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Photographers who use prominent watermarks are losing business. Image theft is a valid concern for a professional, who makes their living based on receiving money for the use of their creative works, but I think watermarks do harm to a photographer’s business for a variety of reasons.
First, in our survey of professional photo buyers, an overwhelming majority of them stated that an image with a prominent watermark is less likely to be licensed than an image without any watermark at all.
Second, images that are heavily watermarked are less likely to be shared by others via social networks. For example, let’s consider those photographers who use the embedded slideshow gallery option available through PhotoShelter. These are great little social media tools that allow other people to post your images on other websites – all while always maintaining a link back to your site. (Also known as “going viral.”)
If the photographer places a prominent watermark on top of the images, people will be less likely to pass it on to others, or to post it to their blog, or share it.
Third, the presence of a prominent watermark sends a subtle signal to a photo buyer that you might be a difficult person to work with. That you’re more concerned with someone using your images without permission than you are about the images themselves. Some people may actually shy away from contacting you for this very reason.
I think it’s important to build excitement about your images, and that’s really difficult to do if you’ve got watermarks all over them.
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?
Some points to consider:
1) Photographers who are worried about image theft but don’t register their images with the US Copyright Office can’t be all that serious about it. Throwing a watermark on the picture doesn’t mean that it’s going to stop someone from using it – and it doesn’t give you any advantage in court. If your images were registered with the US Copyright Office, maybe you’d be less worried about images being used without your permission because, in the eyes of the law, things are stacked in your favor. All you need to do if find out about the use. (Services like PicScout and Tineye can help with that.)
2) Watermarking your images won’t stop people from using them. I went to Mexico for a tequila conference last year, and one of the presenters (who gets paid to fly around the world teaching people about tequila production), gave a lengthy Powerpoint presentation that included 3 of my images, and several that were taken directly from the Getty Images server – complete with watermarks.
3) It’s not very difficult to remove a watermark. If someone really wants to take your image, and they want to spend the time needed to remove it in Photoshop, they probably can. In fact, tools like Adobe’s “Content Aware Fill” may make this process a breeze. If this ever happens to you, having your images registered with the copyright office is the only way to protect yourself.
4) Think about who is going to steal an image, and who is going to pay you for it. Someone with no intention of paying is, most likely, not a representative of a respectable company. These people aren’t your customers anyway. Making it easier for your REAL customers to get excited about your images is probably more important than trying to prevent unwanted usage from a few non-customers.
5) The non-customers can also help you. If you find that someone is using your images on their website without your permission, you can request that the image be removed — OR — better yet, you can ask them to include credit and a link back to your website. Links back to your website are SEO gold. You can never have enough. The more the better. You could even take it one step further and give them the html link codes of your choice – including important keywords that can really help your search engine rankings. (Again, finding this kind of usage can be aided with services like PicScout and Tineye.)
In a previous blog post, Carolyn Wright, The Photo Attorney, gives some great advice regarding the protection of your images. Of her suggestions, there is no mention of watermarking. I agree with all of her points:
– Register your images with the copyright office
– Make sure your copyright information is placed in text right next to the photo
– Make sure your contact information is embedded in the file
– Go after violations when they happen
If you simply must add a watermark to your images, I suggest that you do so using a great deal of subtlety. (Follow the examples included in our “Photography Websites – What Buyers Want” research report.) A good watermark is also informative. It should contain useful information, like your name, your website address, or how to contact you – should they wish to license the image.
But don’t overdo it. Your images should still shine through as the dominant element. Otherwise, you risk losing business.
Photographer Robert Catto has an interesting approach to watermarking that doesn’t harm the image.
Photographer Chris Owyoung has taken a subtle approach to watermarking as well.
Photographer Thomas Pickard also does a good job with his watermarks. Subtle, and out of the way.
Is this PhotoShelter’s “official opinion” on watermarking? Nope. This is strictly my own opinion.
What are your opinions of watermarking? Please continue this discussion by adding your comments below.