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

Starving to Successful

StSBookSHave you always wondered what it takes to show your work in galleries? Is your work being seen by qualified collectors?

In his Amazon.com best-selling book, Xanadu Gallery owner Jason Horejs shares insights gained over a life-time in the art business.

Learn more and order today.

2015-01-07 14_43_10-CSS Button Generator

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 ARTsala. 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. Connect with Jason on Facebook

46 Comments

  1. I think “watermarking” accomplishes something important aside from the copyright question. When the image is shared or downloaded, the artists name or website travels with (as part of) the image. I notice that otherwise many people sharing the image of a painting don’t bother to give credit to the artist with a tag line etc.

    I also guess that it is more of concern for photographers, since the image is just a small file of the actual work of art, rather than a photo of the painting. As a painter I often/sometimes watermark discreetly in the corner.

    1. Karen,
      You brought up something that I think is a nice benefit to some watermarks, and I learned this as a consumer rather than artist. What you said about the name traveling with a shared work is true; often times I have found that when I like a work, the watermark leads me to further investigate the artist because I have a lead. So I think it serves a nice little purpose in that aspect.

    2. Exactly! I watermark because my work is often shared on Facebook. I know the watermark will identify the image as mine. I usually just use my name, but now I can see the wisdom of using my website to lead the viewer to my site to see more art. Thanks for the idea, Karen, and thanks Jason for the forum.

    3. I never thought of the website/name traveling with the artwork. I think its a great idea as long as it is not across the entire piece of art. To me, it is something to reconsider.

  2. I watermark my photography online but I don’t watermark my painting images for the reasons Jason mentions. At times, I do use Digimarc to invisibly watermark my work online. Digimarc is a Photoshop plug in that writes code into the image file no llows me to track the image usage online. Honestly, I’ve never found my images being used unlawfully. I have found my artwork or photos posted on other blogs or sites but they have lways been identified as mine.

  3. I watermark all of my work now. I’ve had several companies in the US as well as abroad steal my artwork to use in their marketing and as logos. It’s a pain having my attorneys chase them all down.

    On top of this, twice now I’ve had my artwork stolen, reproduced and shown in galleries as someone else’s work. Thankfully there’s enough helpful eyes out there that have alerted me to this happening and we’ve been able to put a stop to it. All of that being said, I definitely watermark to keep from having the hassle of tracking down stolen work.

  4. I have shown art online with and without watermarks. Lately, more often than not, I don’t use a watermark because I think sometimes potential customers are confused as to whether or not the art comes with a watermark as shown. I also think that if someone wants to use your art, they can work around a watermark . . . .I know. with photoshop, I can remove a watermark from an image if I want to, so I am not sure that going to the trouble of applying the watermark is worth the effort. Depending of course on how determined someone is to use your image. But I do agree with a previous comment that the artists name should be visible somewhere on the art because often, an artwork is shared and no credit is given to the artist. This of course defeats the purpose of getting your work shown on social media.

  5. I watermark my work….not so much because of fear of someone stealing and printing my images but because I’ve had some images stolen and used on other websites. One image was used by several shady Internet sites and was used as an entrance to a porn site. The image had had no reference to anything related to pornography. It was a kid and a basketball hoop. I don’t know if watermarking is really working is really working, but it was disgusting and I would like it to not happen again.
    Thank you for sharing your vast knowledge of art and our marketing, Jason.

  6. I found the examples shown to be subtle enough that I wouldn’t mind putting a watermark on work. Stamping a large transparent banner across the piece definitely makes it difficult to enjoy a piece I am viewing online, but a clean and simple watermark in the corner, like the example from Matt Suess, is nice and serves its function.

  7. There was no option for selecting “yes” AND “no,” but that would apply to me. I use one site (Artspan.com) to have a compenhensive catalog of work I have done. The default there is a watermark, and since I’m not using that site as a sales site per se, that is fine. I use another site to promote work for sale, and their express policy is that NO watermarks are to be used. I do use a watermark app if I feel a need to post something with a little protection, but I agree with the majority that a watermark is, on the whole, distracting.

  8. After having several of my images stolen, and used without permission, I started using a watermark. It seems to have stopped the thieves, and hasn’t really made any difference in selling my art. I think that people who steal other people’s artwork online are too lazy to bother to try and remove a watermark. They just look for stuff that doesn’t have a watermark.

  9. I agree with Jason that my work would be distorted with a watermark. I haven’t sold any of my work yet on line, only in person so my opinion may not have much weight. However, I want people to one day see my art on the Xanadu website, and have an uncontrollable desire to purchase it, and that might not happen if there is a watermark on it.

  10. ~ I like the previous posting by Katrina – agree that a third box – ‘Sometimes’ – be included. I have at time used a water-mark for getting my name out and onto the images to be published . . . – Thank You – Carole Orr

  11. On the occasions that I have watermarked my painting, I have tried to be discreet so the watermark is not distracting. I do, however, pay attention to the file information part that goes with the image. Especially on my blog, I make sure the metadata includes copyright information. I know metadata can be stripped, but I still think its worthwhile.

    Thanks!

  12. I watermark everything that goes on social media with the name of the piece, my name and website. I want that info to travel with it as it’s shared, etc. I try to position the watermark so that it’s not in the main focus of the artwork, but in a spot that requites lopping off an obvious part of the art if someone tried to crop it out.

  13. I’m usually agree with you on blog posts, but I confess I do not on this issue. I actually DO know artists that have had their works stolen. 4 amazing, professional artists that had works stolen because they failed to watermark. They felt it unprofessional, and now wish they had taken the time to use lower DPI and watermarks. One saw her dog painting printed on pillows and sold on Amazon and through various vet websites. One saw a painting of hers on a box of colored pencils coming from Japan.
    One had her images sold through prints on several sites in China. Last was last week when an amazing figurative artist had an award winning painting claimed by another on FB from Russia and was selling prints online. Each of these artists refused to watermark images on their social media and websites. All are now constantly fighting thieves across the world to get them to stop making $ on their images. Their images are out there online for anyone to take. All without lower DPI and watermarks.

    Personally, I make my images at 72dpi and watermark my images with 20% opacity (as unobtrusive as possible). I try to incorporate the watermark into shadows and curves to make them hard to remove. I also put my website on the bottom of the image for reference (Note: People share our work, why not point them to whom created it?). I have all my paintings professionally scanned by a printer so I can send very high quality images to jurors/curators/potential clients.

    I know many don’t watermark their images, but there ARE bad guys out there looking to make a buck off our hard work. They didn’t create the work, why should they earn $ on it? Sure, someone can remove my watermarks with Photoshop skills, but I’m not going to make it easy for them.

  14. I want people to know it’s mine, so yes, I do watermark, but it’s small and unobtrusive– and in a hard to crop space. If it travels, my name travels with it.

  15. I have my name as a watermark, not as ‘in your face’ as the don’t steal my art one…there were stories of people downloading their art and making the pieces into greeting cards and other items. It has never happened to me, but then, I am not a BIG NAME!! 🙂

  16. I watermark my art, but I don’t know that if someone really wants to do something, they can’t. There are so many ways for them to get around it. If you don’t display it, how are people going to see it? I feel like I just can’t be paranoid.

  17. I include a signature, by line, and that’s about it. As a photographer who began as an abstract painter, I now revert to signing my photo. After almost 50 years in the life style, I want sales not watermarks!

  18. My images have been stolen many times to be reproduced in China and other countries … even showed up on a website where they mentioned my name and said ” we can paint this any size “! That said, I still find it difficult to watermark every image … as it feels like just another chore to figure out cause every venue is different. Don’t we artists have enough to think about … without adding another chore to our plate ! I do regret not having time to mess with this issue … so a few extra minutes here & there on some sites such as Saatchi would definitely be worth it – especially on home run paintings. Do as I say – not as I do !

  19. I think also just as important (or more) is to disable the “right click, copy” function. While determined ones can do a screen capture and crop, our copyright thefts dropped from several hundred times a year to almost zero after we changed the website to this.

    As always, great question!

      1. Do a search for “disable right click” and there are various ways it can be added at least to images on your website…once on social media may not work, but really cut down on the theft of our images. If I post anything on facebook I always watermark and take it to photoshop and make a low res, small image and then use the “save for web” function.

  20. When I first started to post my art work online I used a watermark, but after a while I stopped. My main idea was to get a following and viewers, and for the enjoyment of viewing my art. The watermark took away from the pleasure of simply enjoying the artwork. I also felt the watermarks detracted from possible future sales.

  21. When I display my work on my Facebook gallery page, I will photograph it with a business card on the corner. One time I I displayed a reproduction without a watermark.. Over 10,000 people looked at it ,and there were over 100 shares. Not a single print sold. However, I am of two minds about this issue. Watermarks are a distraction and only one of my works on my website is watermarked.

  22. Clearly mark and brand your images so that anyone interested can find you.

    This would not be a mark to obscure the image, but a useful label potential customers can use.

    You know, a nice frame (or whatever)..you’re an artist .

    Make it easy to share your image usefully to you (and them). If someone goes to the trouble to remove your marketing info, they are going to do so anyway.

  23. I HAVE had my images stolen. Like Dan, I use digimarc now and use google image search every so often to check. I messed around online and found the images taken were from posts on my (now not used) wordpress blog. Not real high resolution, but apparently good enough for thieves. The images were ‘swept’ by a site that collected images, then had a disclaimer that the works COULD be copyright protected, but people could download from their site for free. From there several bogus ‘artists’ were selling my images on prints, shower curtains, etc. on several US print-on-demand sites. Those were taken down as soon as I proved my ownership…. I have not bothered with the ones on Egyptian and Turkish sites. I seriously doubt anyone has made much money off of me…. but I am seriously annoyed.

  24. Back in 1995 I created my first website. the web designer insisted on using a watermark which looked awful. He insisted that it was no one would steal my images. I visited the office of my web designer on day after the site was up and Lo and Behold on the wall behind the desk was a small print of one of my works. Since then I have removed all watermarks but I do my best to include my website and name as a tag or title for reference. My artwork sales are primarily original oil paintings with occasional Giclee sales. The Images I post on line are very low resolution (72 dpi) compared to my giclee prints which are incredibly higher dpi and wouldn’t work on the web. If someone were to steal a web image it would print out very small and if enlarged it would look pixely making it unusable. I view the use of my images as publicity and without my name attached it would be energetically promotional. The other issue that was brought to mind was the Fine Art America prints that require high res files to be sent to them for on demand printing “what is they sell my images to a hotel chain without my knowledge?” Well I guess I have to trust that they are honest enough to maintain their reputation. Also if I don’t see the Prints in the Hotel then they don’t really exist to me and I would never have gotten the sale anyway. I guess then ignorance is Bliss. So far I am not aware of that scenario taking place. I guess if someone came into my studio or a gallery and stole an original off the wall then I would have a problem

  25. The only real way to protect your images from being copied online is to NOT post your images online. If you use a watermark anyone with digital editing skills can get rid of your signature with ease. Another thing to consider is that when watermarking to protect your copyright we are talking mostly about US copyright. Other countries throughout the world may have different copyright laws. And in an age when digital images are multiplying in volume I think the likelihood of image theft becomes minimal. Not that it does not happen but then I think my time is better spent making art rather than searching the internet trying to find out who may have stolen my images. Watermarking may make you feel protected even if it doesn’t, but then as Jason says it also distracts from the experience of viewing your work online.

  26. One of my favorite mediums is all original digital art. I do feel that my digital paintings are a lot more at risk for pirating than the canvas ones. So, I do use transparent type watermarks on my work when sharing in larger sizes, and use lower pixel png or screen shots when sharing in smaller sizes to avoid this.

  27. If a person really knows computers, they can steal about anything on the internet. I have seen successful grids embedded into museum art and when the image is printed out, a grid appears. However, simply viewing the image does not show the grid. I wish I had the software to do that because it would be nice to protect artwork. What I have started doing is embedding metadata in the images. They are lower resolution however, certain sites such as VIDA want high resolution to be able to print out the images onto clothing etc. so at times an artist may be sending out higher resolutions. Hopefully everyone at Vida is honest and I won’t end up competing against my own artwork….
    It’s not like we artists get a click per view compensation for people viewing our art online. The times I have sold online has been when I put better images of my work up. People like seeing a big beautiful picture, not a low res small image. Some software has been developed to allow the viewer a detail view that is larger….
    Yes, it is good to have people view your art, but it is not uncommon for artists to have their art ‘stolen’ online. People do that all the time. I have even seen my original designs imported back from China, and someone who traveled to Spain saw some of my art prints for sale over there…..so I am complemented in a way. It really isn’t hurting me….I’m not traveling to Spain to sell art. Somehow I hope they kept my name on my art. I have no way of knowing. It would be nice of the creators got credit for what they do, but this is a world where that is not a reality. In engineering college my son and a team of engineering students designed those fit bit bracelets that are expensive and popular now. He hasn’t received any credit or compensation for his work, and I doubt the other students did either. He doesn’t need money though because unlike most artists, he earns big big bucks. The fact is, my son is so gifted artistically I am in hopes he returns to it someday. I met an artist in the summer art show circuit that was doing very well. He had made his money as an engineer, had plenty to live on, and after retiring at 50 went into art. So protect art? It would be nice if someone cared enough about artist’s rights that we have access to the same high tech the museums do to protect our images as they protect theirs……as if living artists and their livelihoods mattered.

  28. Always affix your posted artworks with a creative-looking business watermark LOGO (aka, your Internet business card); third-parties can more easily find you.

    Per US copyright law, if a watermark or metadata has been removed or changed to hide an infringement, artists are eligible to pursue DMCA/CMI (Copyright Management Information) statutory damages ($2,500 to $25,000) against US-based infringers (this legal option does not require the work to be registered with the US Copyright Office!). Attorney fees are also available. I’m seeing more and more attorneys using this strategy to pursue US-based infringers.

    CMI links: http://www.photoattorney.com/?s=cmi; http://www.photolaw.net/did-someone-remove-the-copyright-notice-from-your-photograph.html.

    Artists who choose NOT to register their copyrights should, at the very least, affix a watermark & metadata to obtain some legal redress against US-based infringements.

    From Copyright & Licensing Attorney, Joshua Kaufman, “If I can only tell you one thing […], register your copyright, register your copyright, register your copyright”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cBOKkrleY3Y

    1. Can you register more than one work under a ‘collection’ as one can do songs? This is a way for artists to save money on copyrights of multiple works, if it is available for visual type art, such as paintings and photographs/prints.

      1. “Can you register more than one work under a ‘collection’ as one can do songs?”

        Yes, if you follow these specific rules:

        1) You’re permitted to register an unlimited number of UNpublished works in an eCO (on-line/“e-Filing”) $55 “Standard Application”. After you‘ve register your UNpublished works, wait a couple of days before officially publishing them (don’t register and publish on the same day).

        2) If you just want to register one work (whether published or UNpublished) of which you’re the sole copyright owner that’s not part of a work-for-hire arrangement (i.e., the work belongs to you), use the eCO’s $35 Single Application. Otherwise, use the $55 eCO Standard Application.

        3) You are permitted to register many published artworks in a Standard Application “IF” they were all published in the SAME unit of publication AND with the SAME first-publication date. For example, you license eight nature paintings to a calendar company. Assuming your eight paintings were all FIRST-published in this one particular calendar, you could register them all with a $55 Standard Application. This would also apply to posting, say, 15 paintings to your blog. As long as they were all FIRST-published on your specific blog on the SAME date, you could register them together in a Standard Application. Along with the main application title, it’s highly recommended to include a separate title (aka descriptive title) called Contents Titles for each work you’re registering. If you’re registering 15 paintings, include 15 distinct contents titles.

        You can NOT mix published and UNpublished images in the same registration–they must be separated into their own registration applications. It’s much easier to register UNpublished works.

        Here’s the Copyright Office’s definition of “publication”:

        “Publication” is the distribution of copies or phonorecords of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending. The offering to distribute copies or phonorecords to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display constitutes publication. A public performance or display of a work does not of itself constitute publication.” Source: https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ01.pdf (pages 3 & 4).

        In short, if you’re simply just “displaying” your works in a portfolio, in a gallery showing, or on a blog, web, or social media sites, then those works are likely UNpublished.

        However, if you or you grant others permission (a license) to download or make copies or to distribute (share), sell, or license your artworks (even if they have never been sold/licensed), then they have likely been published.

        If you’re blog, web, or social media sites include sharing icons like Facebook, Instagram, etc. adjacent to your works, it does suggest that you’re granting others permission to use (share and/or further distribute) your art, making them likely published.

        Ultimately, the Copyright Office relies on the artist to determine if his/her works have been published. The Copyright Office states: “The [Copyright] Office strongly encourages creators [photographers, artists, musicians, writers, etc. ] to register their works BEFORE [emphasis added] they are published, because this avoids much of the confusion concerning publication and the treatment of published works [is the artwork published or unpublished?],” writes Rob Kasunic, Director of Registration Policy and Practices at the United States Copyright Office.”

        Importantly, you cannot lie about the publication status of your works. In the eCO application, you’ll have to certify (check a box) that the information you’ve provided is correct to the best of your knowledge. If you misrepresent any material parts in your application, you’re subject to a $2,500 fine! This fine is the criminal offense section per the copyright statute. See 17 USC 506(e).

        Affixing a watermark logo AND timely registering your works reiterate your copy/rights and your legal standing to pursue infringers. It’s unfortunate not more artists (and art schools) follow this protocol.

        1) To determine which eCO application form to use, visit http://www.copyright.gov/fls/sl04s.pdf

        2) eCO Registration Single Application Tutorial: http://copyright.gov/eco/eco-tutorial-single.pdf

        3) eCO Registration Standard Application Tutorial (groups-registration of UN-published works): http://copyright.gov/eco/eco-tutorial-standard.pdf

  29. I have started to sign my artwork kenchurch.com so that travels with the image. I don’t watermark. It really spoils the look of the art. I try very hard to design the canvas, a watermark does not figure into the good of the design or composition. I am careful about keeping an online image small and it is only 72 dpi. A watermark is quite easy to remove, so a thief want’s to go to the trouble for a 72 dpi image, eh.

  30. Sharing my art online has been an ethical conundrum for me. In many ways I feel it makes people lazy, seeing art as an easy share rather than something to be valued and talked about. I see so much art go through my FB feed and I even tend to forget the time and patience someone puts into a piece. Its easy to judge or dismiss, or to like it and then your off to the next image to gobble down. It all can feel very cheap. However, its a great way to get your art out to people who may not go to galleries and museums, build a reputation with those who truly resonate with you and its a motivating tool. Who doesn’t like the likes, but it would be nice if people offered more to the conversation than a thumbs up.

    I have been watermarking my pieces off and on and I find more people liking when it does not have a watermark. I feel maybe people see the watermark as ‘this piece must be for sale, I don’t have the money/space for art’ and stay away. I don’t know. Its all a process I am experimenting with and I am fairly new at it. I did get a commission from my posting online. The person could see I am serious about what I do.
    Low resolution is always the way to go for online. I appreciate all the comments here, thank you!

  31. I do put a watermark on my work but at a very light opacity (48%). I am going to add my website though and think that is a great idea. I also have save my work at a very low resolution of 72 so it would not be a good print.

    1. Robin Hawkins wrote, “I also have save my work at a very low resolution of 72 so it would not be a good print.”

      Many art infringements are never printed; instead, they’re displayed on web and social media sites as unlicensed posted works. Hence, the 72 ppi rational may not be relevant.

      Affixing a watermark logo + adding metadata + timely registering your works with the US Copyright Office are your best protections against infringers. Don’t believe me? Ask a copyright litigator!

  32. For me , it is not about stealing the actual artwork. Lately I have noticed other artists liking some of my paintings that I post on Facebook. When I visit their websites I sonetimes see that they have used my subject, composition and ideas and are showing paintings that are way to similar to mine. Artists need to stay with their iwn integrity, be creativ and stop practically copying other artists work.

    1. Bonny wrote, “When I visit their websites I sonetimes see that they have used my subject, composition and ideas…”.

      Ideas are NEVER protected by copyright! Other artists can appropriate your ideas. Only by expressing those ideas on to a canvas, on to a photograph, on to a recording device, etc. can an artist protect her art.

      For example, here is an idea: “Autumn leaves floating on top of a still pond.” I can communicate that idea by expressing it as a painting, photograph, poem, etc. However, I can NOT stop you and others from taking my “idea of leaves floating on water” and expressing it in your own ways and in who own media.

      But if you copy the way I express my idea (you substantially copy my painting), then you can be liable for copyright infringement.

      Again, affixing a watermark logo + adding metadata + timely registering your works with the US Copyright Office are your best protections against infringers. Don’t believe me? Ask a copyright litigator!

  33. I would suppose it would depend on where the watermark is. I have noticed that when I look at my own work on the Facebook or other pages and try to expand it or print, the quality is very poor or very pixelated. However I have seen watermarks on some of the online photography, such as shutterstock, that were discreet enough that one could see the picture

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *