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.

 Quick Poll

[poll id=”6″]

Edit: 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

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46 Comments

  1. Clearly label and brand your art images,but skip the watermark. Give the file names that make it easy to find you. Embed a clear caption in the image as well provide complete alt text.

    Malicious people will do what they will. The purpose of your images are to help good people who are interested in your art find you.

    Make it easy for them no matter where your images end up.

    1. These are great points, Steven. I seldom take extra steps to create specific file names and rarely add meta data to my file info. Mostly that’s because I take images straight from my phone and upload them right away to Instagram. There’s probably some simple way I can edit file names of images from my phone. Are you aware of such a process? If so I’d definitely love to know it.

  2. I watermark my work, but only small in the lower-right corner.

    I do both fine art and graphic design. As a graphic designer, I know how simple it is to eliminate a watermark digitally. With that in mind, I’d rather not detract from my art with a huge logo or copyright mark smack down the middle of it, even if the watermark itself is aesthetically pleasing – it still detracts from the actual art. Lower right corner suffices and its presence, while small, makes it clear to others that you expect respect of your work.

    Watermarks are also important in this land of digital sharing – my watermark is actually my blog address. Because my work gets shared around social media, it’s important that people can have a way to trace my art back to me. When it’s actually part of the image it won’t possibly get lost if someone saves the image to their device then re-uploads it to share.

    I don’t like approaching sharing my work from a standpoint of fear, and watermarks designed to make reproduction of the work difficult just makes me appear to be a fearful, untrusting person. And psychologically speaking, most people assume fearful people are not self-confident and therefore may not be desirable to work with.

    That’s my 2¢ for what it’s worth. 🙂

  3. What are your feelings on invisible watermarks such as those that can be applied with the Digimarc plugin? They are not discernible to the naked eye, but information is encrypted into the image that can be detected with the plugin. Because it’s invisible, it also can’t be clipped out. So if you find a copy of your work elsewhere, you can use the fact that their copy has your Digimarc ID encrypted into the file to assert your ownership.

  4. I agree with you that watermarks deface the art images to a point that makes it difficult for galleries and buyers to discern if they like your work. It is concerning though when you google your name and by the 3 or 4th page you see a site(s) that have pulled some of your images for free download. My initial reaction is to watermark everything! Knowing that my online files aren’t large enough to reproduce well allows me to ignore the people that do this in order to present the best for my collectors. Thank you for this timely article!

  5. It IS a real problem. I know at least half a dozen folks whose art has been pirated – one of whom, a wonderful realism painter, had her art touted as “original works” and sold overseas. I think where you show it is as important as how you show it. Sites like Zazzle and Amazon are phished regularly. There are pages on Facebook (e.g. “who stole my images”) that have been useful and informative for me when considering this issue.

  6. @ E. J. Barnes – If the Watermark is invisible to the eye, then that is a no brainer. Why not use it?
    As far as the standard visible watermark is concerned, they certainly do detract from the artwork, and I have never used them. But thanks for the info about the Digimarc plugin. I have never heard of it- it does sound useful.

  7. If I’m posting it to Facebook, yes, I put a subtle watermark on it. If I’m posting to my online portfolio, I leave the watermark off.

  8. Most artist that have professional websites do put hi res photos in their portfolio. This threat is real and I have had it happen to me and not from overseas but here in US.

  9. I’ve had my work scraped, both from my site and from the site of an art organization I’m involved with, and offered on-line on “free art” web sites (run and hosted from overseas of course). In trying to rectify the problem, I came across many other artists whom I know who had their artwork available for free on these sites. To make matters worse, the “free” artwork comes with a virus that, when you download the artwork, infects your computer! Which I imagine is the real purpose of the download.

    Despite having tried to follow the thread of ownership through holding companies, protected domain registrations, and ghost hosting companies and contacting these companies with a demand to remove my images from their sites, I’ve gotten no satisfaction. And I don’t think I will.

    I don’t know if having a visible © watermark would have made a difference in my case. I suspect that these types of sites, and the people who download from them, neither understand nor care that they are violating copyright laws.

    The other issue in pirated digital images is that it’s incumbent upon the artists to be vigilant and searching for their images being used unlawfully. Who has the time for that? Most discover it accidentally, or, as I did, when someone else alerted me.

  10. Question: Why wouldn’t a person very familiar with the Photoshop program be able to ‘unwatermark’ the picture. From then on, they can crank out as many as they like. (and is anybody’s art really so good, there’s a lineup just itching to steal it??!)

  11. I usually upload only low dpi images, and my signature is on the painting. They look great online, but I think it prints well enough only for someone who isn’t interested in the image quality they’d get if they had purchased one of my prints. If someone prints that picture and enjoys my art that way, it really doesn’t bother me much. It’s doubtful they’d ever be able to sell it that way, and they probably weren’t a potential customer to begin with. I’d feel differently if they were reproducing it to sell, but my notoriety isn’t great enough to attract a lot of risk of theft anyway, lol.

  12. I think this article completely ignores a huge benefit of watermarking – especially if your watermark has your website url like mine does in this example here. That benefit is when your photo gets shared or even stolen and put online on another website, your URL is there for people to contact you should they be interested in the image. I have seen my images on tons of illegal use websites and they still left my watermark on the image! Not only have people easily contacted me after seeing it, but it also helps when I have my copyright attorneys contact the illegal sites. I don’t watermark to prevent theft – no way you can when doing biz online – but rather for branding and organic traffic to my site. I’ve been real disappointed before finding an image online with no watermark, no way to know whose it originally was, no way to contact or follow that artist.

    Now if you have a huge watermark going right across the image – sure that can be distracting when looking at it. But I recommend smaller watermarks put along the bottom of the image, ideally in the same location between all images. By doing this, your brain will usually filter out the watermark from your vision and this all becomes a non-issue in regards to viewing the artwork online.

    If done right, a watermark is no different than a signature on the real piece. FWIW my current watermarks now feature my signature, enhancing this illusion.

    Lastly – if you are afraid of image theft – don’t post online. And of course, accept the loss of sales this would cause.

    1. This comment is 100% accurate in my experience.

      The reality is nobody cares whether you watermark your images or not, except for other photographers who are rarely buyers.

  13. As Jason mentioned, speak to a copyright attorney in your area. Most important register your works with the copyright office in DC. You can do your filing and payment online through their site. It is worth the fee and works can be grouped in a series so a number of individual pieces may be registered under a series title for a single fee vs each piece.

  14. I think that if a watermark is not too obnoxiously displayed, it should be included. I have seen a lot of artwork posted on Pinterest and wanted to know who the artist was, but there was no information. At least people will know who you are, and where to find you (if you use your website URL), when they see and like your artwork. It’s a good way to get free advertising and exposure.

  15. I totally agree with Jason. Over the past few years I have seen and participated in many arguments about including a watermark and the arguments for doing so are all the same, based on the notion that it does really prevent theft of one’s images. But so far I have not seen or heard of anyone reporting they actually used a watermark to do that. I do understand that there is image theft happening on the internet but to say that a watermark will prevent that is just unfounded.

    As Jason pointed out it can also put off a potential buyer. Moreover it also tells all viewers of your images that you are hyper concerned about image theft, maybe more so than about the actual artwork itself. Hence it becomes a significant distraction that seriously detracts from the real impact of the image.

    Also, as a long time digital artist I can say that editing and removing a visible watermark is quite easy. A reasonably skilled image thief can clean up a watermarked image is less than an hour, sometimes in just a few minutes.

    I do understand that some artists will still scream that a watermark is better than doing nothing, and that they don’t know what else to do. But as others have also said the best and possibly only good approach is to keep your images on the internet and your web site small and low res so that it limits their usefulness to anyone grabbing them.

    Hence I think a watermarks’ only useful function seems to be to make the person using it feel better, making them feel like they are at least doing something to protect theft of their images, even if they are not.

    1. Let me add to my other comment. I can go to anyone’s web site listed in this discussion, zoom in on my 27in. iMac, and do a screen grab in less than a minute. If someone has a watermark signature I can edit it out in a minute or so more, and have an image of reasonable size to print. The best defense here is to post a small image on your web site to minimize the quality of any print grabbed this way. But then at the same time this may impact the quality of the web image and perhaps diminish a buyers interest in making a purchase. So it is a balancing act. But the bottom line is that a watermark will not prevent this.

  16. i think that uploading small images makes it hard to print and put on a wall period. I have a friend who does this, I don’t agree, obviously, but by uploading smaller file sizes it helps. I will never watermark my work because well, someone could try and copy it but give it a go in my view. I am an extreme perfectionist, what I do, my style, how I work and make things…. if someone can copy that then well done to them, I know what goes into my work.

  17. The watermark in the image with this article is over the top, but they don’t have to be. I and many artists and photographers I know use watermarks without any negative side effects. In fact, the most positive benefit I got from it was it cut my infringement problem by about 90%. Not everyone has the same opinion or experience, though.

    Here are a few points in favor of it:

    Keeps work identifiable so it’s really promotional.

    Makes it less useful to people who steal images to run malicious scraper sites, or upload screenshots to amazon, POD sites (print on demand, like redbubble, zazzle, cafepress, etc).

    Tips off buyers who see a seller is offering numerous watermarked images of different artists, that they’d be buying a fake or maybe get scammed entirely.

    Deters most infringers, including the majority which are ‘casual’ infringers who just don’t know any better, (like those who wrongly think anything unidentified or lacking a copyright notice is “free”). Removing a watermark is still too much work for most infringers when they can find plenty of unmarked images elsewhere.

    If someone does remove your watermark it increases the damages you could get in court if it were a serious enough case to sue for. It’s called removal of copyright management information, and it can include metadata, watermarks, or really anything identifying you as the copyright owner.

    Infringers do not care if the small image they stole makes a blurry reprint for their buyers; they are scamming buyers. But they may be caught and their seller’s account shut down faster if it’s obvious they are selling fakes and customers return items because it printed out with a big watermark on it as well as blurry.

    For graphic artists who depend on POD site sales, their sales can be severely undermined by these fake sellers on dozens of sites. Unmarked images can lead to even more infringement and damage.

    People looking for “free” illustrations for their blog or even as advertisements for their business will pass them by, and this is a good example of how infringement isn’t just about money. A wildlife photographer I know is an animal advocate, and found her work used to sell leg hold traps! She now watermarks.

    Learning to do “Reverse Image Searches” of your work periodically is a good thing to do, helps you discover infringements and send takedown notices to the site’s host. Many artists who think they don’t have an infringement problem have never done a reverse search, and then are shocked to find their work used for things they’d never approve of, and of course all without permission or payment. If you reverse search “viral” images you will see how quickly they appear on thousands and thousands of sites, without credit. Not that credit makes it legal, but it after all what may drive someone back to the artist’s site. A watermark can help do that.

    I personally never had any problem with buyers being unable to look past it. Buyers may need to get used to it as internet infringement has escalated in recent years thanks in part to scraping software that can lift images by the thousands off any site and slap them up on PODs, etc, right away. At least if the image the thieves get is not very usable, it helps curtail the problem of out of control scraping. And as someone mentioned, these sites are often malicious, so it is not worth going them and exposing your contact info to them, and it it’d be a full time job to deal with them all anyway. Concentrate on the serious infringements, whether you watermark or not, and avoid getting malware from sketchy sites.

  18. Sadly, the Poll doesn’t seem to be working, and I’ve looked at on a PC and iphone, still missing. Am I the only one unable to see it?

  19. I just did as someone suggested and Googled my name and images. I was shocked at how many were there, and in what context. I’m sure I did not give my permission for most of these sites to use my paintings. Some were almost 10 years old. From now on, I am watermarking EVERYTHING. I put it near the bottom in white In Picasa you can make it somewhat transparent.

  20. I understand the pros and cons adding watermark to your art and I agree and disagree both. For many years I did not watermark my images on the webpage and agree that they distract the potential buyer in a way, but if the art pictured and the buyer agree with them , mostly likely they’ll probably purchase it. I’ve never really checked to see if any of my works were infringed until I started looking at similar subjects I painted and researched on the web and to my very surly, I found something that looked liked my production and intentionally reproduced and made on T-shirt’s, magnets and whatever they can to make money! So now, even though I know that they can manipulate and clearly cover up watermarks, I started to watermark my samples online , it’s a good and bad feeling at the same time that they would infringe on your original works but at the same time you felt an underwhelming gratitude that they chose your work over thousands of other artists work. So to conclude , I now do watermark!

  21. I, too, see the pros and cons of adding a digital signature/identifier in the lower corner. One thing that I don’t think has been mentioned so far is removing the signature via cropping. All of us would think that this would destroy the artwork, and make it unusable. But plenty of image thieves are fine with that. Cropping an image can be done in every image editor, in just a few seconds, and with almost no skill. The bad news just keeps on coming.

  22. I honestly think it’s not smart to not watermark your art. To each their own, but this screams lack of business sense to me. More than theft, if your art were to go viral (after someone downloaded the image and shared it somewhere) you’d have a LOT of people not knowing who the piece belongs to. The over zealous example you used in the article was ridiculous. Just put a small blurb on the bottom corner and lighten it a bit. Doesn’t take away from the art at all, that’s like saying signing your art in real life takes away from it.
    Just my opnion.

    1. I agree with you totally, even if the watermark helps you simply to advertise (and as I do it in a way which blends and even enhances, does not detract).

  23. It doesn’t work! Thieves will always be at the ready. Especially with all the digital programs out there. Once it is in cyberspace I feel my art is at risk. I have changed my attitude. If someone steals it they must really like it. They are risking their soul. And if the sell lots of copies and make loads of cash, my original will go up in value. Lol. Ps I have had my originals stolen off the wall. One lost her job. I take it as a compliment! Blessings Cheral

  24. I am a nobody and many of my images have been stolen and sold on all kinds of products in China lol so if you are good they will be stolen.

    When I post to FB I try to use low resolution so enlarged they will be junk to a their it is the best I can do as well as watermark small as a nice reminder it is mine and not up for discussion.

  25. I value the laws that © watermarking help enforce. As a professional photographer for over 35 years.
    Even if the watermark helps you simply to advertise (and as I do it in a way which blends and even enhances, does not detract), that would be reason enough.
    I’m also very happy that it is illegal to remove a watermark, and the added clout that that gives.
    FYI
    The EU is taking charge of the copyright debate.
    Explain.
    After 2 years of debate, the European Parliament voted to approve new copyright rules that put pressure on tech giants to crack down on infringement by their users. …

  26. Hi, good question. I’m wondering about those outfits that take a genuine painting by an artist and then have someone (or something?) make a replica. I found that one of my deceased brother’s paintings was being copied this way by the following: http://www.paintinghere.org. I was shocked! They may not be reproducing artwork electronically, but they are selling copies of work. I have no idea what the legality is in this kind of situation.

  27. A few years back I did a Musical series. All of them were taken from my web site and FAA by Chinese companies. They even copied my bio and posted it. The images were fairly low res. I contacted them when I found out and asked them to remove them which they did do a for a week or two and then they pop up again elsewhere. They even changed my name on the images to another artists which I think they feel makes it harder for people to track them down. In the end I gave up. How can you do anything about things like that in another country when they don’t care much about copyright laws. Now I do non-objective work and I don’t think they are as eager to steal that.

  28. I think watermarking is silly. It’s not like any of these people are Rembrandt, worthy of serious fears of forgery… I have purchased lots of art online; not a single piece was watermarked.

    If the artist is so frightened of someone taking some idea from them, they should stick to selling at craft fairs and leave the web to those who are serious about sharing and selling art.

    If some nasty little Chinese company wants to copy the art, the watermark won’t stop them!

  29. Theft in all forms is rampant.
    We need better enforcement if we are to ever to stop those who live off our talents.
    Do a Google search for example I use Border Collie on Amazon and find my girls photo on all kinds of cheap items and I only make a dollar myself when I design and sell a legit item. I tell Amazon to take it down they do but they are relentless so for each one I have removed 4 more take their place.

  30. I put a small caption/watermark at the bottom of my watercolors stating “Lana Privitera – Watercolors”. It’s just for advertising purposes. I do this because many people, at first sight, think they are photos. Since I’ve seen my work shared on Facebook many times without any explanations and without stating my name, I want to make sure that viewers know that the image is actually a watercolor and done by me.

  31. I always try to put my domain name address, BorsheimArts.com, into images posted online. I try to make it large enough to read, but put the tone and color so at to minimize the distraction. I sign my paintings with the same ideas… put the signature in, but make it a compositional element. The example you put of a watermark is extreme and annoying.

    I feel that you are right.. we have a TON of artists online. And people are not always precise about re-posting credit, so putting my name on my art is marketing more than theft protection. How is an artist supposed to have his images connected to his name if he does not make it part of the presentation?

    Someone in this thread remarked that their art images go from phone to Instagram, so… no easy way to add a name to the image. I prefer to put my image into Photoshop or similar, size it, and add the text I want into the image, and even make the image smaller for faster downloads. Then I upload the image, with my description of the art, etc., to Facebook. All on my laptop. Then I go to my Facebook page on my phone and download the art image to my phone. Then I may easily post to my Instragram feed.

    How many people know supporting actors as “That Guy” in films? Well, “That Guy” will not pay his bills if he does not help people to remember his work with his NAME. Competition is fierce. I am in business. I will do the best I can to brand my name with my art.

  32. What can be done to protect the images on print on demand shops? My art was lifted and used in at least 3 presentations that I was in the audience- They were not cited, nor was there information about where they took it from. Yes it was awesome to see my works on the big screen at educational conferences filled with masters and PHD individuals, but they did not know it was mine, and it was across the country. I did ask for the work to be cited as they were all copyrighted. One would think print on demand would protect their clientele.

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