The Stolen Images
Social Media, Photography Ownership and the Watermark Dilemma
People can’t be trusted. Otherwise, watermarks wouldn’t exist as a means to protect an artist’s work. Watermarks have been used in photography since the days of film. Print proofs were often stamped or overlaid with the studio’s logo or wordmark in an effort to prevent copying of their property. Yes, photographers own the rights to the images that you paid for. This didn’t prevent people from copying photos without reimbursing the photographer, but at least it was a constant message that doing so without expressed permission and/or compensation was morally and legally wrong.
Nowadays, watermarks are used on digital images everywhere; on photographers websites, and social media sharing sites like Flickr, Facebook, Twitter and now Google+ Communities. Tastefully used, they can help promote a brand, but more often than not, it detracts from the art. Imagine listening to a great piece of music, only to have an audio alert periodically interrupt to state that the music is protected by copyright. As a photographer, however, I understand the reasons for wanting to protect one’s work. You’ve gone through the time and effort to create something. If someone wants to use it for whatever purposes, you should be compensated for it.
Kelly Schehl of KRS Creative shared her thoughts on the subject: “Personally, I wouldn’t use watermarking at all except for social media. Facebook in particular is a big concern. I only recently joined G+ and Twitter, so I’m not as familiar with the policies. It’s not necessarily that I think my images are so good that they’ll be stolen, but there’s no real accountability to others using a photo that someone else created. Copyrights seem increasingly more difficult to maintain and protect. “
Publishing images on one’s own self-hosted website means you have control over the Terms of Service (TOS). There’s really no issue there. However, on social media, your publishing rights only go so far as the TOS that you agreed to when you signed up. What most people also don’t realize is that most TOS also include a clause that states that those TOS can change at any moment. So, anything you initially agreed to can change at any moment, and you’re still bound by it.
A perfect example of this was Instagram’s recent flap over the changes in its TOS, which basically stated that they could re-use anyone’s photographs for their own marketing purposes without the photographer’s permission and without any compensation whatsoever. Needless to say, people were not happy. There was a huge backlash over it, and Instagram quickly backtracked and changed it. Many say that because of this the damage has been done.
Perhaps there’s a give and take in all of this. Services like Flickr, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Google+ provide a means for marketing one’s business online. These services need to generate revenue. Charging for the service almost guarantees a user exodus, so how can the balance be kept by providing a useful service that’s free while at the same time generating revenue? Simple, by utilizing user content, in turn, to market their services. It’s almost impossible to prevent unauthorized use of your work, so perhaps watermarking is the way to go. Like a band-aid, visible to all, evidence of the wounds caused by the digital age.