Watermarks are one of the most under appreciated, yet most important components of online marketing of photographs. As a photographer my photography always comes first. Upon first read you are correct in reading this statement that I will always look to capture a scene as best as I can artistically and technically. This statement also holds a less obvious significance in that my photography is one that I always wish to protect and secure association with my photographic endeavors.
Over the past year several events have happened that have made me eager to write about watermarks. I am inherently an impatient person and combined with the heated passion of this subject I’ve been on the edge of bursting from my seams for sometime. The time is right to share my experiences and knowledge in this area, as a result this week expect a few blog entries devoted to this topic. First I want to share with you my journey with photographic watermarks and later discuss how & why my watermarks have evolved, the art of online marketing with watermarks and finally a review of a great watermarking tool.
My journey with photographic watermarks has been anything but linear and has often been a trial by fire. While most people can’t imagine my work at this point with out some form of watermark on it, my personal preference is to display my work with out one. Unfortunately the realities of publishing photographs online requires that one utilize a watermark.
What is a watermark?
A watermark is text or an image overlaid on top of a photograph that helps identify the creator of that work or limits use of the file.
Why watermark your photograph?
Watermarking a photograph can ensure that proper attribution is provided, it notifies viewers of legal protections governing use of such photographic work and facilitate licensing or a sale of a non-watermarked file.
For someone who has been online pre-WWW it blows my mind that it was only around 1993 that images were accessible for viewing through a web browser (then Mosaic). Before that time photographs were circulating around through bulletin board systems (BBS’s) and Usenet which required FTPing image files to your computer. Transfer rates were slow back then and the means to share imagery with others was difficult. The concept of a link to point someone to view a photo wasn’t even in existence or was so laborious to produce that it was hardly worth the effort.
The advent of the Mosaic and later Netscape web browser enabled a means to share text, photographs and later music & video with ease. The barrier to entry to view and share such files virtually disappeared as bandwidth became more plentiful and browser technology became a central software application on every computer. With out question there is not one computer user today who does not take for granted the ease by which we can post, share and view photography (let alone music and video).
Just to share a little bit of nostalgia with you… when I was just about to graduate college to put a photograph online the following steps were needed:
- Take a photo with a film camera.
- Scan a 4×6 photo print (a 300 DPI print would take ~15 minutes)
Find and gain access to an image scanner (then roughly 20 in. x 30 in. x 6 in. in size and costing several thousands of dollars).
- Save your full resolution photo to an 800KB floppy disk and/or FTP the file to your UNIX account.
Note: If you were a real baller you had paid $100 to register a domain and had a text URL to point people to… otherwise you referenced a school account or an IP address.
- Then you could email the image file, a link to the image to your friend to download or view in a primitive browser.
In the past 16 years numerous attempts have been made to associate an image with the person that took it. The basic watermark for online use, placing text over an image and combining the two with an image editing application, has been around since 1993. Since that time people have attempted to embed digital signatures (computer recognized image noise) to the now more modern standard of embedding IPTC metadata. Yet with all the time that has passed and all the effort made with various technology solutions it is the first and earliest effort that still is the most effective… text or image based watermarks applied to photographs.
Every modern operating system has a screen capture function. Those who really wish to capture and use an image can circumvent protections meant to: stop downloading a file through a browser, circumvent embedded noise signatures, and even ignore/erase IPTC metadata found in an image file. Pure and simple in the past 16 years every solution has been held to one simple litmus test: Can it beat a screen capture? To date I have not found one solution that can.
Culture of Entitlement
Early on the thought of having photography be as widely and easily spread online as it is now was not in the realm of my imagination. At the time when the world wide web (WWW) was new I had no concept of copyright and why it was important to me. Like many back then accessing photographs, text and music was a big fun and slow experiment. Loading a photo in a web browser or downloading an image was time consuming and a crapshoot. You never knew if what you were going to see was worthwhile. In my college days I’d let my computer run for hours overnight with a 14.4 modem downloading “high resolution” files (up to 1600 x 1200 pixels) in the hope of seeing a photo or ray tracing image. I never did anything with the photos, but the ability to access and view them at will was revolutionary and had to be tried.
Today a generation has grown up with digital media files available on demand and accessible with in seconds. Culturally society has adopted online media delivery and taken for granted that such information took time and effort to create. The seconds to download and view a photo file has negatively impacted not just the perceived effort it takes to capture photographic work, but the cost associated with such efforts. Millions of people now expect content of every type for free irrespective of the cost associated to produce it. If that weren’t enough the ease of access to view, download and distribute files has also fostered the expectation and belief that items this easy to access, download and distribute are free to be used and manipulated as one sees fit. It’s as though a virtual highway exists where cars have no keys. People assume because the car is on the highway its free to use and take wherever you want even though the car is not your property.
The evolution of media consumption online is one where people feel entitled to what is made available to them. This sense of entitlement is driven by the lack of: cost & effort to access, download and produce; lack of understanding of how such content is created and lack of understanding of how people make a living by producing such content. As such the “entitlement” generation is one that is destined to learn these things only when they want to make a living or dedicate themselves to producing such content. In the meantime those of a later generation or creatives currently producing digital media have to adapt and have to find solutions to secure their livelihood with creative web marketing practices including the pivotal use of watermarks.
With that being said I do have to address the common argument by the “entitlement generation” that not placing ones photographic work online is the only way to protect ones photography. This holds as much water as stating the best way to avoid having your car from being stolen is to leave it in your garage. Just as necessity dictates the need to drive from place to place in modern life, necessity dictates that photographers market their work online in order to secure work and sales. Photographs are intellectual property as defined by law. Just as other types of property cannot be stolen, intellectual property is also not allowed to be stolen.
Unfortunately in the world we live not everyone abides by the law either due to ignorance or malicious intent. As a result photographers need to take steps to protect themselves and identify their work. Watermarks as discussed are the mechanism that has endured best over time and have yet to be beat by other solutions. It takes a great deal of effort to remove a watermark, particularly a large or complex one. Attempts to remove a watermark also show intent to circumvent copyright protection enabling a photographer to seek greater damages if the photograph is formally copyrighted. (See Copyrights: Protecting My Photograph)
“Uglifying” a Photo
Lets be honest by definition a watermark is ugly. You can try to make a watermark as pretty as possible, but in the end it is going to stick out like a sore thumb. That sore thumb quality is a necessity when navigating current online use of digital media. Depending on who you are, what your intentions and your personal taste a watermark can be minimalist in nature or quite blatant and intrusive. Over the years I have “uglified” my photography in a fashion that runs the entire spectrum of good taste. I have applied a simple “©<year> Jim M. Goldstein, All Rights Reserved” over my photographs and applied a variety of other styles of watermark. The reasons for implementing these watermarks were for practical reason. The example files showing these old watermarks & stories behind them will be shared in my next blog post “Evolution of a Watermark“.
[tags]Photography, Copyright, Watermark, Watermarking[/tags]