Watermarking and Copyrighting Your Photographs

There is a danger factor in publishing your images online. Whether you are being published professionally or just putting pictures up on your personal blog, there is always the chance of theft or copyright infringement. Take it from me: it is a huge violation of privacy, trust and feels like a dirty prank is being pulled on you by the internet itself. It's a great way to ruin the day. But you are in luck, faithful Steve's Digicams reader. There are ways to prevent copyright infringement and dissuade jerks from ripping off your photographs.

What is watermarking and copyrighting?

A watermark is a visible image imprinted or embossed directly onto the paper or digitally added onto an image later. It would be your name, your company logo, the company name, the copyright symbol or nearly anything that marks that image as belonging to you. Some are extremely obvious while others are hidden (much to the chagrin of a thief under fire). Watermarks are used on nearly every paper source; banknotes, passports, easy to purchase reams of paper (remember that episode of "The Office" where someone watermarked the paper with an "obscene image"), digitally created images and photographs. Watermarking is an ancient practice, dating back to 13th century Italy. As soon as papermaking started, watermarking became necessary. Cartiere Miliani in Fabriano is credited with the earliest watermark dating 1282. But funny enough, things have not changed much over the past seven and a half centuries. People are still protecting their paper and their work using simple watermarks.

Copyrighting is a more in-depth way to protect your work. According to the United States Copyright Office website, it is the "protection provided by the laws of the United States to the authors of 'original works of authorship'...This protection is available to both published and unpublished works...the 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the following:

  • to reproduce the work in copies...
  • to prepare derivative works based upon the work...
  • to distribute copies or phoorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership...
  • to display the work publicly..."

Essentially, if you took the picture and want to copyright it, you control what happens with that image as long as you own the copyright.

Why would someone use a watermark or copyright their images?

Is your work available to the public? Can someone see your pictures? Are your images uploaded to a photo hosting website? Do you have a blog that you post photos to? Do you share your work digitally? Do you get paid for your work? Do you not get paid for your work? Are you using your photographs in this year's Christmas card?

If you answered yes to any of the questions above, you need to use a watermark or copyright your work.

How do I copyright or watermark my work?

To copyright your photo, you can go about it two ways: the lazy, free way or the legal way. According to the Berne Convention (which I recommend reading so you better understand what it really covers and how it legally protects you), as soon as you press down the shutter on your camera you own the image that creates. The copyright is automatic and instantly yours. You own the copyright of that photograph for a minimum of 25 years (duration of copyright depends on the medium). It does also state that people can use your work as long as they credit you with it. The Berne Convention does not ensure you will get paid every time someone else uses your photo. It does not clarify how you are to prove that the photo, if it were to come into question, would be proven as yours.

Going through the U.S. Copyright Office is the legal way of copyrighting your work. Legally copyrighting your photographs protects you on all levels. To copyright your work, there is a convoluted, sometimes necessary process that can get expensive and lengthy. You have to go through the U.S. Copyright Office and register your work either online or on paper (the website offers a PDF file for you to download, fill out and mail in). Registering online is much more streamlined, less cumbersome, goes much quicker and provides you with a status tracker, much like shipping and tracking a UPS package. It is also cheaper to file online running you only $35 versus $50 to do it on paper. You can register a single image or an entire body of published work (Form GR/Pph/CON is needed for a group of published works). Going through the Copyright Office is for those who sell their work to distributed publications. If in fact someone were to steal or abuse an image, you have the Copyright Office and the power of the United States government on your side.

In terms of protection, think of it this way: if someone were to steal your image, the Berne Convention is your angry dad while the Copyright Office is the mafia.

Watermarking your photographs can be done a number of ways. The most popular route is to create and add a watermark through Photoshop. There are plenty of tutorials online that explain how to create and apply watermarks to a single or batch of photos. Paint Shop Pro also makes it easy to add a watermark; here is a good explanation of how to go about doing so. If you don't own either one of those programs, there are plenty of resources available online to help you in watermarking your work.

Picmarkr is a user friendly watermarking program that is offered free online. They allow you to upload a picture from your computer, Facebook, Flickr or Picasa accounts. You have the option to resize your photo or leave it as is. From there, you have your choice of Text or Custom Logo/Image showing up once in a designated area or tiled across the whole image. You can choose between black or white text by itself or set on a 40% opaque line that can either fit just behind the text or along the entire image. Once you have designed your watermark, you apply it to the image and save it to any of the aforementioned accounts or back onto your computer. You don't get to chose text size, so in a large image the watermark gets easily lost. Below is an image watermarked with Picmarkr.

Watermark-Images is an easy to use free online program that allows for more control than Picmarkr. You can upload twenty pictures at once allowing for batch watermarking. You customize the watermark text; there is no option to watermark with an image or logo. You then chose the font type, the font size, color and transparency. The tricky part is choosing the position of the watermark. To place the image in the upper left hand corner, then chose 10% for both fields; tweak it from there. You can rotate the text, apply shadow and surround the text with a box. In the image below, the watermark is set at 70% from the left and 90% from the top; 45pt Impact font in black at 25% transparency in solid; no special effects and now box around the text.

watermark images.jpg

Alamoon Watermark is a free downloadable program that does single and batch watermarking; you must purchase Alamoon Pro for $29.95 in order to batch watermark but the free version works just fine for one time watermarking. (I downloaded, virus scanned and used this program and can vouch for its legitimacy and the fact that it is virus free.) Before you even download the program, make sure you make copies of the photos you will be watermarking. As with Watermark-Images, you only have the option to watermark with text, no logo or image. Select the font you want; Alamoon is unique in that you can choose from any type face on your computer versus 6 or 7 select fonts from the program. You can either choose between predetermined positions or program it in with percentages (exactly like Watermark-Images). Alamoon will attach a watermark to the file you upload and not ask you to make a copy so when the option to save the file to a new folder arises, do so. Give it a new name and everything to prevent watermarking your original file (which I very nearly did to one of my favorite photos). You can save the file as a JPEG, PNG, GIF, BMP, PCX, TGA or TIFF. The option to resize the photo is also available. Below is an example of Alamoon's watermarking.


If you don't get a sense of relief and security from watermarking or copyrighting your photos, let the internet help fight the copyright battle. The super sleuth TinEye program, a.k.a. your new best friend, will scour the internet looking for digital copies of your image. You can search by either uploading the file straight from your hard drive or using the image's URL address. It is a tense wait while the TinEye searches for copies, but you will be happy to know the results, one way or the other.

Maggie OBriant
Maggie O'Briant Personal Blog | Flickr

Maggie O'Briant recently graduated from Florida State University with an English Literature degree. She is currently a freelance writer and photographer. She currently lives in Hawaii with her husband and giant baby.