Terra Galleria Photography

Why I use Watermarks


Watermarks are often the subject of passionate debates amongst photographers. In this write-up, I am explaining my preferences, from the point of view of a modest photographer who derives almost the totality of his income from licensing and selling of images, in the hopes that it would be useful to those who try to go this path. For me, watermarks are not a philosophical matter. They are simply a good business practice.

Rather than writing from scratch, I though it would be more informative to write this as a reply to Trey Ratcliff’s popular post Why I don’t use watermarks. Let me preface this by saying that although I disagree with his points, I have tremendous respect for Trey’s art as well as his business savvy. I’ve chosen to react on his post (bold) because he is such a high-profile proponent of the “no watermark” approach, and his arguments make a such a well reasoned case for the opposite view – so that you can see both sides.

Why I Don’t use Watermarks

I get this question a lot, and I know it came up in the live hangout last night. I know my opinion is different than many other photographers, and that is okay.

It’s okay for Trey to explain what works for him. However Trey’s position is also different from many other photographers. He is a kind of “celebrity”, who has such recognizable artwork and numerous followers that he doesn’t need watermarks for recognition or protection. Although he doesn’t present his statements as recommendations, because of his influence, some are tempted to read them as such. Witness the number of comments to the tune of “until recently I used watermarks but after listening to Trey I dropped them”.

As you may know, my work is all Creative Commons Non-Commercial. That means people, as long as they give credit and link back to http://www.StuckInCustoms.com , can use my images on their blogs, wallpaper, personal use -anything – as long as it is not used commercially.

There are many misconceptions about “Creative Commons” (CC), including that it is a “new” thing which is an alternative to copyright. It’s not. I’ve encouraged personal use of my images many years before CC was officially created. You don’t need CC to specify how you want your images to be used. CC works well for many intellectual endeavors, but it is a cookie-cutter approach to stating “terms of use” which doesn’t apply very well to photography (that would be a topic worth several posts alone). I share my images in the same spirit as CC, but I prefer to make the decisions on who uses my images on my own terms. There are many more undesirable consequences of CC, but for an easy example, I’d rather not have my images used for free by some non-profit whose cause I disapprove and whose executive director makes a six figure salary. On the other hand, there may be some “branding” advantages with CC that I am investigating.

Every day, I upload a HUGE 6000+ pixel max-resolution image to the Internet. I do not have any fear at all – Believe me, it’s quite liberating living in a world without internet-stealth-fear.

I live in a nice neighborhood of San Jose, CA, the safest of the large US cities, yet when I go to sleep or leave the house, I lock the door. I don’t think it means that I live in fear. Like you all take common sense steps to protect your other possessions, if you are a professional or semi-professional photographer, it is just common sense to take some steps to protect your digital assets in the wild west of the internet.

Since I offer paid subscriptions that let members download higher resolution images as wallpaper, I don’t think it would make sense to offer free higher resolution images to everybody. Similarly, since I sell limited edition prints, I do not think it is appropriate to provide free high resolution files for anyone to make a print. Apparently, despite all the talk about “Creative Commons”, maybe because he sells prints – limited edition, no less – Trey discourages people from making prints made for their private homes by stating “Sample Use Requiring a License to Copyright: License to create an individual print for use in a private home” – although this is quite close to fair use territory ! I actually do not have such issues, and have for years explicitly listed personal print-making as a permitted use, so maybe I have less fear than it seems.

Last but not least, watermarking is not so much about fear and preventing “theft” than it is about advertising your name, and making sure your name remains attached to the image even when you do not have control of the contexts in which your image is used.

People that want to license our images regularly contact our licensing team – we get many of these every day of the week.

Yes, but people who don’t know that an image should be licensed wouldn’t contact you. They’d just use the image. Sure, professional image buyers know better, but it’s been argued (for instance by Dan Heller) that they don’t make up the majority of the market anymore. On the other hand, professional image buyers often seek exclusivity for the most expensive licenses, and it’s difficult to make a case that an un-watermarked, full-res image is exclusive… It’s great that Trey is doing so well that he can ignore the lost business, but that’s not the case for most artists.

So why don’t I use watermarks? It’s a multi-part philosophy – 1) Watermarks look ugly. Whenever I look at a photo with a watermark, often times, ALL I can think about is that watermark! It’s so distracting. Maybe this is just me.

This is purely a matter of personal preference. Some may even find them beautiful. Keep in mind that photographers – who are the ones vocal against watermarks – do not look at images the same way as other people, often concentrating on technical details rather than contents.

Personally, I find watermarks in the image area perfectly acceptable if tastefully executed, which mostly means small, in the periphery of the image, and low contrast. Before the rise of the internet, the primarily means for dissemination of photographs were magazines. Have you seen many images reproduced as double spreads with no text super-imposed ? Most painters sign on the canvas. Do you find that their signatures ruin their paintings ?

What I prefer to do is to put the watermarks in a border surrounding the image – I call that a “signature” rather than a watermark, but let’s lump they together to keep things easy. The image area stays free of text. The frame arguably enhances the image in several ways: it can bring the colors and contrasts out, get the eye get drawn further into the image, give more depth. More importantly, the frame helps separate the image from the background, which in case of an uncontrolled webpage can be messy. For instance, it prevents whites in the image from blending with a white page. There must be a reason whey the traditional way to present a print is with a matte and a frame. There also must be a reason why most fine art prints are signed. If your prints are hung unsigned in a show, there is a pretty good chance that there will be a sign identifying you as the author.

2) Legitimate companies do not steal images to use commercially. So I don’t have any logical fear there. *In case of emergency, break glass and see #4

It is well documented that many large US companies have infringed copyrights. In other countries copyright laws are even much less strict and remedies not readily available (the motivation for a recently discredited law proposal). I have found quite a few US law firms that use my images in an unauthorized way (half a dozen of them used the same image !). Lawyers are the last persons who can claim not to know about copyright law, yet the fact that they’ve infringed copyrights do not make their businesses illegitimate.

Besides, there are many people who don’t know about licensing and copyrights, who assume that everything on the internet is for the taking (“information wants to be free”) or that anything that does not bear a copyright sign is not copyrighted. Some of those people work at legitimate companies. Mistakes happen all the time.

3) There are other services, like Tineye (and Google) that can help my team easily find bottom-feeders.

When a single image is used on hundreds of sites, like some of mine, and even more so Trey’s, it takes a lot time to separate “bottom-feeders” from legitimate users. Trey has stated that he has a team of ten people working for him, but an individual artist might prefer not to spend his time on those kind of pursuits – you’d be surprised at how rude some of the copyright infringers are.

4) We do register our images with the copyright office, so if someone uses an image commercially without a proper license, it is an easy lawsuit.

Registration is useful only in the US. In the US, it may be easy but if the image was properly watermarked, it will be much easier. First, one of the key factors in a copyright infringement lawsuit is to establish that the infringement is willful, as this opens to door to much higher penalties. Not any watermark will do (more on that in a future post), but if your image had a proper copyright mark, the fact that the infringer removes it makes the infringement automatically willful. It is much easier to claim innocent infringement if the image had no copyright mark. Second, removal of the identifying information is a DMCA violation, which in itself is a serious offense.

5) I don’t have to maintain two versions of each image – one with a watermark and one without.

Neither do I. My CMS (content management system) does it for me. On the terragalleria.com site, I already have 9 versions of each image: small thumbnail for search results, large thumbnail for index pages, 550 pix image for normal display, 1000 pix image for enhanced display, plus 4 different sizes of wallpaper images – I plan to add more soon -, full resolution. Trey has 7 sizes. Do you really think it’s a big deal to have one more version ?

6) NOT using watermarks and using creative commons helps more and more people to use your image freely for fun, which increases traffic and builds something I call “internet-trust.”

It would be nice if each time someone uses your image on the web, they credited it and linked to your site next to the image as required by Creative Commons. Unfortunately, that’s not how the real world works. In the real world, many images are used without credit. In the real world, once the image appears uncredited, others copy it without regard for the Creative Commons requirements, since they are not attached to the image. When this happens, if someone stumbles upon your image and likes it, there is no obvious way for them to even contact you (not everybody is aware of reverse image search).

Even if you are not trying to sell your images, wouldn’t it be nice to see your name mentioned each time your image is used ? If it went “viral” ? It’s great to have millions of views, but if your association with the image is lost, what good does it for you ? The only practical way to ensure that association is to have your name on the image. Of course, watermarks can be removed, even more easily when they are in a border. But even though you may omit an attribution notice in good faith (esp. if you found the image with none), you don’t remove a watermark with a copyright sign in good faith. I do trust the vast majority of people to be honest.

What about non-web uses ? I’d submit that for people who gather photos for fun, the watermark is useful as a reminder of where they got it (and can get more).

7) As image search and image recognition get better and better, there will be no need to watermark things. In 1 year+, we’ll be able to r-click an image and choose “Google-find the original creator” — there is a bit trail to first-on-the-internet.

Actually Picscout already offers a similar service – although not for free to the image owners. However, do you think that the average image user – even in good faith – would bother ? You don’t want users to have to look for your brand. It should be obvious. Why do all other brands on the planet put their names prominently on their products ?

8)Yes, last, there will be bottom-feeders that steal your stuff. I call this the cost of doing business on the internet. These are the Tic-Tacs that are stolen from the 7-11. It is impossible to maintain 100% of your digital inventory, so wanting “perfection” in your online strategy is an illusion.

A study by Picscout has shown that 90% of image uses on the web are un-authorized. If the rate of shoplifting was that high at 7-11, I think they’d take some action.

Watermarking is an effective solution. There are quite a few of people who don’t know how to remove the watermark – however easy it may seem to a photographer, so they will contact us to get an unwatermarked version. For those who do, the watermark acts as a useful reminder that the image is copyrighted. Last, for those who go ahead anyways, I do not harbor any ill-feelings or animosity towards them. I do not call them names, nor does my attorney. If I determine that their use of the image is egregiously commercial, I just try to make them pay. For that the watermark helps as explained in #4. There is no need to get emotional about copyright infringement – or watermarks. It’s just business.

The reality is that it is very difficult to have a good business selling digital media if you are not willing to have a strategy to protect your work. I believe that watermarking should be part of that strategy. Do you agree with me ?

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  1. Russ Bishop says:

    Very thoughtful post QT, and I agree with you completely. I too respect Trey and many other high-profile photographers who don’t use watermarks, but from a business standpoint it doesn’t make sense for most of us.

    Watermarks can be applied tastefully and provide both a measure of safety from would-be infringers and more importantly – a way for legitimate buyers to make contact.

  2. I agree with you on the importance of watermarks. I do think that some of the negative attitude towards them has to do with the garish (in my opinion) watermarks used by some photographers. Done poorly, this really can take away from an otherwise strong photo. I think this is part of the reason for some of the backlash against them (especially on G+) from photographers who read that Trey Ratcliff doesn’t use them.

  3. Libby says:

    I agree wholeheartedly regarding your comments on the nonprofits. I did some free work for one a few years back. They were good people and saw firsthand how funds got put to use. Some of the others though – Wow. One I know of had an “Emeritus Director” that got over 6 figures. That’s just crazy.

    On watermarks – as someone who sometimes needs to hire shooters, watermarks of no consequences. In fact I’d rather have them on the image. As an editor I see right past them and onto the content. They only seem to bother other photogs and if you listen to them it’s kind of stupid, because the other photogs don’t put dinner on your table. Unless of course you’re trolling for ad referral clicks which really borders on pathetic, almost as bad as a paypal donate button.

  4. QT Luong says:

    Libby, thanks for confirming my intuition that watermarks are only bothersome to other photographers… although these days everybody is a photographer 🙂

  5. Phil Colla says:

    Thanks for writing up your thoughts on this, Tuan, I really appreciate knowing your views on this as I am still unsettled on the best approach to watermarks and how they affect business and the sharing of my work around the net.

  6. Thanks so much for such a well reasoned rebuttal to Trey’s opinion. I completely agree with you on all points.

  7. Wholeheartedly agree. Watermarks make good business sense. To me there seems to be flaws in the logic of exposure can only be a good thing. If your business works mainly with assignment type photography I could maybe buy it, but if stock is a big portion…

    Anyways, I think the reason this has become a big issue is the use of gigantic, ugly watermarks by some. This truly is a bad idea, but small tasteful ones just make sense.

  8. Dave Welling says:

    Hi QT:
    Thanks for an excellent, well reasoned analysis of watermarking and image handling on the Net in general. I believe your approach and supporting info is better reasoned and thought out than Mr. Radcliff’s who seems to take a more “do it my way” approach. These are VERY sensitive subjects and becoming more so as the Internet philosophy becomes more imbued in those who use it… if it’s on the Net, its free. The major players on the Net, like Google, are doing all they can to insure that all content is there for the taking so they can increase their market penetration and profits, unfortunately, at the expense of intellectual property producers. Their support of recent proposed changes to copyright protection laws is indicative of this. However, the bottom line is how people who use the net deal with, and respect, content. I think you did a great job of presenting many facets of this issue and my thanks.
    Dave Welling

  9. Rolf Hicker says:

    Great write up – I’m 100% with your opinion.

    I know some promote greatest success without watermark but I want to doubt that they make the same % of income with licensing as we do. If you have other income sources it is always easy to say “I’m soo different, look up to me, I’m leading the wave of “no watermarks”. It brings you more followers you can sell other “stuff” to to create income.

    Which full time pro, without any backing of rich parents or other money flow can even afford to risk not to have watermarks in the pictures?? it is like leaving the doors to a supermarket open over night because all humans are great and never would steal…right…

    Sorry, I don’t buy the whole thing at all. I have my very own theory why some very few people are doing it.

    This is my personal opinion and I know I won’t make many friends with this – but sometimes things need to be said clearly, even if they are not “politically correct”.

    Thats why I appreciate Tuan’s write up so much – it is very honest!

  10. Richard Wong says:

    I agree with you Rolf. It’s one thing to make such statements when your primary goal is to create link bait and get more followers to hawk products to, another thing when you just want to be a photographer. The problem is when people who can’t tell the difference take the popular photographer’s word as gospel.

  11. Kevin Dowie says:

    Thanks QT,
    a well reasoned case, I find myself agreeing with almost all of it. As Dave Wellings commented, there is a “if it’s on the Net, its free” belief out there and without watermarking all connection to the photographer is soon lost.
    Also I think the faith that some people place in services such as Tineye to track down copyright infringements is misplaced. Last time I investigated Tineye they were simply incapable of keeping up with the massive number of images being posted on the internet. A bit like a dog chasing a very fast car!

  12. Louis Brunet says:

    It makes a lot of sense to me. Thanks for publishing your thoughts on the matter.

  13. Gaelle says:

    It’s perfect good sense to me. Thanks for voicing this. And coming up with a good kooking fun watermark that represents you and match your work/ business/ mindset is fun as well. When u finally issued mine, I felt as proud as when I shoot a good picture

  14. Well said, QT. While I certainly understand how the “no watermark” model could work for certain high-volume, well-known folks like Trey, that model does not scale well. Only a very small percentage of photographers are going to be able to operate at the volume of such folks – a volume at which one can afford a staff (was in 10 people?) of designers, business managers, attorneys, and so on.

    But the real issues I want to mention are some that get less attention, but which I’ve thought about a lot. Aside from the copyright issue, you mentioned a couple of them:

    VISUAL SEPARATION from the surround that is afforded by the mat or margin added to the photograph. As you mention, the mat or border has been recognized to have an important function even before the idea of internet photograph sharing existed. It serves to give the image some breathing room in which to live, without being crowded by non-image stuff that could otherwise overwhelm it.

    RETENTION OF BRANDING is more likely when the image is displayed in places where you cannot control it, such as search engine results and certain types of social media postings. On a screen full of images that return when one searches on, say, “mare island night photography” (http://www.google.com/search?q=mare+island+night+photography&hl=en&client=safari&rls=en&prmd=imvns&source=lnms&tbm=isch&ei=oFE8T4DrGoOOigL08Z2qAQ&sa=X&oi=mode_link&ct=mode&cd=2&ved=0CA8Q_AUoAQ&biw=1276&bih=684) it is not easy to tell whose work you are looking at… unless that work includes some branding text.

    ARTIST SIGNATURES on paintings, as you point out, are a precedent for including some text within the boundaries of the image as are uses of photographs in magazines. It hardly seems like a major intrusion on the (free) experience of a person who views a photograph online when a reasonable bit of artist identification is included as part of the file.

    I understand that there are lots of diverse and sometimes contradictory ideas about this issue – and I can live with that. I hope that those whose views fall on the “no watermarks” side of the discussion can try to respect that differing point of views of those who don’t quite agree, and especially that they can eschew suggestions that those who do watermark do so merely because they are unreasonably paranoid and so forth – as a matter of respect for fellow artists if for no other reason.


  15. Roberta says:

    I absolutely agree with you. I found the original post about watermarking to be quite ignorant actually; and especially the followers that said they wouldn’t share any work with watermarks, effectively bullying other photographers to not brand their own work.

    What I would really like to know is where Trey’s income really comes from and what’s the breakdown. How much does he earn from prints? How much from licensing? How much from workshops, endorsements and other sidelines based on popularity and his name recognition? If your name recognition is more important than your product, hey…..by all means give your work away. When your product (meaning the actual image whether it’s printed or licensed) is your product, you better protect and brand it.

  16. QT Luong says:

    Thanks everybody for your comments. I appreciate the support and elaborations, but I’d also welcome differing views.

    Trey has stated that the bulk of his income comes from licensing. He has participated in this conversation on a repost of a repost (!) of this blog entry on Google+: http://bit.ly/zyKygx

  17. Steve Monck says:

    Thank you QT. This has been the most logical argument for watermarks I have heard. Photos can still be used for creative commons and be watermarked. I think I will work up a tasteful watermark to make for “brand recognition.” My income is not tied to photography, but it drives my site with our locals, who are my primary market. Depending on the event, I can see a threefold spike after a local event.

  18. Bryan Lowry says:

    Good write up QT. I watermark and always will. Like you said. Removal of a watermark and illegal usage of an image show the intent to steal. I settled a rather large infringement case 2+ years ago and that was a big factor in me getting it settled. The story is on my blog from back in the fall of 2010. Like everyone else I always heard how its going to ruin your licensing deals etc… Not so. The publishers that matter aren’t concerned with the fact I watermark. My best licensing deal with a huge international company was never threatened because of my watermarking. They came to me because I had what they needed.
    There’s also the fact that when my images are copied and shared it does direct people directly to my website and it has led to nice sales.

  19. Very good post, QT! I am a supporter of using watermarks on your images, because in my eyes the images are perfect “marketing tools” for this purpose. The more they get spread, the more your info on the watermark gets eyes on. Very efficient!
    Allthough this topic has been vastly discussed over the last years (see my post about it (http://latin-point.blogspot.com/2010/09/to-watermark-or-not-that-is-question.html and http://latin-point.blogspot.com/2011/11/to-watermark-or-not-continued.html) I think that the upcoming of Pinterest.com and the way it is handling images & copyrights will put a big, big light on this whole issue in the next months!
    Best regards

  20. +1 times all points above, great response. I totally agree and have problems with people that have a 10-person staff doing work that watermarks also can do, which is better for ‘smaller’ photographers.

    My images get abused and stolen a lot as well, but at least some of the thieves do some marketing for me…
    And yes, I also use a border with URL/title as well as a small url on the image in the corner, though I might change that as it is not perfect.

  21. Chuck Kuhn says:

    Thanks for publishing your ideas and thoughts regarding Watermark.

  22. Henry Rivers says:

    So often now they are edited out anyway. If you are going to use a watermark make you use a small one and tile it across the image … this will make it much harder to remove

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