How NOT To Protect Your Digital Images Online

There's an article at the Digital Photography School called Ways To Protect Your Digital Images Online, and I'm a little disappointed — for more than one reason. I try not to rant about too many things, but I can't help myself in this case. The first reason I'm disappointed is because the information is incomplete and (in my mind) it's not the best advice I've seen on this topic. The second reason I'm disappointed is because of the way the comments seem to be getting handled — but I'll get into that in a moment.

The article aims to give you options for protecting your photos online. The first suggested method is watermarking your photo, and I'm in complete and total disagreement with this notion. Watermarks can look pretty bad, and they annoy a lot of people. If you're trying to sell or promote a photo and you place a watermark on it, you're going to drive away more than just the people looking to steal it from you. If the watermark is so faint that it isn't distracting, there's a good chance that it can be taken out by a photo editor. On the contrary, if the watermark is so dark that you couldn't remove it, there's a good chance that it's distracting to everybody looking at it. I don't like watermarks, and I haven't encountered too many serious photographers who do like them.

The rest of the advice in the article suggests adding a copyright notice to the EXIF information in the file, either with software or through the camera. First of all, if you can put it into the EXIF, somebody else can take it out. And second, a quick “Save for Web” or copy+paste in Photoshop will strip all the EXIF anyways. I'm not saying it's a bad idea to put your name in the file somewhere (especially if your camera will do it automatically for you), but it doesn't exactly provide any extra protection from somebody ripping off your work. It's like placing a visible copyright notice on the web page next to the photo — it might remind people of what's inherently true, but it doesn't provide any protection.

I've talked about copyright a little bit in the past, but I'm not expert on the topic. I do know, however, that you are granted the copyright to a photo as soon as you release the shutter on your camera. Stating it in the EXIF or on a web page doesn't make it any more true. You do have the option to register your photos with the US Copyright Office, which provides you with extra rights when it comes to enforcing that copyright — plus there's no dispute that you are the artist responsible for creating the work.

The piece of information that I think was left out of the article, has to do with image size. In my opinion, the best way to prevent somebody from stealing your photo is to never post a high-res image online. People/companies that are looking to gain a profit from a photograph are looking for a high resolution image, not something that would print well as a wallet sized photo. I keep all my online images at 600 pixels or below in the widest dimension. If somebody steals that low resolution image and uses it without consent, they're probably not making a ton of money off of it and they're running the risk of getting sued over minimal gains.

My personal advice: don't clutter up your images with watermarks, only post low res images, and don't sweat the small stuff.

Now for part 2 of why I'm disappointed with the article at the Digital Photography School — the comments. I posted a comment yesterday as soon as I saw the article go up, and there were no other comments yet. I basically said the same things as are stated above, but with fewer words. I didn't think I was being rude or acting like a moron, but I expected a few people to respond back to me either hating or loving what I said. I checked the site about an hour after I posted the comment — nothing. In fact my comment wasn't even there. I figured maybe it was still waiting to go through moderation. This morning, I checked the site again and there were 7 comments — but not mine. Hmm.

I read through the comments and they're all basically very supportive of the article, but pretty hollow. I figured I wouldn't be the only one to make a statement about not using watermarks, especially with some of the conversations I've seen in various photography forums. One commenter made the suggestion of never posting the original sized photo online, but made no other comment. Good for them! Then another commenter made the following statement in reply to this:

This is VERY dangerous thinking! This completely undermines any protection of your photo. To protect your photo you should make clear it’s copyright status and inform viewers of this.

By not posting in original size you make it harder to show the original is indeed yours and that it is properly under copyright.

“protecting” images by making them too small to properly reproduce or by watermarking them does little to protect and simply makes it harder to show off your work.

Posting reduced quality reduced size images and thinking that’s protecting your work is like publishing a novel with words missing!

Let's start at the beginning with this one… calmly. Making the copyright status clear to viewers does not protect your photo in any way. Copyright is inherently yours when you create the work, period. Not posting the original size of the image online does not make it harder to show the photo is yours. The only people you need to prove ownership to are the folks at the copyright office (and a judge if the occasion arises). Even the copyright office doesn't require a full resolution image for registration. You can usually get away with a pretty small image for registration, so long as it represents (without question) the work being registered. And now for my favorite part of the comment, the last sentence. Does this not make sense to anybody else out there? How is downsizing an image like publishing a book with words missing? Wouldn't it be more like publishing a pocket sized book or something?

Aside from the comedy in the comments, I'm a little ticked off that my comment wasn't posted (I'm assuming) just because I disagreed with the author. Boooo! I thought the main point of the comments section was to allow readers to have a discussion about the topic presented by the author. There's not much of a discussion when everybody agrees with each other and with the author. It's their blog though, and they can do what they want with the comments. I'll try posting another comment with fewer words to see if it goes through.

I promise to never delete a reader's comments just because they disagree with me, but be prepared to defend your comments. I have a lot of respect for writers and bloggers who allow comments that oppose their own thoughts. One such blogger is “Origin” with his blog at Mostly Photography. I posted a comment on his blog where I told him that I totally disagreed with what he was saying. He thanked me for being open about my views and he added my blog to his blogroll. I read his blog every day now.

So, a lesson for you fellow bloggers: Be careful about whose comments you don't post, and why — especially if the commenter has their own blog. If they're passionate about their comment and you don't post it, they're probably going to say it anyways through their own blog, but with more words and less respect for you.

Now that I've set fire to several buildings, let's hear it. Comment away. Just make sure you start the comment with “Great article! I think you're awesome because…” — otherwise I might not post it.