Watermarks grace dollar bills, important documents, and checks and are there to prove authenticity, origin, or ownership. But what role do they play in online images and your marketing images?
What most of us think of as a watermark is a semi-transparent image or text placed on or embedded into an image or document with the purpose of identifying the piece’s owner or origin. Sometimes watermarks are glaringly obvious. An image with a giant copyright stamp across the middle is hard to miss, after all.
Other times, watermarks aren’t so obvious. In fact, there are several ways to invisibly or digitally insert watermarks into digital images. One way is to use “invisible” watermarks. An invisible watermark is a way for you to keep your information and your image together without ruining a legitimate viewer's experience. Another method is to embed copyright info into the metadata of your image. (More on both techniques later.)
Why a Watermark?
Watermarks can save the day if you ever have to state your creative case in court, as they allow you to prove an image is yours in instances of suspected intellectual property theft, misuse, unauthorized distribution, or similar unsavory situations. Watermarks help you protect your intellectual property and your investment of time, money, and energy spent making your images in the first place.
A few examples of when having a watermark can make the legal process easier:
- Someone has stolen your image and is trying to sell it as his own.
- Someone is distributing your image without permission, with or without the intention of making a profit. Perhaps it is used in a company’s brochure or on their website.
- Someone is using your image to masquerade as you or to misrepresent you.
How Do I Add a Watermark to My Images?
A watermark can be anything that will uniquely mark the image as yours. That includes your company’s logo or company name, or your own name for individuals. Whether you choose to use a visible or invisible watermark will depend on which one is the better choice for your individual needs and preferences. Let’s take a closer look at each option.
Visible watermarks are easy to make. Simply create a layer over your image with your copyright info on it. Be sure to either save the layered version of the image (as a .psd file, for example) or make a clean copy so you have an original image without the watermark for legitimate distribution. For those without an image editor like Photoshop, there are a number of online options that will allow you to add a watermark to your images.
If you choose the visible watermark route, you may think you want to put your watermark in an unobstrusive corner of your image rather than plastering it across the center. But, if your watermark is too out-of-the-way, it may be easily cropped out.
Invisible watermarks satisfy those who don’t want to ruin the image’s integrity, but the downside is that they do not serve well as a theft deterrent, since it’s not obvious that they are there.
Invisible watermarks are particularly useful for image creators who license their work to specific clients, but still want to retain creative ownership of said image. Adobe Photoshop's Digimarc plug-in allows you to register your information onto your image in a nearly invisible form. This way, your image is not visibly marked, but your copyright information can be read if/when necessary. There are other methods that allow the same or similar functions, so you can choose the one that works best for you.
You can also embed your information in the metadata of an image in most image processors (like Photoshop or Lightroom), or by setting EXIF data in your camera’s settings so every photo you take will automatically contain your information. While this method is both easy and unobtrusive, it may not offer total protection, since some websites (including some social media sites) may not preserve your image metadata when uploading.
To Watermark or Not To Watermark?
Unfortunately for image creators, there is no guaranteed way to prevent determined people from stealing or misusing their images. However, watermarking in some form is still a good habit to get into. Countless images are misused every day by people who honestly don't know any better. Just because an image does not have a visible watermark does not mean it isn't still protected by copyright. Chances are, it is! When you are using others’ images, protect yourself by carefully reading the usage rights on the images you may want to use. If you can't find them, it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you’re not 100% sure your purposes fall under fair use, find an image that does have usage rights that work for you.