn't likely to be a significant business that could pay you appropriately for your work. It's more likely to be a shoestring operation. Some copyright material of mine—words, not an image—were once plastered on a teeshirt somebody was peddling on the internet. I was mildly flattered and very irritated. The teeshirt peddler, though, probably couldn't have paid a significant judgment for copyright infringement if I had gone to the trouble and expense of getting one. I let it pass. In most cases of image theft, that will be the course of action that a dispassionate cost-benefit analysis will suggest. I'd rather create new images than fight about old ones.

          

Suppose the highly improbable happens: an image of yours is misappropriated by a thief who makes a lot of money from your work. If it were to happen to me, I'd probably pop some champagne, kiss my wife, and celebrate. I'd almost certainly have no trouble proving that the image was mine. The thief would get a prompt demand letter. If he or she didn't pay up, I'd like my chances in a court action. A lot.

For all of these reasons, I don't lose worry about image theft. Since I'm not worried about the problem, I'm not going to put a disfiguring watermark on all my images to reduce the already minimal risk.

Obviously, a lot of people come to a different conclusion. I don't suggest that my answer is the "right" answer. The right answer for you will be the one you reach after thinking through the pros and cons.  

Don Peters' photographs can be seen here.

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What is with the font being nearly microscopic?

 

I think it depends on the watermark - I personally ask photographers that I HIRE to please leave their logo/watermark type signature on my canvases - I'm proud to show off that I hired a photographer - I think it makes them look more finished AND it looks signed. Matt Seville did that on my family photo. I also left his mark on my Christmas cards - I think it's like buying a designer pair of jeans or a purse - once it reaches a certain level, you WANT the logo/label there, somewhat of a thing to show off.  also the samples you showed of watermarks aren't nice looking - they are somewhat hideous.  How about a few samples of the nice ones that a lot of portrait photographers use...    

From my experience, watermarks are essential for "my" business.  I shoot mainly portraits and rock concerts.  I used to feel the same as you, that I would rather have a nice clean image presented.  But that was before I had a client tell me flat out "Oh, I won't need prints now, we just copied them from your website".  They told me that on the phone, so my lawyer says I won't be able to prove it in court and it wouldnt' be worth the expense anyways. Ten minutes later every photo on my website was watermarked with a huge © right in the middle.  I reduced the opacity to 50% so you can see through it, but it would take a Photoshop wizard to clone it out effectively, and most people aren't wizards. I learned my lesson the hard way.

I also have had my concert photos stolen and placed on blogs around the world, with zero chance of recovering anything in U.S. Copyright lawsuits.  So they now get a big fat watermark logo right in the middle, reducing their appeal to the thiefs. Some still don't care, but there's only so much protection you can have on the internet.  The only true protection is to not post them at all and that's not an option for me. 

The chances that I will lose a sale because of the watermark are so small that I will lose no sleep over it.  My watermark will stay.

You can see my work at htt://www.pixelperfectimages.net

Cheers,

Dan

While your comments may be valid, I will continue to use a small copyright watermark on my work.

What about watermarking images you post online and removing them for printed photos?  A little more work, but it does address two of the issues you cover in this article

Spoken like a true lawyer. Don't use protection and sue if you get ......

Lorrie, Daniel, April, and you unregistered folks, thanks for the comments.  As I said, I'm not trying to tell anyone what to do.  Those of you who have come to a different conclusion appear to have good reasons.  If I'd had Daniel's experience, I'd probably have reacted as he did.

(And thanks to Chris Gampat for fixing a problem with one of the images that was entirely my fault.)

I prefer a small watermark with my name and website for photos I post online. Small enough to be unobtrusive, and keep honest people honest (even if they accidentally forget to attribute it properly). It's not going to stop a thief from removing it as they could just crop the photo without damaging it too much, but they're also starting from a 1024px image, so any cropping they do just makes it all that much smaller of a starting point. For printed photos, definitely no watermark.

@Daniel: Another option that doesn't completely mar a photo with a giant © in the middle of it, is to not post the full size/full resolution image online. Limit it to 800px and nobody is getting a good print from that. Even 1024px won't be producing any good prints, but will still allow people to share the images online at a size of their choosing. Use creative commons, and the honest folk will even properly attribute them.

The only time I post larger than 1024px online is when I've got something cropped for using as a desktop/wallpaper, and it's output to 1920x1200 or 1600x1200, watermarked with my name and website, and licensed under CC by+nc+sa

I think the key phrase in this post is "I make my living as a lawyer..."

Perhaps if Mr. Peters made his hard-earned living as a photographer he might feel differently about watermarking. No-one is going to argue that images don't look better without watermarks, but those of us who try to earn a living from our work recognize the necessity of also trying to protect that work.

While this is great advice FROM A LAWYER (this person clearly states they make their living as a laywer). its BAD advice for a photographer.

I photograph celebrities and musicians, so when I post an image online it gets grabbed and reposted EVERYWHERE

With out my watermark... no one would ever know who took it

WITH my watermark - not only does it get me recognition as the artist, its also marketing. and gives what one could call "product recognition" as they see my logos on a few of their favorite bands, or celebs - they find out who I am, and start following my work.

Say some company is looking to hire someone to shoot a Megadeth image... tey google megadeth - find my image - with my watermark - and look me up - BOOM - i get the job because of a watermark.

I think its REALLY bad advice to tell photographers not to protect their images and also market themselves in one easy way.

thumbs down!

- Jeremy

Amen!

I don't watermark my images on my website; but do have a small one on my blog and fb page.

I've been scraped a few times, at least (I seem to be quite popular in Poland), and the watermark helps direct viewers back into my web presence. I don't feel there is a threat to my images being used for someone else's gain.

Content producers should adopt a different business plan. It's true, that the material is a drop in the ocean. I'm not plastering my images with a waterwark when I want more viewers, and when it's not going to result in more money in my pocket. Images that I'm looking to sell are not posted to the Internet until they're sold.

So, then, abstinence in this case is favorable to the pocket? 

dlyost

It's interesting that there are such strong feelings about this.

As for those who are professionals, I meant no comment on whatever conclusion they may reach.  That's why I said that I wouldn't second-guess anyone who had weaighed the pros and cons and made a considered business judgment to use a watermark.  My understanding is that most people who visit these pages aren't professionals.  

As for whether my advice is good or bad, the only advice I think I gave was to consider the pros and cons before using a watermark.  I stand by that advice.  Many people, I think, use one because that's what everyone else does.  That's not a good reason.  Most people don't need one.  

As for whether my line of work bears on this, yes and no.  If I were to surrender my license to practice law tomorrow, I still wouldn't use a watermark.  If I needed to go after someone for copyright infringement, being a lawyer wouldn't help much.  I wouldn't represent myself.  I'd need to hire a lawyer the same as anyone else would.  The old adage that anyone who represents himself or herself has a fool for a client is very true.  There's no exception for lawyers.

My line of work is relevant to the extent that it has caused me to learn something about the copyright laws.  Part of what prompted me to write this was talking to photographers who thought they had to use a watermark to enjoy copyright protection.  

As I said, if you reach a different conclusion than I do, fine. 

I'm a lawyer and a hobbyist photographer, and I use watermarks. I spend lots of time with Photoshop and artistic filters, textures, and software making my images unique. My reward has been to have some stolen and used by other people to market their products online. This is not uncommon at all and it is naive to think otherwise.
Further, read up on the Orphan Works legislation, which thank God has gone dormant for awhile. Google and many other corporations are salivating to monetize all the free images they can grab online. And even though an image is too small to print, it can be used for blogs, web ads, etc. Why make it easy for thieves?
Not only should people watermark their images, they should make sure their contact and copyright info is in the EXIF, though some photo-sharing sites will strip out some or all of the EXIF upon upload. If yours does, you should take your business elsewhere.

i call it advertising, not a watermark. 

So often now they are edited out anyway. If you are going  to use a watermark make you use a small one and tile it across the image ... this will make it much harder to remove.  an example of a poorly watermarked image http://ingimage.com/imagedetails/42016523_extInt0/02E93536-Ingimage-Busi...

Thanks for the thorough post and the discussion in the comment section! I am an artist who is in the process of building my website as well as other avenues of exposure like Facebook and Tumblr. In the past, I uploaded a lot of my work to Facebook so I could share it with friends. However, I was floored when I realized that the Facebook user agreement (similar to those used by all of the major companies that allow photo sharing) gives broad permissions for them to use AND sub-license anything that is uploaded to their site. Needless to say, I pulled my work until I could figure out how to protect myself.

I decided to go with a watermark and found your post while researching the best wording for it.  You have some valid points and I am now rethinking my strategy for posting my work online. I will still use a big, ugly watermark across the entirety of everything I post to Facebook and similar sites. I feel like I need to protect myself from thieves and discourage the easy use of my art since uploading it in the first place means I've already compromised more than I wanted to. However, I am rethinking my approach to posting on my website.  I will do more research and look for a happy medium that protects my work without ruining my customers' impression of me.

Thanks again!

Thanks Don for the sage advice and the practical response to image thieves. As I read your opinion it seemed based on the risk vs gain, for either the image originator or the image thieve. What would your opinion be when the image it is not an art form, but a product image? Would not the water mark not work so much to disfigure the image, but also add advertisement for the company, and be furthered as a company image even if the admirer took the image and displayed it on their site? thanks again Randy

Hello, Don,

Loved looking at your beautiful photography. I especially like black and white and the old vintage/rustic photos. I was actually searching the net, trying to get information about watermarks when I came across your site. I have hesitated putting my photos online because so many people I know cautioned about theft. Theft wasn't really something I worried about as I basically believe in the honesty of most people (naieve) and just wanted to share what I love to do and hopefully make a few dollars. I also get easily confused when it comes to technology, watermarks even being a challenge. However, you have helped me make the decision, to watermark or not to watermark. What you shared, basically reflects my thoughts on the subject as well and it was nice to hear someone else express them. I will tell my friends I am not the only crazy one, someone else thinks like me! Decision made, no watermarks - I feel so relieved:)

You made mention of being able to readily prove copyright if an image went big in someonelse's hands. How does one exactly do that? I have all my photos dated as such, but should I be doing more?(like I really need to worry, right?) Anyhow, I am so glad I read your words tonight and will forge ahead in sharing my photos and continue taking many more. Happy snapping and may we all find that ultimate shot! Thanks so much for sharing.

Sandra Kraus

Hello Don,

I am a digital artist and looking to finally set up my own site to operate a gallery and take commissioned work from. However, I am wondering how is it you plan to prove your un watermarked images are yours if a thief who uses your work makes a lot of money from them. You describe the senario in this paragraph:

"Suppose the highly improbable happens: an image of yours is misappropriated by a thief who makes a lot of money from your work. If it were to happen to me, I'd probably pop some champagne, kiss my wife, and celebrate. I'd almost certainly have no trouble proving that the image was mine. The thief would get a prompt demand letter. If he or she didn't pay up, I'd like my chances in a court action. A lot."

Would your date of proof be the date the images were posted to your site? Or do you pay for a service that places a digital tracking mark on your image?

Regards,

Kiri Ramdeo

Kiri Ramdeo wrote:

Hello Don,

I am a digital artist and looking to finally set up my own site to operate a gallery and take commissioned work from. However, I am wondering how is it you plan to prove your un watermarked images are yours if a thief who uses your work makes a lot of money from them. You describe the senario in this paragraph:

"Suppose the highly improbable happens: an image of yours is misappropriated by a thief who makes a lot of money from your work. If it were to happen to me, I'd probably pop some champagne, kiss my wife, and celebrate. I'd almost certainly have no trouble proving that the image was mine. The thief would get a prompt demand letter. If he or she didn't pay up, I'd like my chances in a court action. A lot."

Would your date of proof be the date the images were posted to your site? Or do you pay for a service that places a digital tracking mark on your image?

An easy way, if one shoots RAW, is that YOU would have the RAW image, and no one else!

I caught a company stealing one of my images for comercial use. I simply sent them an invoice for US$3000 and threatened them with legal action and they paid up!

Thank you!  I was weakening, thinking of watermarking my pix after all these years.  You make some excellent points, though, about how it's not likely to make me any money, so why ruin a good image?  I will, however, retain a good copyright attorney.  Just in case.

sir i read it carefully,but i have no skill to make a batter and attractive watermark.can you make me a watert mark?

"yasir photography"