Most beginning and intermediate photographers (and some professionals as well) believe that placing a garish watermark on a photo before you share it online will effectively copyright that image and prevent unauthorized use. This could not be farther from the truth, in fact, it is incredibly simple to remove a watermark as illustrated by this article from The Verge, which shows technology from Google that uses AO to seamlessly remove watermarks.
The reality is that most watermarks can be easily removed using photoshop via cropping or clone stamping, and there are increasingly more plugins available to automate this process. Most recently, the content aware fill advancements in photoshop make removing unwanted objects (like watermarks) as simple as encircling them with the lasso tool and clicking content aware fill.
Some might be thinking, well when I watermarked my photo it is automatically copyrighted by me – so anyone who steals my photo will have to pay me a lot of money. First, (full disclosure – I’m not a lawyer) you need to register your images with the United States Copyright Office either electronically or via mailed-in prints. Setting up an account to copyright your images is simple, and you will find the hardest part of the process is getting all your images to the right size, in one place and sent in. Just go to https://copyright.gov/ make an account, name the body of work upload it and you are covered. I have covered the whole process of copyrighting on my blog in the past – and there are a ton of YouTube videos explaining the process. Note that since the current administration has taken over several things have changed in the copyright process, like being able to copyright only 750 images per upload. Check for the latest update to save yourself time when registering your images.
Even if you have done your part as a photographer and copyrighted your work, you still might be out of luck if you find someone who has stolen and illegally used your images. This is especially the case if the party who have used your images are in a different country. A great story about a stolen photo and the months of legwork needed to recoup any amount of money comes from professional photographers Tony & Chelsea Northrup. In their video, they recount the entire nightmare scenario of an Australia company wrongfully using one of their images for a cell phone product. This is a great video for anyone who shares their work online. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DUEbi4r8Pg0 Their experience clears up a ton of misconceptions about getting paid for stolen work, especially if it has been properly copyrighted.
So where do we stand? People can take your images, remove your watermarks and use them freely? Sharing content online holds inherent risks, only share what you would be willing to lose. Copyright your work and share with the knowledge that it might be used fraudulently. Also realize that the amount of work being created and shared to the internet in any given moment contains work that is likely much better than yours and is more likely to be stolen. A watermark isn’t going to stop anyone from stealing your image, why not just forego the ugly watermark and upload your image for people to enjoy in its best form? I always consider this: is the photo I am about to share something that nobody could have ever gotten? Is it a one-of-a-kind celebrity photo? An event that will never happen again? Consider not sharing those photos and perhaps looking elsewhere for opportunities to make money from them? Publications etc.? Otherwise, share away – with the knowledge that someone may use your work without permission. It’s on you – the photographer to keep track of the images you have shared and use sites like https://tineye.com/ that crawl the web and create a database of images used online. You can upload your images and it will compare them to over a billion images cataloged.
Are you still confused about what photos you can and can’t use? Here is a great lifehacker article which explains in chart form the proper use of photos found online https://lifehacker.com/follow-this-chart-to-know-if-you-can-use-an-image-from-1615584870
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