There’s a minor change I’m rolling out to the blog and my online sites — I’m updating the way I publish my images to include a new watermark and to include the logo I started using a few months ago on my site. This also allows me to standardize how I publish and display images on both my blog, twitter and Google+, where before, it was a mishmash of sizes and watermarks and information. (I am rolling this out to flickr as we speak. I’ll be using a slightly different one on SmugMug, since I need it to be added by SmugMug so it won’t show up on prints).
Here’s the new look:
Depending on the service I was uploading everything from 600 pixels long to 2400 pixels, using any of four different watermarks. Keeping all that straight was practically speaking impossible, and if I updated an image, it was rough getting everything back in sync. None of my watermarks used my new logo and branding I rolled out a few months ago, and some were dated, the oldest one still showing 2012. In other words, a mess.
I’ve standardized on 1200pixels long for the image size (‘long’ means whichever edge is longer, with the short side sized to whatever aspect ratio the image is made with). I’m not currently planning on going back and ‘fixing’ existing images that are already online somewhere, but I’ll be using this from now on, and I might do some strategic updates along the way.
The new export format uses a photo border frame. Yes, I know this is controversial with some. Mine’s been designed to be minimally invasive with only a bit of my new logo encroaching onto the image as a watermark. I also know, because I’ve heard from some of you already, that this is not a popular decision.
Here’s why I did this: image sharing is not going away. I’ve always encouraged sharing, because I see that as potentially useful marketing and frankly, you’re not going to stop it even if you try. Better to learn to take advantage of it rather than tilt at this windmill any longer — instagram, pinterest and all of the social sites where this stuff is passed around aren’t going to go away.
The problem, though, is that when these things are shared, the attributions are lost. No pleading, screaming, yelling, threatening or whining will get the casual image sharer to remember to (or bother to) stick attribution onto an image, and the sites built around sharing have never figured out a way to make it happen automatically in any usable way. EXIF? That’s magic bits 99% of the population has never heard of and never will, so assuming anyone will look in there is a bad bet — but you need to put it in there anyway because that’s an aspect if piracy protection. and note that sharing and piracy are different issues, even though both involve copies of your image.
So if you want attribution on your image, you have to put it there in a way that travels with the image when it’s shared. Photographers have been trying variations of this for a long time with transparent or semi-transparent watermarks (as I have, of course), and I’ve simply come to the conclusion that (a) they don’t work well, and (b) they invariably interfere with the quality of the image to some degree, which seems really ass-backward to what we as photographers want to be doing, which is showing the image off, not damaging it to try to stop something we can’t stop.
Either the watermark is so faint and indecipherable it serves no useful purpose for attribution, or it’s so visible and blatant it damages the image. Neither of these is acceptable to me.
So I’ve gone to using the border, and I’ve put my attribution info in there. I’ve tried to design mine to be minimally intrusive, using a color that I feel is compatible with my images without clashing or calling attention to itself. The logo intrudes into image itself just enough that someone can’t crop the frame off the image trivially, which is not to stop piracy, but to help prove it — you won’t stop a pirate, but you want to be able to show that they made a conscious act to do the piracy, whether by cropping off the identification info or by photoshopping out the watermark. But the new intrusion into the image, while not as transparent, is only about 15% of the size of my old watermark, and placed in an area where I almost never have ‘interesting’ content in an image.
I have found that the transparent watermarks do zero for helping someone find your site when they see a shared image; I’ve long believed they do nothing to inhibit casual or intentional piracy, either — the fact is, give me an image with your watermark, and in 5-10 minutes, I can probably remove it well enough to make your image publishable. don’t believe me? Play with one of your watermarked image in photoshop with content aware patching and see what happens.
So the whole idea of watermarks as a piracy prevention tool is a failed idea, and has been for a while, unless you make your watermark blatant and intrusive enough that you effectively destroy the image. If you do that, it’ll stop piracy, but not because of the watermark, but because the image is now ugly and nobody wants it. Not exactly how I want to promote my photography online.
I think photographers need to think about how to enable the sharing ecosystem in a way that you can take advantage of — and the only way I can see that does that while leaving the quality and integrity of the image intact is to do go the border. At the same time, I understand how a massive and complicated frame can overwhelm an image and damage a user’s reaction to it, so I think you need to keep it small and simple.
And that’s what I’ve done: my name, my web site, a copyright sigil, and my logo. Saying you see reshares of your images as free marketing only works if you get marketing from them, and the old setup I used did nothing. It was a lost opportunity.
So I’m going to try this, use it for six months or so, and evaluate the reaction and whether I see any changes to how people find my site or react to my images. And if it works, I’ll keep it. If it doesn’t, I’ll try something else.
I do think the day of the transparent watermark is long gone, and photographers need to realize that. So are the days when you can pretend you can prevent copying or sharing of images across the multitude of sites that encourage and enable it. It’s not going away, you should find ways to take advantage of it rather than fight it. And so that’s what I’m trying to do.
But… What about piracy?
I see piracy as a different thing than the sharing ecosystem. I realize some of you feel that any use of an image without someone paying you is piracy, and if you want to keep fighting that fight, good luck. I think that ship has long sailed and is well over the horizon. The sharing ecosystem isn’t going anywhere, adn you can’t stop it. I think you’re wasting time and resources — and stress — if you try. Things that should be productively put to other purposes.
Piracy is another issue, and my definition of piracy is someone who uses your images against your stated wishes and receives something of value in that use. That can be a publication that uses it without paying you a publication fee, but it can also be using it on a web site without attribution and instead of an image that should have been bought through stock (or wherever). My commitment to sharing my online images via Creative Commons (they still are licensed using the non-commercial attribution license) hasn’t changed, the excuses about not understanding about attribution have gone away because it’s now hardwired into the image.
You remove the attribution, you’re in violation of the license. It’s that simple.
For what it’s worth, I long ago realized that watermarks and their cousins do nothing to stop image piracy, so if you’re designing your watermarks to stop that, please stop. You’re doing it wrong, and it isn’t working. What watermarks do is give you an objective factual thing that helps you prove that someone took a conscious act to pirate the image — proving willful violation instead accidental.It gives them fewer excuses when you lawyer up on them. And you don’t need to destroy an image to do that. The the frame and logo I’m using, there’s enough information that if someone does a crop and patch, I’ll be able to prove it in court. That’s what matters for a case of commercial piracy.
The executive summary
So, in summary, here’s why I’m doing this:
- Finding a way to work with the sharing ecosystem instead of fighting it
- Make sure my attribution and contact info doesn’t get lost and when image gets shared, because nobody else will take the time to do it.
- Keep the image the most important thing, not the marketing or the watermark.
- Maintain the integrity and quality of the image
- Understand I’m not going to stop commercial piracy, but give myself the data I’d need to prove that violation was a conscious action and not accidental.
I think the new format is the best way I know how to handle the compromises implied by all these things today. Maybe I’ll learn from this and improve it over time. Maybe it’ll fail miserably and I’ll try something else. But if you don’t keep trying new things and exploring options and opportunities, you fail by standing still as everything moves around you and leaves you behind.
I’m curious your thoughts on this. Let me know what you think.