Copyright Scott Bourne 2008 - All Rights Reserved
September 29, 2010

The Case For Watermarks

The younger you are – the more likely you are to dislike watermarks on photos. That is the result of my unscientific poll. I’ve read some articles on watermarks lately, including one at Photoshelter that caused me to think I should publish my own thoughts. Grover Sanschagrin makes the case against watermarks here. He makes it clear that his position is his own and is NOT the official position of Photoshelter. That’s a good thing because if it was, I’d probably be recommending against using Photoshelter. That said, unlike many who opine on this issue, Grover at least has a reason for his positions. While we mostly disagree, I respect the careful way he went about making his case. Heck – I think he’s just a little bit right – particularly if you are talking about PROMINENT watermarks. But then again, who’s to say what’s prominent and what isn’t? I watermark sometimes – and sometimes I don’t. If the image is 500 pixels or less, I typically don’t watermark because the photos are too small for anyone to use commercially in a significant manner. I am constantly evaluating this position and do reserve the right to watermark even my smaller images someday. But for now, I don’t usually do it. When I publish images 500 pixels or greater, I typically watermark. I consider my watermark to be just right – not overly intrusive. For the selfish – cool kids who think they are ENTITLED to my images, ANY watermark is too big. As you may surmise, I won’t lose any sleep over what they think. But to everyone else, it’s a legitimate question. Should you watermark? I say yes – when your images are large enough to be printed or used commercially without your permission. Grover disagrees. I will dissect Grover’s post as a starting point. Grover claims that based on Photoshelter research, photo buyers are less likely to license images that are “prominently” watermarked. I’d have to ask once again, what is “prominent?” I haven’t seen any problem selling my images that are “tastefully” watermarked. I’d like to see the data sample and size on his research before I’d believe it. Grover also correctly says that watermarked images are less likely to be shared via social networks. For some of you reading this post, that will be a problem. You need and/or want that exposure. I don’t need OR want it. I would rather control my own work. I know that’s old fashioned, and I can live with that. The “sharing” too often turns into “stealing” in my opinion. While I know there are those out there who think they have a “right” to republish my images (or your images for that matter) without permission, Title 17 of the U.S. Code says otherwise. If sharing is important to you then Grover’s argument has a bit more merit. If protecting your Copyrights is important to you, Grover’s argument has less merit. Grover’s weakest point (bordering on the stuff that comes out of the backend of a bull) is that using a watermark sends a subtle signal that you might be difficult to work with. Now if that’s true (and believe me it is not) then pesky things like contracts, invoices and the expectation of on-time payment will also be considered “subtle” signals of difficulty. Grover is tipping his hand a bit here. I think he may have a general bias against current Copyright laws because in this paragraph he dropped the “prominent” adjective and just said watermarks. Sorry Grover…but the “buyers” you might be talking about aren’t the kind I want to work with. I have been licensing my work for decades, and using things like watermarks has generally been taken as a sign of professionalism – not difficulty. Grover says watermarking your images won’t stop people from using them. He also says they are easy to remove. He’s probably right. But locking your car doesn’t stop determined thieves from stealing it either. It’s still a good idea to lock your car. In my experience, watermarks do reduce infringement. They don’t stop it anymore than locking the car stops determined thieves, but the watermark can help keep honest people honest. The old saying “Fences make good neighbors” applies here. As for people removing watermarks, this shows “willful infringement” which means in U.S. District Court you may be able to recover additional money damages. So thank you to every infringer who has removed my watermark. I have named each of the cars you helped me buy after you. Leave the watermark and get a bigger check from the infringer. Lastly – Grover seems to think that infringement is a good thing. His comment “If you don’t watermark your images, will they be used elsewhere without your permission? Most likely, yes. But is that really a problem – or is it an opportunity?” gives that away. I am so tired of this argument that I could throw up. If you make a photograph YOU and ONLY YOU can determine how and where that photograph should be used to your benefit. You need not accept someone else’s idea of what’s good for you. That is the law. Any attempt to justify or excuse the acts of infringers by saying it could help you get EXPOSURE is like saying “Hey I stole your car for the afternoon, but a bunch of good looking girls saw me driving it and wanted to know where I got it – so we’re cool right?” I guess Grover is missing the point that while you are supposed to be happy that you’re getting this new “opportunity” you may end up having your images displayed at a location you find offensive, unflatteringly edited or otherwise co-opted in a way that is actually harmful to your reputation as a photographer. I’ve had that sort of “free promotion” and want no more of it. Don’t be seduced by this argument. Your work is YOUR work. Nobody else has a right to tell you what to do with it. Grover is absolutely right about one thing – extensive, large, distracting watermarks may be something you want to avoid. Each person reading this will have to decide which watermarks are extensive, large and distracting. But his thesis took on a disturbing tone when he seemed to be trying to defend the infringers. Don’t be fooled. You can subtly watermark your work and do just fine. Don’t be bullied into doing something different. Now if you just don’t care who uses your images, or you want to encourage sharing for business or artistic reasons, then go for it and forget the watermark. There are certainly cases where it’s not needed. But when it is needed, don’t hold back. Watermark away. That’s my two cents and I just wanted to express my opinion for your consideration. ______ This post sponsored by LEDZ – LED lights for photography and video.

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