Photography and the Watermarking Arms Race
Published on 09.12.15
In 2012, Getty Images changed its iconic watermark. Where previously it had simply overlayed its logo onto its public-facing images, it switched to using a large, shaded box that contained both a URL where the image could be found and information about the photographer.
Getty claimed that the move was to make the watermark helpful rather than intrusive and, for the most part, it was successful, helping to guide those interested in licensing the image to a page where they could do so.
However, the new mark was also an escalation of the watermarking arms race.
For years tools such as Snapheal and Inpaint have been making it easier and easier to remove watermarks. Though these tools are designed to remove unwanted objects such as power lines, buildings and blemishes, they are also very good at removing many types of watermarks.
The truth is that technology has made the removal of watermarks easier and more reliable than ever. What once took a great deal of experience and skill with Photoshop can now be done in a few minutes with the click of a mouse.
Photographers and visual artists have been forced to respond. Though it’s long been known that you shouldn’t put watermarks near edges where they can easily be cropped out, now additional focus is placed on the watermark itself and making sure it can’t be trivially removed.
In 2013 I did a test on this and found that the keys were to make sure that watermarks that were placed over detailed parts of the image, had multiple colors and covered a decent surface area were the most difficult to remove. Intricate water marks were also more difficult, largely because the time required to select the mark was much greater.
The problem is that watermarking has always been about finding a balance between the security of the image and the attractiveness of it. A huge central watermark may be very secure, but it completely ruins the image. Likewise, a small one in the corner may not distract at all, but it does nothing to secure the image.
Tools like Inpaint have pushed that balance more toward the side of security, forcing visual artists to work harder to make their watermarks secure. To that end, there hasn’t been a single unified approach, but rather, a variety of approaches with varying degrees of success.
- Larger, More Useful Watermarks: Getty and many other stock photo sites have approached the problem by simply using larger, more aggressive watermarks. They often use the extra space to convey additional information.
- Multiple Marks: Rather than simply having one large mark, the image is instead covered in a pattern of smaller ones. This makes the marks much more difficult to remove and increases the likelihood that one or more of the marks will be over high-detail areas that make it difficult to strip away.
- Invisible Watermarking: Companies like Digimarc provide invisible watermarking services. While these don’t function as a deterrent, they can be detected by spiders that crawl the Web, spotting infringements.
Some use a combination of strategies. iStockPhoto, for example, uses a single large watermark on smaller previews but multiple watermarks on the larger ones, giving the image the best protection possible at different sizes.
All in all, no matter what strategy you use, if you are a visual artist, it’s important to have an effective and prominent watermark on your work before publishing it. However, when choosing that watermarking system, it’s important to understand just how easy some watermarks are to remove and make sure that your security measures actually protect your images.