Debate | Should you Watermark Art you Are Posting Online?

I am frequently asked by artists whether they should watermark their artwork before sharing it online. There seems to be a pretty widespread concern that posting artwork images online could lead to unauthorized reproduction or theft of the artwork. I don’t dismiss this threat out of hand, the theft of intellectual property is a very real problem. I would argue, however, that a watermark is a pretty poor way to deal with the problem, and that watermarks defeat the purpose of sharing work online in the first place.

If you are sharing your artwork online, you are likely doing so in order to achieve broader exposure for your work, build recognition for yourself and your work, and generate sales. In order to achieve these aims you want to show your art in its best possible light. Having looked at thousands (probably tens of thousands) of artwork images online, I would argue that the appeal of artwork is considerably diminished by including a watermark. Think about what a watermark accomplishes – it mars the artwork to an extent that a would-be thief wouldn’t want to steal it to reproduce it. That marring of the image will just as certainly diminish the appeal of the piece to a potential promoter or buyer of your work.

I would also argue that the decrease in appeal outweighs any protection you receive from a watermark. An important benefit of posting your art online is the increased exposure your work gets when it is shared.  Viewers are less likely to share artwork that is watermarked.

The likelihood of theft is pretty low. While there is a lot of intellectual property theft occurring online, it’s good to remember that there is an overwhelming amount of art online. The chances of your work showing up on t-shirts made in China is extremely low.

Typically, the images you share online are pretty low resolution. These images would result in poor reproductions.

There are legitimate legal reasons to assert your copyright when you post your work online, but a general notice on your website or a caption below your artwork will provide the same benefit without diminishing the appearance of your actual artwork.

If you have questions or concerns about your copyright and how to protect it, you should discuss the issues with an attorney who has experience protecting intellectual property. Last year I interviewed Steve Schlachman, a prominent IP attorney – watch that interview here.

What do you Think – Should Online Artwork be Watermarked?

Do you watermark the art you post online? Why, or why not? Do you have counter-arguments that I’ve failed to consider? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Updated: Examples of Watermarks Added

Thanks to everyone for posting your opinions on this matter in the comments – you’ve made excellent points. Some of you have been kind enough to send examples of your watermarking to give some ideas of your approach.

Jillian Chilson http://JillsFotoLuv.com
Jillian Chilson
http://JillsFotoLuv.com

 

Matt Suess http://www.mattsuess.com/
Matt Suess
http://www.mattsuess.com/
Karen Kyle Ericson
ren Kyle Ericson
John Haker
John Haker

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

24 Comments

  1. I watermark much of my art being sold as prints in 4 different online stores. It still shows up on t-shirts from china. These Chinese companies are illegally selling my work on the most important online shopping website, even with the watermark still on them. I used to be angry. But they wear you down. I have sent innumerable ‘takedown notices’ to the major shopping website, and they may get taken down, but a week later they show up again in another Chinese store on the same website. So, I could either take everything off the web and get no income at all, or chalk it up to the cost of doing business online and continue to sell there. I’ve chosen the latter.

  2. It is rather unusual or rare to find a gallery which incorporates a watermark into an artist’s image. You tend to see them on some artist’s personal websites, or photographic stock imagery sites, but not on gallery sites for a good reason. Galleries know that they weaken the appeal to the work, and hinder sales. The person who is actually going to steal an artist’s image is not going to purchase from any gallery. Today the public is welcomed to photograph in most museums and galleries. If you are worried about someone stealing your work and using it for commercial purposes, then document your work as you create it. There are guides as to how to do that as well. Should someone actually steal your image, and use it to your knowledge, then a legal course of action can be taken. My advice would be to project your artwork in the best possible light possible without a watermark.

  3. When i was active internationally the works were stolen all the time. watermarks were of no help as the guys would have it repainted in guangzhou or thailand in a matter of hours. most times however they are after the concept of the image as something with proven sales that can be generally reproduced and sold to the non art oriented marketplace. sometimes the poster mfg would have stuff copied before they had even printed them for marketing!! The world is large but smaller than you might think for creative products. [most thefts occur by copyists , think of the millions of copies done of picasso. whats real and whats not? most times cannot tell absolutely. ] if your a regional artist from nowhere your work is not copied for profit, only value comes from expensive art that can enter the market at low value. look at all the fake batemans that are really poorly done. i spent a lot of money tracking fakes of my art, it was a total waste of resources. impossible to stop.

  4. It seems like a watermark could help keep the work from being “orphaned” if the image is innocently shared to a site like FaceBook that strips the metadata. While I used to put a watermark across the middle and haven’t removed many of the files that are marked that way, now I like a small watermark in an out-of-the-way place, like some of the examples above. Instead of shouting to the viewer, “Don’t you dare copy this!” it looks more like a signature. I have even started leaving out the copyright symbol and use “by Allena Yates” and sometimes include a short title or caption.

    I figure copyright registration protects my work better than a blaring watermark, but people who want to use the image legitimately still need to be able to find me from wherever the picture might pop up on the web.

  5. There is an important difference between a watermark that covers a large part of the image, such as the photo that is at the top of this article, and a signature that appears over the bottom 5% of the image. In the examples that Jason posted following the article, I think those of Karen Kyle Ericson, Matt Seuss, and John Haker are totally acceptable. They don’t detract from the appearance of the piece. They might provide a little protection against image stealing.

    But there is an advantage to this kind of ‘signature watermark’ that wasn’t mentioned in the article. The people who are looking to buy art via the Internet probably visit dozens or hundreds of sites. They may copy a large number of the images or artworks that they like to a folder on their computer, for later evaluation. It’s useful to have your name and website URL on or below the photo that they saved, so that they can find you again, when they want to.

    1. This is not true. On the average website, you can copy an image with a right-click of the mouse. Removing a watermark requires image editing skills in Photoshop or a similar program, and it is not easy to do invisibly. Cropping an image is easy to do, however, so if a person is willing to cut off the portion of the artwork with the watermark, that doesn’t take too much skill.

  6. In speaking with a local gallery owner here in a high profile vacation destination in southern Florida, she has had a lot of experience with artwork being “stolen” by unauthorized reproduction. Her experience is that there are MANY people who can walk into her studio, look at original pieces on Monday, and come back on Wednesday with hand painted, nearly identical copies! Just by looking at a piece for 5 minutes!! It is a common issue here for local artists. If someone wants to steal your work, they can do it quickly, easily, legally by changing minor details, and reproduce the new version at will. I have seen several of these copies myself. There is really no way to totally protect your work unless it is highly valuable. That’s my experience.

    1. Deborah Stauffer wrote, “If someone wants to steal your work, they can do it quickly, easily, legally by changing minor details, and reproduce the new version at will. I have seen several of these copies myself. There is really no way to totally protect your work unless it is highly valuable.”

      That may not be fully correct. Competing artists who make minor changes to your artwork can STILL be liable for copyright infringement! You and other artists are reserve the right to control “derivative” formations of your artworks, and these minor changes will very likely infringe your derivative creative rights!

      The best way for artists to protect their creative works is by timely registering their copyright claims with the US Copyright Office. As well, by registering your paintings QUICKLY will help prove your painting authorship and copyright ownership to a US federal judge.

  7. After years of deliberation, I decide not to watermark. I am aware that my art is copied and framed. An Australian boasted to a friend he has all my work copied and framed. However as Jason points out, his copies are almost certainly of poor quality. As Richard Dixon pointed out, it is impossible to stop, but every share or copy is, in a sense, free advertising.

  8. I am totally offended by the lack of interest in the stealing my artwork. I don’t think it’s fair that the people on this blog almost boast about having artwork copied or stolen. No one ever steals my artwork. What is wrong with my work that it can’t even be considered worthy of stealing. Typical, just typical. It’s bad enough that Jason constantly rejects my work, but now I can see that I am not even worthy of a good stealing.

  9. I had to remind someone from the UK that my paintings she was posting had a copyright. I haven’t seen any posts from her since, but that doesn’t mean she is not posting my work anymore. She told me, “everyone I show loves your art, if it ever goes on sale I will buy some.” I yiy yiy!

    1. The good news is that she is sharing your work. Free networking and free advertising. The bad news is she is not the collector you want to attract. Anyone who says, if it ever goes on sale, is not your buyer and likely does not hang with those who are your buyer. With that said, it is still a good idea to share images of your artwork.

  10. Yes, I watermark and always have. The watermark is the unobtrusive type (small URL in the corner). I never release copies of my art that are big enough to make decent prints from, so that’s not my worry. I know that thieves can Photoshop out the URL, especially since it’s in the corner so it’s easy to crop out as well.

    I watermark because some of my art has been shared thousands of times on places like Pinterest, and not everyone remembers to credit me for that. I have gotten sales through people discovering me on Pinterest. So it makes sense to put my URL on each piece of art.

    The small watermark doesn’t uglify the art *that* much since it’s so unobtrusive, so I don’t imagine that anyone is that turned off by it.

  11. There are better ways to protect your artwork that does not use a watermark. Two ways that are quite effective:
    1. Only share web-sized images at 72 dpi, 200×300. I personally share them bigger than that because that size is very small and looks very pixelated when expanded; which can also deter sharing. Too small to share on Facebook, imo. People need to be able to see it at a reasonable size so I am a little more generous with the size I share.
    2. Put copyright info behind the photo in the metadata including contact info. That is achieved easily through Lightroom. I believe the newer cameras have built in metadata options. My camera is a Nikon D500 which is awesome for photographing artwork because it captures the colors spot on; which means less editing in Lightroom and therefore a larger jpeg can be made.
    After taking a high quality RAW photo of your work, upload it to Lightroom, do your edits, and fill in all the copyright info you want plus #’s in the metadata section so your artwork can be more easily found and identified. Then save these larger files.
    I use Photoshop to re-size my images to a web-sized image. It can all be done in Lightroom. You can get Lightroom/Photoshop (LR/PS) via the cloud. It is $10.98 a month and comes with free upgrades. You can take a free 30 day photography course to learn how to use your camera manually through shawacadamy.com. They also offer Lightroom and Photoshop courses. I got them for free because I took the 3 month advanced photography course (around $100 four years ago) and had access to all the other courses they offer for free within that time frame. That is where I heard about the online version of LR/PS.
    I save three files of each image: a RAW file (always shoot in RAW and manual); a high quality jpeg (240 dpi or 300 dpi, 5000×3000 or higher (created in Lightroom and around 20 mp after edits for use as licensing an image, making a print or entering shows or galleries that require high res images), and a web-sized image all filed in an organized manner and saved on an external hard drive. Some people also save Tiff files.

  12. An artist’s MOST valuable business asset is NOT their paintings, supplies, computers & software, but rather their copyrights (and other IP assets)!

    Make sure your posted artworks are watermarked (name, website, and/or social media handle) and timely register those works copyrights with the US Copyright Office. If your artworks are ever infringed (stolen) and you contact a copyright attorney for legal assistance, his/her first, second, or third question to you will be, “Did you ‘timely’ register your photographs with the US Copyright Office?”

      1. Beverly Ash Gilbert: Though you may not be able to stop Chinese, Russian, and other internationally-based infringers from exploiting your art in THEIR own countries, if these infringers are importing your copied artworks into the US, say, through Target or Walmart stores where your work is being sold as prints or appearing on apparel, posters, merchandise, etc., you can go after these big box stores for copyright infringement.

        Keep this in mind: The US Customs and Border Protection’s Intellectual Property Enforcement division will routinely seize foreign-produced counterfeit trademark and copyright knock-offs at the US border.

        By providing your copyright Certificate of Registration number, photographs of your artwork, and paying a $190 fee, the USCBP will have the authority to intercept infringing and derivative copies of your artworks entering the US.

        So, timely registering your paintings with the US Copyright Office still can pay dividends when going after international infringing exporters who are trying to sell your unlicensed artworks to US consumers!

  13. When someone wants to steal it, the watermark doesn’t help. Numerous photos of my artwork were stolen by a Chinese company who advertised my photos (and those of other artists) and sold cheap repro pieces. Interestingly, some of the stolen photos were earlier pieces of mine with watermarks.

    I never watermark anymore and am glad I don’t waste the time, nor mar the photo. It obviously didn’t stop the theft.

  14. I pretty much timely register all my creative works with the US Copyright Office. As well, all my creative works posted to my web and social media sites include a discreet but readable watermark logo that includes my URL and social media handle – I want fans and potentially new licensees/clients to quickly and easily find me.

    Infringers who knowingly remove, cover up, or modify my watermarks, logos, copyright attributions, metadata, licensing information, and/or other Copyright Management Information (CMI) with any editing software to hide their copyright infringing actions or induce others to infringe, can be liable for actual money damages and profits OR statutory damages from $2,500 and up to $25,000, plus my attorney fees, plus my legal costs (at the court’s discretion). A timely registered copyright is NOT required to pursue CMI violators. Here’s the copyright legal citation: 17 USC §§ 1202-1203.

    I was going to post attorney links for additional CMI information, but it appears that including links will prevent my comments from being posted.

    BTW, there are copyright attorneys who will take CMI violation cases on contingency.

    In summary, including CMI and timely registering your artworks with the US Copyright Office are prudent legal measures to protect your copyright interests against infringers!

  15. I use to add watermarks to my digital artwork because I felt those creations were easy to right click and duplicate, but now that I only work in original oil paintings I doubt if too many people would go through the trouble of repainting one of my landscapes. However, I might think differently if my paintings were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars!! 😊

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