Are Image Watermarks a Thing of the Past?

Are Image Watermarks a Thing of the Past?

Ask yourself a simple question, it's 2019 and digital pretty much everything is and has been in full swing for a while now, do you still watermark your images? I do, I have no plans on stopping, and apparently it really upset someone on Instagram recently.

To make a long story short, I recently received a direct message on Instagram from someone I've never met or spoken to about the watermark I place in my photos. It went something like this (paraphrasing): “Hey bro, your work is good but make your watermark go away. No one wants that in their portfolio, it's easily removed so there is no need for it, it's a dated way to enforce ownership, and you need to join us in the 21st century”. No introduction, no hello or greeting from this person I've never met, just straight to the point, this fellow hates watermarks, has strong opinions about them, and felt compelled to share them with me.

My initial reaction was "whoa dude, this guy is really passionate about this though it feels like he's making a mountain out of a molehill." Let's take a minute and unpack the whole thing, address this guy's concerns, and see if we can't come to a fair consensus on watermarks and 2019. First, I feel that any watermark you place should be subtle, generally at lower opacity and somewhat hidden within the frame. I think this is important to note, a watermark shouldn't be the first thing people see. We're not looking to detract from our image, let the work be what people see first and foremost. Watermarks are pretty exclusively used for social media versions of images as any other use (print for example) wouldn't make much sense.

The notion that it's easily removed only makes sense if you assume that the purpose of a watermark is to act as a deterrent of some kind against image theft. To that point, I would agree that the presence of a watermark does not serve that purpose. Whether it's via a quick crop or simple Photoshop, if a person really wants a watermark removed they are going to make it happen quickly and easily. To that end, all we have to do is a simple realignment in how we think about marks. They are less a security stamp and more than anything simply a digital signature from the artist.

The idea that no one wants it in their portfolio is also a little silly as a printed portfolio should always receive the file without a watermark. I am hesitant to call Instagram or Facebook a portfolio (though they generally serve a very similar purpose these days) and thus have no qualms about sending a model a social media resolution image with a subtle watermark. In the event that someone you work with has cropped out your watermark, instead of being upset, ask yourself if that is a sign that perhaps your mark was too distracting in the first place.

The last point this stranger made indicated I needed to, “join us in the 21st century”. First of all, who is us and why should I join them? Is this guy recruiting anti-watermark sentiment for some new empire? Second, what does the 21st century have to do with anything? If the point is that watermarks are a thing of the past, clearly that just doesn't prove to be true. If a watermark (when used intentionally) is the social media version of a signature, that's certainly relevant in every century.

Let's recap and try to be clear about a couple things: firstly a watermark is a personal choice and no one can tell you whether you should or shouldn't use one. If you're not feeling it, no sweat don't use one at all. If you do choose to use one, be subtle and make sure that you're not detracting from your work; know that it's only for the social media version of any given image. I've always found simplicity to be key, don't over think it, keep things simple and subtle and you'll probably be just fine. Know that the purpose in this day and age isn't security, by putting images on the internet you accept that they are never going to be 100% secure.

Lastly, I'll leave everyone with some friendly advice. When you message a total stranger, I would suggest introducing yourself first, think of it like a greeting or an e-handshake. Be kind, be friendly, and ask questions. Try to start a conversation rather than being confrontational. A little conversation can go a long way and be infinitely more productive for all involved. If you'd like to connect with me on Instagram with any questions, comments, or concerns I would love to hear from you. Let's chat and be friendly acquaintances, let's be productive together.  The world already has enough people online shouting at each other, arguing, and trolling to no real end. If we all strive to be a friendlier voice, the internet might just end up a better place.

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Previous comments

If you want to go down this route, I would have thought it made more sense to register with your own country's copyright office. After all, if you have to take someone to court, the copyright case will be held in the country where the infringement took place. Given that this is most likely to be in your own country, using the copyright office of another territory just seems like an unnecessary complication.

Even if the infringement was in the US, the international treaties (which isn't just the Berne Convention) give you the ability to use your local, foreign copyright registration against a US citizen using US copyright laws. And let's be honest, the motivation to sue someone in a foreign country is always going to be lower than suing someone in your country, all other factors being equal.

So you don't lose anything. You just move where red-tape complications away from where you would be most likely to raise an infringement case.

Graham Goodman wrote “Even if the infringement was in the US, the international treaties (which isn't just the Berne Convention) give you the ability to use your local, foreign copyright registration against a US citizen using US copyright laws.”

Berne does NOT require member-country photographers to have any formal registration when pursuing international infringers.

Specifically to infringements committed by US-based infringers: To be clear, international (non-USA) photographers who belong to a Berne Convention signatory country (most all countries) do NOT have to register their photo copyrights with the US Copyright Office to have “legal standing” to pursue a US-based infringers in a US court, as no formal registration is required per Berne; however, US residents MUST register in order to bring a copyright infringement action in US federal court.

The benefit for both US and international photographers “timely” registering their copyright claims, is that they can pursue statutory money damages (from US$750 to US$150,000) and attorney fees and legal costs against the US-based infringer (assuming the infringement is NOT within Fair Use). With something like 95% of all US copyright infringement actions settling out of court, a timely registration provides the US attorney with LEVERAGE to push the US infringer to settle.

Works NOT timely registered with the US Copyright Office are typically not economical to pursue, as the ability to pursue actual damages and disgorgement of profits (instead of statutory damages) will be greatly out-weighed by the cost to litigate the infringement action. Photographers, whose images are not timely registered, waive their rights to pursue their attorney fees and legal costs against US-based infringers.

Stuart Carver's picture

I don’t use them, probably never will.. I have no issue with people using them but there are some cases where it annoys me. Particularly when you see bang average photographers plastering them on their images, there have been several discussions on a Facebook group I used to be a member of and literally to a man the people saying ‘I’m not having someone stealing my images’ generally don’t have images worth stealing, but they are of the opinion that they are. Perhaps that’s a wider issue though.

The guy messaging the author is an idiot either way.

Dave McDermott's picture

Yep, generally the more gaudy and obtrusive the watermark is, the worse the photographer is.

Stuart Carver's picture

And their opinion of said ability tends to not match the reality either haha.

Jan Kruize's picture

I have more sorrows that my pictures will be so good that people want to steal them than the fact really gonna steal them.

Dan Marchant's picture

There are billions of images out there. If someone hates watermarks there are plenty of other images they can go look at for free.
For professionals watermarks serve a valuable legal purpose. The removal of a watermark is taken by courts as an indicator of wilful infringement, which carries a stiffer penalty than an innocent infringement. In the US removal of a watermark is an offence under Section 1202 of the U.S. Copyright Act, which makes it illegal for someone to remove the watermark from your photo so that they can disguise the infringement when used. The fines start at $2500 and go to $25,000 in addition to attorneys' fees and any damages for the infringement.

Daniel Medley's picture

Though I somewhat agree with the sentiments of the person who reached out to you, I don't understand why anyone would think it's any concern of theirs. It's pretty amazing, really, that they reached out to you to complain about your watermark.

That being said, I see a difference between a "watermark" and a watermark. What I mean by that is there's a difference between a subtle mark of branding (an artists signature, if you will) and a ginormous thing scrawled across the image. Your examples are certainly the former; tasteful, subtle, and imbuing professionalism. The latter example I speak of (I'm sure we know what I'm talking about), however, are just hideous and amateurish, in my opinion; leaving the viewer with the watermark itself embedded in their mind rather than the image. Which I can't think is a good thing.

Kirk Darling's picture

There are three concepts involved that get conflated into the single term "watermark."

Back in the print days, and with less but not zero validity today, sample prints provided to retail clients for selection as enlargements were marked "PROOF" or something similar boldly across the photograph. The explicit intent was to prevent the image the image from being enjoyable--only identifiable. That wasn't needed for commercial images because the contract had already been signed. That, traditionally, had been what a "watermark" was in photography (and that's not the same meaning as "watermark" in lithography).

There is also the concept of branding, which is also still valid today, as has been discussed in this thread. With branding, the intention is that the image is enjoyable--the opposite of "watermarking." Artists have branded their work for centuries. Some people want to brand their images, some don't. Some do branding poorly, others don't.

Painters signing their paintings is so 11th century too. It’s your image. You created it. Do what you want with it.

marc gabor's picture

If the images look like they could have been taken by anyone - like sports photography for example - then I get it. But if the images in question are meant to "say" something and have a strong visual style that's unique to the person that made them then watermarks drastically cheapen the images.

First off, watermarks don't work when you plaster them in areas where they mean nothing. That's called a signature and what you are doing is stupid. Anyone can delete them (content aware fill) and I just dismiss your work as amateur. You don't know how to use them, or choose to destroy the overall impact of the image and put them in STUPID places. Now people who upload 2mb files at 4000+ resolutions and place watermarks on just plain horrible photos is also stupid. Like really, who is going to "use" your image of a random car that nobody cares about with a horrible composition etc. I see it all the time from car shows.

What you have is pretty much worthless and I agree with people who scoff at the use when it is done this way. Seriously 2 seconds in PS and it's gone, without ever knowing there was something there and it just looks bad for you.

If you are truly having trouble with someone stealing your photos, or you sell them, use it right and put it over a important part of the image and use it as a watermark. What you are showing is not a watermark, but a horrible signature.

Mike Ofstedahl's picture

I am too old school...I never use watermarks ...but I also dont use instagram. I have my website and word of mouth. I am even debating getting rid of crack book. I like this type of social media its more magazine based with mostly quality photoraphers engaging in decent discussions. The only change I would make to this site is making people accountable for their ratings. You should see who rated your images...but thats not the subject...I digress.

Allen Baytes's picture

So, should all the greats remove their signature(s) from their works or Art? Why in the world would anyone be opposed to the artist signing their work. A photograph is more than just an iPhone shot, there often times is work, editing and not to mention lighting and the artist's skill to produce a great shot. I not only place my water mark on all my images, I embed all my information and copyright information within every picture.

Markus Zahner's picture

Hi Evan. I basically agree with you as I also consider it as a personal thing. But I don't like watermarks neither on my pictures nor on others. E.g. your photograph with the watermark is in a certain way 'damaged'. Watermarks should be designed in a way that they meet the style of the photograph in colour and font style - this is definitely a lot of work to do. And I think watermarks don't help very much.

That ugly watermark is critically important when some scum-sucking-piece-of-rat-puke steals your photo! Only a couple people got this, so I'm shouting from the top of the comments - and you should edit your post to put this right on top!

That watermark - I hate them as much as anybody - is something called copyright management information. It is the only piece of CMI that the courts have consistently cared about. When the SSPORP removes the watermark, you can file a DMCA action against him or her for $25,000 (you could file for less if really wanted to). The courts have shown that they care. The SSPORP will know your name. There's enough money on the table that your lawyer will return your calls.

In a civilized world, destroying the CMI in your metadata (which doesn't show unless viewed and therefore doesn't ugly up your frame) would count just as much. But we don't live in a civilized world, and the courts - in the US, anyway - don't feel that way.

Why does the silly watermark matter and your copyright doesn't? In the sad and silly world in which we live, you can only qualify for statutory damages for copyright infringement if a number of conditions are met. Unless your SSPORP is the dumbest SSPORP ever to walk the earth, those conditions won't be met. That means that you can only sue for the market value of the stolen work. On a good day, your picture is worth about 20 minutes of lawyer time. Which means you won't sue. If you do sue, our glorious Supreme Court has ruled that you can't do it until AFTER the Copyright Office issues your copyright certificate. Which, since our glorious government funds the CRO as poorly as possible, will be the best part of a year from the time the SSPORP stole your work. The SSPORP knows this. Thus, your copyright means diddly.

On the other hand, the DMCA was designed to protect big corporations, not annoying little photographers. (Actually, to protect big corporations FROM annoying little photographers). Things are different in that world. For cropping off the watermark, you can sue for statutory damages ($2500 to $25,000) straight away, with no need that the SSPORP meet any special conditions that they won't meet.

That ugly watermark is starting to look better and better, huh?

“Hey bro, your work is good but make your watermark go away. No one wants that in their portfolio, it's easily removed so there is no need for it, it's a dated way to enforce ownership, and you need to join us in the 21st century”


"Hey bro, your watermark is inconvenient for me when I want to steal it and not give you attribution on my blog. I can easily remove it but I realize that shows I am willfully violating your copyright."

Keep the watermark and be sure that your copyright info is in the EXIF data of your work. Artist sign paintings, why not photographic artists? I read somewhere (whether or not this is true, I don't know), that if you have a watermark on your online work, it makes it easier to pursue a thief of such work in European courts.

Enough said.....

Christine Deschaseaux's picture

Visible watermark is like IPTC and other metadata, but more visible to the public. It contains information about ownership and rights, but it can be easily removed, which means that not only it does not help against theft but it does not help tracing back a stolen photo to its original source either.

Invisible digital watermark does not prevent from theft but it contains information that stick to you photos even after compression, cropping, filters etc.
Combined with a reverse search system, it will help you find who stole your photos and even which customer's copy it was.

Tested and approvedd by FSToppers !: