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This is written in response to a recent post by Trey Ratcliff, ‘Why I don’t use watermarks’. I saw an opportunity, in timely response to Trey’s post, to express my own feelings about watermarks. As we’re friends and have even hosted a workshop together, I know Trey is the kind of guy who can handle a healthy heckler and so a disagreement is not taken personally. I even tweeted him in advance.
I’ve always liked Trey’s chilled personality and this is echoed in the first sentiment he expresses, that of not living in ‘an internet fear culture’ and hence not watermarking one’s pictures. In most things, I’m also for this stripping back of fear. In walking down the street at night. Preparing to jump out of a plane. Going for a blood test. Fear, whether irrational or founded, unnecessarily gets in the way of a lot of things in life, sure.
But there’s fear, and there’s recklessness. Trey says ‘watermarks are ugly’. In the same way that condoms or burglar alarms are ugly? There are three main strands I oppose Trey on: first, what I consider the curious misconception that watermarked work is never shared; secondly, the importance of protecting one’s work on the web and how that importance is increasing, and thirdly: the sheer relativity of what is deemed an ‘ugly’ or obstructive watermark and how this relativity blows all argument out of proportion.
I need to add that in challenging Trey’s post, I also need to refer to his routine of sharing full-resolution (6000px+) sized images online, which takes the discussion much further, and I will refer to this.
Watermarked work is never shared..?
First to say, I haven’t always used watermarks. I have shared my work online for 7 years, most of that work I have shared with NO watermark. I toyed with it for a period a few years ago, but then stopped. It’s only in the past few months I have started to routinely add watermarks. (There’s still a load of my previous work online without one.) But I have never noticed a difference in how often my newer work is shared and reshared, posted and reposted just because there was a 20% opacity ‘© MISS ANIELA’ in the corner, as above, which I used when I shared on Facebook. (I went further to add date and and title to another. I’m still experimental with the info I place and how visibly.) Trey says that people will link to your images more freely and openly without a watermark. I don’t get this. If the watermark is subtle enough it won’t make a difference, and besides, how do you know they’re going to put a link to you?
Why have I started adding watermarks? Facebook culture is one reason. I noticed that people were sharing my work by reposting on Facebook, and I was lucky to even get mentioned as the author, let alone get a link to my site. I don’t like the aspect of our internet culture where authorship is not respected or even acknowledged; where people greedily consume masses of visuals without understanding, or even noting, the origin. How would they be able to track me down to be able to learn more about my work, or buy a print or book, etc? If I leave my trust in people to credit me, and they don’t, my time and money that went into the production of my work is funnelled into a one-way relationship. (Please note, though, that I’ve also shared work that promotes a message, where I specifically state the image can be shared freely. That’s entirely a different ball-game, where the message of the image becomes all-important; a refreshing exercise but not one I am referring to in this post).
Humility vs rights
Now some will think, I should be grateful for anyone wanting to share my work. Yes, of course, I appreciate it: but without proper crediting it’s the same appreciation I’d have towards someone slapping my arse. I don’t believe artists should be scared out of moral codes by having the ’share and share alike’ adage waved like a stick in their faces to keep them quiet. Artists have rights, they work hard, and there is nothing wrong with admiring and sharing that work as long as respectful reciprocal acknowledgement is given. Something that took me years to learn is to take myself seriously as a professional, and this doesn’t matter whether you’re a hard marketer or not. Even if you’re the most soft-sell person in the world, and your artmaking is full of a pure love for artmaking, that love can get walked all over – by people out there who ARE running businesses, and have incentives that benefit them to use your work, often profitably, directly or indirectly! So that is how art becomes a business whether you like it or not, once you put your work out into the world via the internet.
So we’re debating whether a watermark is somehow boisterous, tasteless, or cheeky? Let’s put this into perspective by mentioning someone with very particular demanding standards: my partner Matthew. Recently an image of mine was shared on a popular FB page that is followed by thousands. My first reaction was ‘oh, that’s nice.’ However, Matthew’s reaction was ‘they didn’t link back to YOUR FB page.’ Despite the fact that my image was watermarked – and credited too, with my name – Matthew expected a reciprocal gesture, a hyperlink, that would gain me more FB followers. I wondered whether this was expecting too much. But he got directly on the telephone to request this change be made. An hour or so later, a link was added. Matthew always wants to go the extra mile, whereas some people would be happy with ‘their lot’. I respect those who go the extra mile, because that’s exactly where they end up. Sad truth is: you can’t always just be flattered that someone’s using your work. They’re used your work to benefit themselves in some way, what did you get in return? And don’t tell me ‘exposure’. That’s codeword for ‘you scratch my back, I’ll step on yours’.
One answer to protection is to add metadata. And I do, all the time. But, oh so handily, Flickr and Facebook strip that metadata like wool off a sheep’s back, hammering a big nail in the coffin of the so-called fearlessness of watermark-free living. Images end up floating round on the web, naked of their metadata, used and consumed for a variety of purposes, with only the TRUST that people who post and repost will add the textual credits associated with that image? The only way I can know for sure is by sticking my name onto the image itself, as part of the image.
Now onto the MAIN reason I started watermarking my work: the law, in particular the Orphan Works Act, where images can be legally used commercially if a basic search fails to find the author. The current status of this act/law in the UK can be read at this link. Whether or not this will attract more illicit use of artists’ work, I’d rather someone be able to contact me directly – without hassle – and have no excuse to have not been able to track down the author. People in this business day and age don’t have ANY time, they don’t want to be doing reverse-Google searches and detective work! They just want to see, contact, make happen. And more and more time-poor we all become as a society… the more you want to do something simple to label your work in an ever-growing tsunami of potential carelessness on the vast web.
Trey states he registers all his images with a legal copyright (as one must do individually to work so that it does not become deemed as an orphan work) and that he takes on ‘many, many’ lawsuits with people who illegally use his images commercially. Thing is, not everyone can afford time or money to do the same. Even if they register copyright, most artists do not have the clout or budget to have a legal team chasing the wrongdoers. Making no judgement of Trey here, because I do not know how difficult or expensive those scenarios are, but living fearlessly watermark-less has its price. The more leniently you share your work, the more it will be take advantage of. It might even be a profitable permanent branch of one’s livelihood to regularly open lawsuits against plagiarists, but it’s not most artists’ choice of vocation. So it is a sensible and simple step to add a subtle deterrent watermark… and NOT upload a giant-size image of your work to the web, as I will talk about next…
Large image culture
I don’t want to sound like a I have a blame-culture attitude to social media when I say this, but uploading a massive file to the web is asking for it. It says, to me, ‘this is BIG-size, use this functionally’. People don’t generally want or expect to view massive images on the web, especially the smaller and more portable devices increasingly used to surf the web. I associate big files with downloading them for a reason… to make a print, most commonly. And if you’re aspiring to be a reputable artist selling prints in a controlled manner where you actually profit from the work you do, why would you share massive files freely and openly?
Of course Trey is free to do as he wishes, but is it really appropriate for everyone else to follow suit?
Sure, I love to show detail of the work I create, but I do this by posting cropped parts of detail, or video sequences exploring the image (such as in the Kai Face). It also means that people have an incentive to come to my exhibitions or to buy a print directly. The web experience is exactly that: the web experience. Unlike what Trey says, I don’t believe having a small (700-1000px wide) image, with a subtle watermark is going to affect the sharing appeal, let’s say sharibility – of your work. 99.9% of the web experience is through screen-size images that even on a monster iMac is not going to be much more than 1400px across. I think Trey’s article may unnecessarily suggest that no-one will share your work if it’s not massive and watermark-free. I find this absolutely untrue.
A contradictory situation…
Then, taking into account the legal insecurity over artists’ work and how it can be used when their work becomes disparately spread all over the web, it doesn’t help that there is a culture of sharing ever-larger images spawning wider with every new version of Facebook, Flickr, Google+ and the rest. It seems at odds with the legal landscape of how well your uploads are protected in the big REAL world of photography. Flickr’s CEO upon the launch of the new Flickr recently said something along the lines of the site not being for professional photographers anyway because we’re all photographers now. Couple that with Flickr asking for bigger-res images, and the fact it hasn’t stopped stripping the metadata. What picture does this paint for the professional sharing their images online? The whole concept of sharing is becoming uncomfortably democratic and decreasingly lucrative; one more heavyweight on board the sinking ship of the photography industry.
The tasteful watermark
Onto the issue of watermarks looking ugly. This is totally down to the size and style of them. I believe they should be small, discreet and a neat regular font. This might sound arbitrary, like stating your preference for the keeping of one’s hair on one’s nether regions. But I agree with Trey, of course you don’t want to see a garish watermark before you ’see’ the image. After all, photography is about the photographer’s visual skill, and most usually not about their graphic design skills. I’ve seen many an ugly watermark. But that doesn’t negate the use of watermarks entirely, in the same way you don’t have to use novelty condoms. If you’re reading this and you currently use a large watermark in a big garish handwritten-style font, I’d encourage you to simplify it into something more subtle. A nice watermark becomes about as offensive as a painter signing their canvas in the corner.
Yes, on some occasions I’ve looked at a watermarked image of someone’s and thought ‘wtf, why would you want to watermark THAT?’ but knowing that’s as politically correct as saying people below a certain IQ shouldn’t breed, I would not say to that person to take off their watermarks completely. Because whether you like their work or not, in theory they have the right to protect what they have created.
I personally like to keep my watermarks ‘out of the way of the image’, even 10% over the ideal size or opacity would bother me. I know my corner-placement of watermarks would not protect an image in the way a giant word etched repeatedly over the image, like Corbis or iStock, would protect it… and my watermarks could be cropped off or cloned out. But that’s where I draw my own, personal line. My own ‘living without fear’. I want people to enjoy my work. I want people to share it and not feel it disrupts their blog’s house-style. But for heaven’s sake let me at least be assured my name will be with my work. The watermark is simply informative – if not necessarily completely protective in the case of plagiarism, as I talk about next…
‘Legitimate companies don’t steal your work’
Case study: Kirsty Mitchell
As for Trey’s assertion that reputable companies don’t steal your work, I feel like laughing a husky ‘ho, ho’ at the risk of sounding sarcastic in response, but I have some astonishing examples illustrating this absolutely is not true. So-called reputable companies are no more immune from taking the proverbial plagiaristic piss as much as obscure ones that you never hear of. I will cite an example from a photographer friend, Kirsty Mitchell. Her image “The White Queen” was used illegitimately by a Malaysian government organisation (!) in Feb 2012 originating from a web-res file.
Kirsty says: “The file they used was only 800 pixels wide – I still have no idea how they blew it up so big but it must have looked more like a screen print in real life. It took 6 months of action till they finally admitted their guilt, and I could not have done it without legal help. Unless I physically took them through the courts which I could not afford to do, the payout only reflected the cost of designing and printing an advert in the Far East, which is basically a handful of USD dollars a day. My final payout after 50% was taken by my representative was £163. It was outrageous, I’m still extremely upset by the whole matter, I presumed I would receive a far more substantial payout from an official body. So reputable people don’t take your work? I’m sorry but I am the proof that is utter rubbish.”
“I only started adding a small watermark after this happened. I hate watermarks, but I now add a very small text name on my new uploads, especially in the light of the new copyright law changes in the UK. As for the sizing of files, my work is sold in very strict limited editions in galleries, there is absolutely no way I could risk the security of my work by uploading huge files, for me this would be highly irresponsible and dangerous. As for reverse search engines these are extremely basic and bear no real reflection on the amount of times my work appears on the internet. Who earth has the time to sit in front of their computer and repeatedly search for their entire photographic back catalogue every day as their way of prevention? I certainly don’t!”
“I’m sad to say despite all the preventative measures I take I am currently dealing with another big case of plagiarism where my images have been manipulated and printed on clothing in the US. My final word on the matter is no matter what you do, limit your file size on the Internet, it is madness to give out big files, I cannot stress this enough.”
So if the offender is willing to go the mile to blow up an image and stick it on a billboard (not to mention decorated with a pattern of paint vomit), it’s fair to say that a tiny watermark wouldn’t have stopped them in their tracks. But instead of bolstering Trey’s argument for the uselessness of watermarks, this can either suggests that (a) a massive watermark WOULD have stopped them, though most artists would not want to use such an ugly interception; (b) big companies DO take the piss, and any deterrent that can be applied to an image should be used. An artist with an army of legal arsenal might be rubbing their hands at such a lawsuit opportunity, but expecting something to happen, like a traffic warden hiding behind a bush, is the kind of culture I’d prefer not to live in. So, I have the same vein of Trey’s easygoing sentiment, except I believe easy-going living comes via the exact opposite of what he says in his article. Frankly I think that putting out LARGE-resolution images, also un-watermarked, to me is like leaving your car keys in your ignition and door wide open.
I have to make loads of different versions of images for different uses anyway, so that is not an issue to me as it was highlighted by Trey. I would most definitely conclude in summary, that if you want to reduce the number of illegal uses of your work, then put your name on it, and don’t upload a size larger than you need to for the purposes of viewing as you want it to be viewed. Also take into account the nature of the kind of work you do – landscapes / portraits / fashion and the differences in how it will be attractive to different (illicit) usages. There’s nothing shameful or arrogant in putting a name to your work, and the way you do it is up to your own taste and that of the audience you’re targeting.