On Watermarks and Preventing Unauthorized Image Use

This evening I stumbled upon an article on another expat's blog dated February 2013 running two of my photographs, without permission and without attribution. This article was listed first under the blog's Top Posts, making it the most-read article on the site. As you might expect, the unauthorized and unattributed use of my images put me right over the edge, and so I put several unkind words to the blog's owner.

The blogger has since replied. He's going to attribute the images, and I am allowing him to continue running the article with the images attached. He also says he's in the process of going through his past entries to update images with attribution where he is able. It sounds like he wants to do the right thing, I don't get the impression he's making a profit on the site (there are no ads), and so I'll make no further fuss about it.

But he should have known better ... Sadly, most bloggers do not.

I am myself partially to blame. The images in question are several years old at this point, and were originally posted to Flickr and to my (now defunct) Korean photoblog sans watermark. While not my best images, they have long been my highest rated images on Flickr -- on account of their content and the seedy nature of Internet users -- and it's not the first time I've seen these particular images bandied about without my permission. The blogger plucked them from a Google Image search, disconnected from attributable source.

At this point, I would like to mention that I am intentionally not identifying the blogger, nor the images in question.

In more recent years I have vouched strongly for watermarks being the best and only sure way of protecting your images from unauthorized use.

  • Whereas metadata can be and often is stripped out of images, watermarks can only be removed by damaging the image.
  • While code-based protection methods -- disabling the browser's right-click, or covering images with transparent pixels to prevent saving -- can very easily be circumvented, watermarks cannot be gotten around.
  • Cropping or retouching an image to remove a watermark can be a real hassle, and that hassle is often discouragement enough to dissuade casual image theft.
  • Watermarks can be used to promote your brand, driving traffic back to your site.

Regarding the last point, I choose to watermark my images with my website's domain, rather than with my name. I know for a fact I am not the only Matthew Campagna with a web presence, so using my domain name ensures that anyone trying to trace an image back to me will land on my website, not on his.

Blah blah blah ...

Several weeks back I had a notion to update my standard watermark, but I filed the idea away for another day. In light of today's events, I've gone ahead with the notion and have now added the words "Copyrighted image, unauthorized use forbidden" to my watermark. This is it:


This to drive home that my images are not Creative Commons, are not released for public use. Interested parties will have my domain right there, so can contact me if they'd like to license my images. In fact, I might go one step further:

"Copyrighted image, unauthorized use forbidden. Licensing available."

Maybe ...

This is what the current version looks like on an image:

Batad, Philippines

Batad, Philippines

This might come off as being a little heavy handed, but I feel it's well within the bounds of good taste, and it adequately communicates that I wish my images not to be used without permission. I definitely feel better, and having now thought of it, I'm a little surprised I've not seen photographers doing this before.

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts about the new watermark, so do comment if you have something to share.

And for those interested in the subject of bloggers and unauthorized image use, Roni Loren's recent Blogger Beware: You CAN Get Sued For Using Photos You Don't Own on Your Blog is an interesting read about a blogger learning her lesson the hard way. I think it should be required reading for anyone starting a blog.

Update. I've revised the watermark, adding the words "licensing available" and increasing the size of the text slightly to accommodate Lightroom's scaling of the watermark when resizing images. Here it is:


Batad, Philippines; updated watermark.

Batad, Philippines; updated watermark.

Update, December 7, 2016.
For more information on trademark and copyright, check out How to Trademark and Copyright, at FirstSiteGuide.com.

12 Responses to “On Watermarks and Preventing Unauthorized Image Use”

  1. Nice reminder Matthew. I like your approach and will work it into the various web sites I have.



    · February 12, 2014 @ 12:39 pm

  2. Richard King says:

    I think you have found the right balance between an unobtrusive and image destroying watermark. Yet making it clear you won’t appreciate unauthorized usage, and still leaving the door open to licensing.

    · February 12, 2014 @ 4:11 pm

  3. Ben says:

    Being ‘croppable’ serves another purpose. If bloggers do crop out images to remove watermarks, then this show wilful intent to ignore your copyright, so provides more ammo to go after them if needed.

    · February 12, 2014 @ 4:12 pm

  4. How do you get your watermark automatically applied?

    · February 14, 2014 @ 12:42 am

    • Matt says:

      I trimmed the image to remove the negative space, then saved the watermark as a PNG file with transparent background.

      In Lightroom, when exporting or publishing images, watermarking options are available in the pre-export dialog. Choose to use a graphic and go from there. In the Web module, watermark options are in the Output Settings control pane. Click the drop-list and select “Edit” to setup your watermark.

      · February 14, 2014 @ 12:58 am

  5. Tim Henrion says:

    Wouldn’t “unauthorized use prohibited” be better than “unauthorized use forbidden”? While its nice that you ‘forbid’ people to use your pictures without authorization, the more important fact is that it is prohibited by law.

    · February 14, 2014 @ 11:01 am

    • Matt says:

      A fine point, sir. You have schooled the English major, and I’m launching Photoshop in 3 … 2 …

      · February 14, 2014 @ 11:56 am

  6. Perry Joseph says:

    Hi Matt

    Just one photographer’s opinion: I think the line about use is overkill. Registering the work with the Copyright office before it is published is the first thing to do. You can register 1000’s of images in one fell swoop for $35. Now you can recover attorney’s fees. It also puts you in an excellent position to use DMCA “takedown” rules. It’s worked for me every time that I can’t otherwise reason with an infringer — even in foreign countries. (I’ve used and use the “don’t do / no-no / prohibited” and other tactics, but most slackers do what they do because they believe they won’t get caught — same mindset as criminals.)

    From a legal standpoint, putting a watermark on the photo is excellent. If the offender removes the watermark, it can be considered “malicious” in the Federal courts and an automatic award for statutory damages rather than argue value.

    So in these terms, I make my watermarks small and hope the images WILL be used for commercial purposes. Many times they are used in mockups for articles, etc., and then I get contacted when they’re ready to license the image.

    I used to believe in limiting access and extra warnings. Now I’m in the opposite camp and am making more money as a result. Register and watermark — just don’t ruin the image with a big distracting watermark. I typically run the opacity as far down as 30% for my watermarks. As long as the Judge can see it, I don’t care — I just don’t want it to be a distraction.

    Like I said, just one photographer’s opinion. I am not an attorney.

    · February 14, 2014 @ 6:03 pm

  7. Jeff M says:


    Not enough. You need to put the watermark dead centre 25% opacity or more and much bigger. Down there in the corner is no good.

    · February 20, 2014 @ 10:43 am

  8. James Herman says:

    Good point and I have created a graphic copyright watermark image. The issue I discovered is that when using Publisher, updating the Pages site, AI templates and the Gallery templates followed by republishing does not result in the new watermark appearing on updated images.

    I discovered on a search of the TTG support Forum that the trick is to ‘right click’ the TTG CE3 Publisher service and edit. Near the bottom select the new watermark and Publisher will ask if you want to apply to all and republish or to only new. Remember, if you are like me with more than one Publisher service, you need to change them all.

    It appears that the watermark setting in AI and Galleria are only applicable for export and manual upload and for all Publisher managed galleries the Publisher settings are active.

    · February 25, 2014 @ 6:48 am

  9. ROb Walling1 says:

    Interesting article. I have been following a webpage trying to deal with this issue in a proactive way as it would appear that there are not only bloggers “stealing” images but there are also “photographers” stealing images and then using them to bolster their own portfolios. I think that it is definitely worth a look


    · March 4, 2014 @ 8:35 am

  10. jon miller says:

    Yep, totally agree one must watermark their images. Also, the one you used is perfect it does not take away anything from the image.

    · March 11, 2014 @ 4:56 pm

Comments are now closed.


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