A recent comment has caused me to stop and wonder about the idea of posting images online.  Is there a need for protection?  I would say so!  But, how?  Should we completely brand the image with such a distracting watermark that no one could possibly steal the image for their own personal use.  Of course this, in turn, causes the beauty of the image to become camouflaged behind a stark emblematic graphic.

And what about the legalities?  Is there protection for photographers?  How do we even know if one of our images has been stolen?  And, what should we do if we happen to discover that one of our images is being used without our permission?

Is it perfectly legal to copy an image if you’re not using it for profit?  Can you copy an image if you credit the photographer or the source where you discovered the image?  Should you seek permission?  What if you seek permission, but never receive a response?  Can you then copy the image and use it any way you like?

What if an image has no watermark?  Is it public property?

Fullerton Arboretum - Fullerton, California/Canon 50D, 1/15, f/11, 17 mm, ISO 100

In the beginning, I used a larger photographyfree4all watermark on all my posted images.  There were some who indicated in their comments that the watermark distracted them from the beauty of the image.  I would have to agree with that, too.  Since I’ve started printing several of my photographs, I’ve replaced the large watermark with a signature watermark that is actually quite small.  This signature watermark does little to actually protect the image.

What does the law state?  I’ve always thought that everything posted technically belonged to the artist and copying of any kind was forbidden.  But, has it become such a common occurrence that we ignore the law?

I would love to hear from all of you!!  Many of you post images online – do you protect them?  If so, how?  Have you copied (or do you know of people who do copy) an image from a site and used it in some way without the appropriate permissions?  Do you think we should be protected?  How?

You start the discussion and I’ll jump in with my responding comments.  Then check back often to add a response to my comments or the comments of others.  I’m very interested to know your answers and ideas!


~ by photographyfree4all on March 16, 2011.


  1. Okay, I’ll jump in here. I think that I can answer most of your questions.

    First, a photograph is automaticly copyrighted as soon as it is created, much like an author writes a book. I can’t copy a John Grisham book and say that it is mine, simply because I decided to copy it into my computer. That is the law. However, that doesn’t seem to do much good as most people are unaware of it. That goes for snapshots, etc., but of course, nobody is going to go after their mother for copying a pic to put in her scrapbook. But for the protection of the photographer the law is on the books, just in case.

    Now enforcement is the problem. To really get it copyrighted so it will stand up in court, if you have an image that is so good that it will gross you a lot of money, you can go the the government copyright website, and for a fee, per imaga, of several dollars, get it officially copyrighted and documented.

    A watermark is good, in that it will tell people that the image is yours and not available. That will off some kind od discouragement. But if someone really wants to steal it, they can sometimes “photoshop” the watermark and get rid of it. An effective watermark should be one that can blend in with the background and make it hard to clone it out.

    If you forget the watermark, it is NOT fair game to thieves. It still belongs to the original photographer. But it is his responsibility to try to protect it. If he doesn’t, the he must suffer the consequences.

    I, myself, would absolutely never try to copy another artist’s work. I have no reason to, but if I did, I would certainly try to ger permission. No, you can not assume that it okay to copy a photo if you give the photograph credit. He may not want you to do that. I have had publications offer me photo credit if they give me credit only. Photo credit does not pay my bills. Show me the money. 🙂 However, I do sometimes donate my work to non-profit publications. One example, I let the Friends of Big Bend National Park use my images for their promotional things. They give me photo credit.

    There are so many unscrupulous people in the world now, that it is hard to prevent the theft. I have had it happen to me, but it a rare occurrence. As you know, I don’t have a watermark per se. I just put the copyright cymbol and my name. I know I am open to theft. Fortunately, the people that have wanted to use it legally, such as magazines and the like, have contacted me for permission. If I were you, I would put that symbol next to your signature.

    I do not have a copyright watermark on my prints that I sell. People that buy my prints, do so that they can frame them to hang. I DO sign them, of course, like any artist would do. Of course, I know that some people may want to take an 8×10 to Walmart to get a photocopy made. They probably are not going to do it for profit. The print resolution wouldn’t be very good anyway.

    But, in conclusion, if you have an image stolen and see it in a magazine, get yourself a good lawyer. There have been cases where the photographer won.

    Since you brought this subject up, I may do a post on my blog soon and mention some of my experiences.


  2. I upload small/low res copies of my originals. This at least keeps the self-respecting publishers at bay. In print these would look bad in print.

    There will always be those who want to just take them without credit or royalties. For those photos which are at risk ( I.e your most awesome 😉 ) maybe further protect them by adding a small watermark somewhere in the middle of the photo, rather than out of the way in the corner. That way it may not detract from the beauty of the photo, but would also be difficult for someone to crop it out.

    That’s my two cents!


  3. I’ve always thought copyright watermarks are a bit much for most of us. While every photographer, myself included, likes to think our pictures are great I think the reality is something most of us would rather not consider. The watermark offers little real protection and unless you’re ready to go to court I think it’s a bit of a waste.
    Then again, I’m not a professional. I would assume a pro would be ready for litigation and should mark their work.


  4. Well, I certainly do not want to make it easy for them. It is sad, that people would do this, but the way I look at it, and from a spiritual point, is we all reap what we sow. If we are kind to others, we reap that. If someone steals, they are cursing themselves. So, the truth of the matter, though, I try to protect my photo images as much as I can. I can’t control people. But they will reap what they sow. And what goes around comes around. So, I would think people would know better. But it may be a lesson, they need to learn, themselves. Nobody likes to be ripped off. But they will learn….I pray.


  5. I used to watermark my photographs, but I got too lazy to go through the editing (even with actions). And I do admit that having them are distracting.

    I stopped watermarking when I shoot with film most of the time. Even if somebody copied/claim my photo on internet, I have the negative proof.

    But it is indeed difficult to protect your digital photographs. For this, I edit them: low res and resize it smaller, minus the watermark. – I would still have the original image in full res this way.


  6. I agree with Cheryl. I also upload low res copies. As Chris says a water mark may be a bit of a waste, but it will be a slight deterrent. Better than none at all.


  7. I may well be the person who triggered this.

    Thank goodness someone has taken this up – it’s impossible to get a legal position, rules of etiquette or anything else. I understand the law is on the side of the internet user, not the ‘poster’. I understand that there should be written notice of ‘no poaching’ or whatever.

    I think the problem starts with a) being able to copy images (more and more can’t be copied, which is GREAT – so one knows the position) and b) the idea that the internet is about FREE material.

    People’s ideas, and words are free – most websites are FREE to attract hefty advertising fees, and mostly people just love sharing. It’s hard to understand when photos are not ‘there for the taking’. I would like it to be very black and white.

    I would be flattered if someone took one of mine.

    But where photography is concerned, it’s a minefield. Some sites are clearly commercial, most are not. And I can’t believe that most bloggers have paid for their photos or even sought permission – that would prevent a blog being spontaneous and illustrated, most of the time. And there are more than enough commercial bloggers. Looking forward to other comments.


  8. WOW! Bob, this is e very detailed and excellent response! Thank you for taking the time to share all of this information. Some of this information I was pretty certain about, but this confirms it! The bottom line seems to be that every image viewed on the internet is the copyrighted property of the one who produced the image – no ifs, ands or buts! 🙂 But without protection, there are thousands if not millions of people who will think little if anything about grabbing it and using it for their own pleasure – whether than be for personal gain, or simply using it as their computer wallpaper. Thanks, Bob! Lots of comments here to digest and discuss! I’ll be back. 🙂


  9. In response to Jenny’s post. For us photographers that are professionals and do market our work, we must be able to show them to the public without having to risk theft. Therefore, the water-marks to help in aiding that. Not everything on the internet is “free” as she says. A photographer images are no different than the books that Amazon sells, or the music that you can download from iTunes for a fee.

    There are some sites that do offer free images, as well as royalty-free music. There are some people that don’t mind sharing and that is their perogative.

    I have equipment has the value is low to mid five figures. I trained for photography. I didn’t spend all of that just to give my imagery away.


  10. By the way, I would like to stress one thing. I am not opposed to giving my work away, if there is a good reason. But, PLEASE ASK PERMISSION. I sometime sell my work for just the photo credit. I would put a photo on the cover of National Geographic if they will put my name on it. 🙂

    I have donated my work to various non-profit institutions, but they asked me for permission first.


  11. I think this sounds like a good way of protecting your work, Cheryl. At least, if someone takes it they really won’t have anything the can do anything with! I don’t know if I will ever have anything that is considered “great” enough for someone to take. But…you never know! 🙂 Thanks for jumping into this discussion, Cheryl! Great addition!


  12. I am in the “upload only small low res copies” and “add a water mark” group. That’s my attempt at keeping blog photos, flickr photos, and facebook photos safe. I figure it’s better than nothing. Yes sometimes I get in a hurry and forget to add the watermark. Bad me. I offer digital downloads from my photog site and sale stock photos and those all have watermarks while online but when they are purchased there is no watermark so they can be used as the buyer wishes.


  13. I’m going to follow the discussion on this one, Steve, as I have been wondering the same thing. I have started resizing my photos, which I hope helps. Other than that and a small copyright watermark in the corner, I don’t know what else to do.


  14. I think you’re probably right here, Chris! If I had no intention of ever selling my work and only took photographs for pure pleasure, I probably wouldn’t bother. I guess if I never wanted to sell anything, I wouldn’t need to worry if someone wanted one of my images. That probably is the main difference. Thanks for another point of view! I don’t know about everyone else, but these comments are doing me a world of good! 🙂 Great to see you again, Chris! Don’t be a stranger… 🙂


  15. That is really all you can do, Elena – try to protect them as best as you can! And, I suppose once you’ve done that – you might as well not worry about it any further. 🙂


  16. I think I need to check into this, Sapphire. It would seem if my images were posted in a small, low res format, that might be a really good method of protection. Of course I would sacrifice the great photography discussions that happen here because many of you enlarge my images to examine the details. That would be the only drawback that I could see. Great comment, Sapphire! Keep ’em coming! 🙂


  17. I think I want to keep some deterrent to theft, Bob. I know it seems like a pain sometimes, but it gives peace of mind,,,well, kind of! 🙂


  18. I really think that’s about all you can do, Robin. There have been some great comments here and I’m sure we’ll continue this discussion as time goes by! Thanks for adding your comments, Robin. There always great!


  19. Seems to be what a lot of the people are suggesting, KKH! Great discussion!


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