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The Problem with Visible Digital Watermarking , Right-Click Disabled Websites and Art Marketing

by Brian Sherwin on 9/15/2011 12:48:13 PM

This article is by Brian Sherwin, regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Myartspace, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Conservative Punk, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint, Vandalog, COMPANY and Art Fag City. Disclaimer: This author's views are entirely his/her own and may not reflect the views of BoldBrush, Inc.. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.

Anyone who follows my writing on FineArtViews knows that I'm a strong supporter of copyright. That said, I'm also a supporter of common sense -- and not allowing copyright infringers to rule the way we display images of art online. Thus, I have issue with visible digital watermarking. In my opinion visible digital watermarks are a distraction -- they complicate the viewing experience. Point blank -- visible digital watermarking becomes an obstacle for art marketing online -- an obstacle spurred by insecurity and fear.


I realize that artists champion the use of visible digital watermarks because they feel it is the best way to protect images from would-be copyright infringers. In concept that may be true -- however, in reality visible digital watermarks do little to protect an image. I'd go as far as to suggest that visible digital watermarks are a paper tiger defense against copyright infringement. They appear imposing -- powerful -- but when you get down to the grit of it these protective safeguards are rather weak. Thus, they only serve, in my opinion, to distract viewers -- all viewers... including potential buyers.


Contrary to what appears to be popular belief within the online art community it is really not that difficult to remove a visible digital watermark. It is safe to say that professional copyright infringers -- those who actively seek images created by others in order to profit from them in some way -- know how to remove these paper tiger barriers... OR know someone who can. It is naïve to think that these watermarks can 'protect' you 100% of the time.


Visit the forums of most social art sites and you will find this problem explored -- and we have seen it in online scandals involving alleged copyright infringement... think Art4Love. Point blank -- a visible digital watermarking may 'protect' you from an average Joe -- but it will likely only serve as a minor annoyance in regard to tech savvy copyright infringers. As I've said in the past, if someone wants an art image that you've posted online bad enough they will find a way to obtain it and use it.


Currently there is an average of over 90,000 Google searches per month for 'remove watermark' -- and anywhere between 500 and 40,000+ searches for variants of that keyword search. In fact, with just a few Google searches of those variants one will discover websites dedicated to how to remove a visible digital watermark from an image. In addition to that, one can find digital watermark removing software for sale. Point blank -- there are people who want to remove visible digital watermarks... and with a little research they will find out how.


I understand why some artists choose to use visible digital watermarks -- and by all means, if you want to use them... use them. That said, do realize that they are not the fortress of security that you may have been lead to believe. In addition to that, realize that as far as marketing your art online is concerned -- visible digital watermarks clearly serve as a barrier between the digital image of your art and people -- including potential buyers -- who want to view it. In a sense, visible digital watermarks can limit your online art marketing efforts by becoming a distraction -- a distraction cultivated by insecurity and fear.


Many artists who champion visible digital watermarks also champion right-click disabled pages. True, with a right-click disabled website visitors don't have the 'Save Image As...' option. I don't have an issue with websites being right-click disabled per se. However, I do think that artists need to realize that just because the site is right click disabled does not mean that people can't obtain art images in other ways. In fact, the most common way to work around that is to simply press 'Prt Scr' -- Print Screen -- in order to copy the entire image of the page to an image program. From there the copyright infringer can simply crop the image to suit his or her needs. Within seconds he or she will have a duplicate image of the image that you uploaded to the right-click disabled art website. Nothing is 100% safe.


In closing, image protection online in the form of visible digital watermarking and right-click disabled websites is merely an illusion. Both of these paper tiger barriers can be broken down easily by would-be copyright infringers -- and anyone else for that matter. In the case of using visible digital watermarking... it can actually become an obstacle in regard to your online art marketing efforts by hampering the viewing experience. I realize that people will do what they want to do -- but I do hope that artists will give what I'm saying some consideration. That said, I still think that copyright registration with the US Copyright Office is the best protection an artist can have -- and as I've pointed out in the past, there are some affordable options.


Take care, Stay true


Brian Sherwin


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Related Posts:

Copyright Registration: Some thoughts on registering a series of paintings

Artists Rights Online: Should Artists be Wary of a Social Networking Websites Terms of Service (TOS) Agreement? Part 2

How to Avoid Online Artist Predators

Right-Click Disablers are Annoying and Don't Work

Copyright Registration: Protecting Yourself as Well as Your Collectors

Topics: art marketing | art websites | Brian Sherwin | copyright | FineArtViews | Think Tank 

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Clint Watson
Brian, I agree with everything you say except I would take one thing a step further. You said, " I don't have an issue with websites being right-click disabled per se."

I DO HAVE AN ISSUE with that.

The right-click is NOT just for "save image". It is called a "context menu" and I use it all the time. It lets me go "back" without having to navigate to the top of the screen. It lets me copy text if I want to quote someones blog on my blog. It lets me TRANSLATE the page (in Chrome). It lets me reload the page. It lets me inspect source code (not as much of an issue on sites where I'm not the developer) It lets me Print.

I HATE it when the right click is disabled, it's like you're invading my computer against my wishes. In fact, because chrome is developer friendly if a page DOES disable right-click and I right-click twice, chrome will OVERRIDE your right-click disabler and give me the normal menu anyway.

WHen it comes to right click disablers - just don't do it. It's a waste of time and a huge annoyance to those of us who use the context menu.

That is all.

Thank You.

Brian Sherwin
Clint -- Good points as always. I personally don't use it that much... but I can see how those other factors can be annoying as well.

Well, I just watermarked my jpegs with a nifty tool called Impressions...and to my surprise, I Love the way it looks...The words give some clarity to the images, in the same way that words help the reader on a Hallmark card...I love how it says my name right in the middle...It is so prominent, it is actually great branding...Yes, I used to think that maybe watermarks were a bad thing...But if you actually are the artist, it feels wonderful to see your name smack dab in the middle- so often forgotten...In the middle of the early morning, I was imagining watermarking all my submissions to galleries too- how I hate sending out pictures for free with nothing on them...Am I selling so much online that I care? No...Does it make me feel happier, yes...I am tired of giving it all away for free...of course it will irk the viewer, paying money for things always does...I'm sorry that right clicking disable bothers some-I don't really know how to do that on most of my sites, but have used it where it is just a checkbox to click...I have taken down much of my Flickr, Facebook and Picasa imagery and feel better about that...I'm sorry, but when a robbery occurs, I get an alarm system and do anything else I can to protect my property...If that irks some, then let them be mad at the robbers, not me for defending myself...I am liking the look of watermarks- and to be honest, I am not sure that they actually hamper business- myself, I always pay for things when I can't get them free- psychologically the watermark says the same thing...
Even if someone uses a watermark removing program- I like that that act says to the person that they know they are stealing...That makes it all much clearer to the artist and the court when they have to decide whether to prosecute or not...

George De Chiara
I agree with Clint, I HATE sites that disable right click. When I run across one I leave it immediately. I don't care how good the content is, if I can't use the back button and the site makes it hard for me to navigate, I go elsewhere.

Clint Watson
Sari - I actually don't have a big issue with watermarks, especially if they're fairly tasteful. (In fact we're building an automatic watermarking feature into our software). I think of them sort of like the little logos in the bottom right of a tv channel - they serve to brand the image. I do hate it when they totally obscure the image though.

I want to clarify something and I plan to write more about in the future.

WHen someone downloads an image and uses it, it's not exactly "theft", it's copyright infringement - there is a difference and the law recognizes that. That's why copyright infringement is a different offense.

If I steal your TV - I have a TV and you don't.

If I download your image - now we BOTH have it. You haven't been denied any physical property - it's not theft.

The penalties for copyright infringement are actually much more severe than for theft with big mandatory fines - IF, a big IF, IF you've registered the copyright. Otherwise you have to prove damages - which are rarely over the cost of going to court.

Registration shows the artist is serious about claiming the copyrights to their works and, although a lot of artists get really worked up about the issue, many (most?) don't do the one thing that would actually put some teeth behind their complaints.

I plan to explore this further on this blog in the future.

Thank you so much for your comments.

Sergio Lopez
"I love how it says my name right in the middle...It is so prominent, it is actually great branding..."

How is that different than simply putting your signature ton your work?

Brian Sherwin
Sari -- You said, "Even if someone uses a watermark removing program- I like that that act says to the person that they know they are stealing..."

If they use a watermark removing program -- or go about it in a different way... the person knows they are infringing on copyright. The watermark does not say anything to them other than being a minor annoyance.

You said, "That makes it all much clearer to the artist and the court when they have to decide whether to prosecute or not..."

Technically none of that matters unless the work is registered with the US Copyright Office BEFORE the infringement occurred. Most law firms won't even bother with a case if the work was not registered before the alleged infringement. It might help if the work was infringed upon after the work was registered -- but then, the registration itself is all the ammo you need in that scenario.

You said, "I love how it says my name right in the middle...It is so prominent, it is actually great branding..."

See... that is what I think about when I think of digital watermarks -- I think of a bold name smack-dab in the middle. It is a distraction. It takes away from one of the main focus areas of an image. Some watermarks placed in the middle of an image are so 'involved' that the image is not clear. It is frustrating... at least to me.

I mean yeah... it is great that I see the name of the artist -- but I would like to be able to see the images as well... without the watermark dominating the images.

Brian Sherwin
Clint -- In my opinion the problem is that most artists, based on what I've observed over the years, don't know how to balance the use of digital watermarks. Thus, you end up with a digital watermark that dominates the image. As you mentioned... some really do obscure the viewing experience.

I've seen the same on commercial art sites where artists have the option to place the site logo and their name over a larger percentage of the image. Those digital watermarks ruin the viewing experience for me -- and depending on the image itself it can make it very difficult to 'see' the art.

Now... if the watermark is less intrusive to the viewing experience I would not have a problem -- but when I can't tell what I'm looking at there is a problem. It leaves me thinking, "Why would I want to buy an image that I can't 'make out'?"

Brian Sherwin
As for branding... yes... I can see how watermarks can be used for branding. Just don't make me blind to the image in the process. If I visit your website I most likely know your name -- I want to see what it is that you do. :)

Mmmm...yes, it occurred to me after posting, that the watermark itself is a big "depend"...The one I bought (Impressions for iPhoto), allows me to create something custom in TextEdit, save it as an rtf file, then use it in the program...It is easy enough to figure out that I find I am doing custom watermarks as I go along, one by one, as I upload and edit images...So instead of just having one look that goes on everything, I can alter what I write and how to suit better the image...I've been thinking of even writing the title,or media, or year,
instead of just the © symbol with a name...Honestly, I can even see the price if I was feeling more crass...

Sergio Lopez
I for one would hate to see the title, media, year, price etc. watermarked on to the image... Talk about distracting!

Susie Cassens
If you download the image at a very low DPI will that make it harder to reprint it?

I do a lot of websites and recommend against watermarking images. The vast majority of visitors to your site are either collectors or other artists who admire your work. Putting a watermark prominently in the middle of a painting says "just in case you were thinking of stealing this, HAH!" Is this really the message you want to send?

When major galleries start treating their clients that way, maybe I'll reconsider. But imo, watermarking is a sign of an inexperienced, paranoid artist with delusions of grandeur. It's not quite up there with putting a "counter" on your site (you know who you are), but pretty close.

If you want to see who has your images, there are plenty of ways to do that, such as the free "Who stole my pictures?" that searches Google and other search engines. Install it, then right-click on the image and select it from the popup menu.

Oh right, you turned off right-click...

You do realize that if I want a copy of your image, I just hit a key and SnapZPro asks me which area of the screen I want to save? Right?!

Sadly, if you don't mark your images, they get out there unattributed and then the infringements spread, diluting the value of the image for YOU to license it, etc. Confusion over who it really belongs to can really become a problem, too.

So, I add what some call a 'watermark' to my images, digitally, BEFORE I upload them. It's part of the image, not a layer. It would take some effort and skill to remove. I also sign my work far enough in that removing or covering it would damage the usefulness of the image as a whole. The size and placement of my 'watermark' depends on what I uploaded the image for. If it's just for blogging the mark is larger and more centered. If I need to keep the image free of obtrusive marks it is very small but legible and usually next to my actual signature. If the image is "shared" without attribution, which is becoming more common now, it's still identifiable. If it's infringed in a serious way, the infringer has to remove my mark which means I could recover more in money damages from them even without registration, because it is removing copyright management information which is a step up the scale on seriousness of the offense.

The majority of infringers will not go to any extra effort. Anything I can do to save myself the time of dealing with infringers is worth it. They are the biggest drain on my time right now as far as chores that have nothing to do with production or marketing.

I do regular reverse image searches and send lots of DMCA takedowns.

Registration, even in groups, is costly when it adds up with dozens of new pieces a year. My attorney told me that pieces in a series/group of visual art do have to be related. Seems the rule is not as tight for photos and it's a different registration form. Also, last I looked, the fee for group registration is now $65. I would like to see registration done away with, as many countries have. For one thing, it will be in conflict with the small claims copyright process being considered now. A small claims process would allow artists to sue for cases that are not currently worth enough, but that nickel and dime artists to death over time. The message sent by being sued will go a lot further than the occasional DMCA takedown slap on the wrist that is a nice tool for us, but not much of a deterrent to repeat infringements.


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