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How do we protect our copyrighted images on the Internet?

by Clint Watson on 8/24/2005

This article is by Clint Watson,  former art gallery owner/director/salesperson and founder of FineArtViews. You should follow Clint on Twitter here.


I received the following question from "TB" regarding copyrighting/watermarking images on a website:

...I wondered how one would go about putting a watermark on their jpegs (as my Photoshop Elements does not seem to do this), or if you could create something where the casual user couldn`t copy (or where we could invoke it to watermark our images)? I had someone tell his wife he`d just download and print an image for her from my website. Apparently, there are still people who don`t think it`s theft. It`d be nice if they could see the image online, but a watermark would show if they tried to download. Thanks.


T, I appreciate your question. I get this question quite a bit. Unfortunately the way the Internet works makes it impossible to prevent people from downloading images. In fact, when someone views an image on your website, their web browser has ALREADY downloaded the image. In short an image must be downloaded to be viewed.

So what options do we have to protect our images?

One option is to watermark the image, which must be done in a photo editing program. I use the term "watermark" loosely. You might simply add some subtle text over each image that reads "Copyright TB." At least this lets people know that the images are copyrighted. However it has the drawback of detracting from your actual work, plus it won't do anything to stop true theives. For example, if another artist simply wants to copy your work by repainting it, having a watermark isn't going to help. There are always risks to consider when selling fine art online. I think the rewards of selling art online outweigh the risk.

The second option (and best in my opinion) is to realize that web images do not have enough resolution to create high quality reproductions. People might download and print images, but most of the time these are people who might actually be considering purchasing the artwork. Our system uses a resolution of 550 pixels for the largest image. A high-quality reproduction requires at least 300 dots per inch. So an image from your site could create a decent printed image that was 1.8 (550 / 300) inches long. I don't see that much could be done with such an image. Of course, the image could be printed larger if the dots per inch was reduced, but the image quality would suffer greatly.

I don't know the entire story behind the image download you mentioned in your question, however, my heart goes out to that man's poor wife. She obviously wants one of your beautiful paintings and it looks like his spendthrift attitude is going to limit her to either a 1.8" image of your work, or a very poor quality reproduction. This couple definitely seems to have issues, but probably not anything that threatens your copyrights.

Incidently, this issue isn't anything new, just because of the Internet. I have a feeling that if we were having this discussion 10 years ago. This gentleman would be giving his wife a picture torn out of a magazine, a calendar, or perhaps from a post card that he recieved.Unless someone is actually using your copyrighted images for financial gain, there's not much we can do.

Who knows, she may look at that image he prints for her every day and continue to love it more and more. Perhaps she'll continue to tell him how much she wants it, eventually convincing him to buy it! In that case, it will be a good thing...I've seen such a thing happen before.

Let's just hope if that happens that it's already sold so that he'll learn his lesson for next time!

Clint Watson
Software Craftsman and Art Fanatic


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Related Posts:

Right-Click Disablers are Annoying and Don't Work

How Artwork Image "Thieves" Improve Your Marketing

How to Avoid Online Artist Predators

Copyright Registration: Protecting Yourself as Well as Your Collectors

When Copyright Infringers Become Victims... Part 1 - The Corporate Angle

Topics: art marketing | Clint Watson | copyright 

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Copycatting might be considered a form of flattery. We could embrace it as one way of becoming better known. People with good cameras might take photos in an art gallery and reprint them, this kind of thing is happening in many places. Popular books being digitally printed with no covers and sell like hot cakes with nothing going to the writer. I have three suggestions for photos of art work.
For photos online there are watermarks, many free, that you can put in one particular corner or tiled like a checkerboard. That way if it is copied the watermark goes with it.
You might put a note requesting a credit line when they want to use the photo and an email notifying you.
Also, you might make the image small enough that it will not reproduce in any substantial form for further use. That's why I did on my site with the of my great grandfather's paintings.
Hope this helps

If you have photos with a small enough resolution people will not be able to get much of a photograph out of them, certainly not good enough to sell and make money from. But another avenue to consider is watermarking as I have mentioned earlier.
I am not involved with any of the following watermark sites, I am not even using one of them myself, I just offer them from the Google search I did. BUT do your own due diligence about the credibility and cost of course. free or pro - try free free and pro free trial
and a whole bunch more when I Googled 'free watermarks'

Larry Achtemichuk
There is another sort of risk. Very few websites can prevent the "Right Click - Save Copy As.." way of getting a copy of an image.

This is inhibited in cases like the Artist Quarter software which I use which automatically places a "transparent window" over all images in the site, so the "Save Copy As .." only gets you the spacer.

This feature was prompted by an artist who had her paintings copied by a embroidery pattern company with no attribution or compensation.

The option of doing a screen shot of a webpage and cropping out a 72ppi image is still there, but as others have pointed out, there is less one can do with this.

Don't forget the old "print screen" for when you can not "save as". It will save an image just as if you downloaded it. I tested a website of mine and then print screened it. Copy pasted it into a paint program and then tada! Copied! I was a bit disappointed, but if people truly wanted a picture they could also just take a picture of it with a camera, while it's on the screen.It seems that there are more risk than rewards at times. If there's a will there's a way.....just shakes head.

GOD Bless,

Yes, the Print Screen does get you a copy of a screen, but if you crop out a small image from an already low resolution screen, there are severe restrictions on resolution of the resulting image and the ability to enlarge the image.

We all want people to see our images, we just do not want to have them get high quality copies and mis-use them.

Vitaly Alexius uses a pretty ingenious way of watermarking in his urban art: hidden signatures. He makes his signature part of the elements of the painting, conceals it between buildings, in shadows, on door signs, etc. It doesn't deter thieves by itself, but unless they're very thorough and look at every inch of the picture first, they neglect to crop it out or paint over it, which makes legal disputes easier.

I stick to the "do not upload anything too high-res" rule myself. I typically upload a ca 1200x1000 copy that showcases the details nicely, sometimes a few detail shots if I feel that doesn't quite cover it, but never the original files. I think this might be while I was, luckily, passed over by art4love.

I resent visible watermarks that block parts of the image and would never do that to my work.

Thank you for an informative article.

Joel B. McEachern
As I write, one of the largest internet opportunist in the country is using my work with my permission.

Perhaps we should give our creations all the protections given the simple lawnmower in the front yard or car in the driveway. If taken without consent (i.e stolen), call the police and file criminal charges. Period.


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