FAQ: How Do I Copyright and/or Watermark My Photos?

I have been asked how to copyright photos about a dozen times now, so I thought it might be a good topic for a blog post.

Note: I am in the United States. If you are not, info about copyright laws may not apply. Also, I am not an attorney and this information is not meant to substitute for the advice of an attorney. I am telling you what I have learned, which may or may not be accurate. If you are curious about the law, please see a reputable attorney in copyright law who can advise you far more reliably.

Let’s tease the question apart a bit.

What is a Copyright?

Copyright is, literally, the right to copy something–in this case a photo. As it true for all written work (including this post), all photos are automatically and immediately subject to copyright protection the moment they are published. This is true whether you take any action to copyright your work or not.

This means any time you grab someone else’s photo off a website and share it on Facebook or print it or use it for wallpaper on your iPhone, or whatever, you are guilty of copyright infringement and you could be taken to court and sued.

If you are a photographer who cares about getting paid for your work, this works in your favor.

That said, you are not likely to get enough money if someone infringes on your copyright to make it worth taking them to court unless you have registered your images with the U.S. Copyright office.

As such, if you care or think you might someday care whether people are using your images without your permission, you might want to take a little time to learn about registering your images with the US copyright office. Here is another link that will take you directly to a tutorial on how to submit your images for copyright registration online:  http://copyright.gov/eco/eco-tutorial.pdf

What is a Watermark?

Sometimes people confuse a written copyright statement superimposed over an image with the copyright itself. This is called a “watermark” and looks like this:

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 9.58.02 AM

An image is copyright protected whether it has a watermark or not. The watermark serves only as a reminder to others that this work belongs to someone and they should not use it without permission from the copyright owner.

The Professional Photographers Association recommends including the copyright symbol, year the photo was taken, name of the photographer, and how to contact the photographer in a watermark along with a message such as “all rights reserved.”

While the idea of including contact information sounds good, there are two issues with this.

First, watermarks rapidly start to detract from the image. Some people make them huge and centered on the image, which I find ruins the image to the point I don’t even want to waste my time looking at it. There is a delicate balance between protecting your work and having annoying images no one can see through your watermark.

Second, choosing a way to contact you that will neither make you subject to stalkers nor change in your lifetime (your copyright lasts your lifetime plus 70 years after your death) could be quite tricky. Including a website where your images can be ordered might be a way to keep the watermark smaller but still make it possible for people to obtain the right to use the image.

How to Add a Watermark

If you are going to process a bunch of photos at once, you will want to use software that allows you to add a watermark as part of your normal workflow. I use Aperture, but Lightroom will also allow you to do this.

The first thing you have to do is create an image file to apply as your watermark. The good news is that you only create the image file when you need to change the information it contains (e.g., ©2014 Dianne Blankenbaker would need to be updated each year).

Once you create your watermark image, you then apply the watermark at the time you export your images out of the Aperture library.

The following video demonstrates how to create the watermark in Photoshop CC 2014 and how to Apply it in Aperture 3.4:

Another alternative is to use an app that allows you to add watermarks to images. Some of these work such that you open the image file in the app and then create the watermark for just that one image. Each time you want to watermark an image, you have to repeat the process. This is quite tedious if you are processing large numbers of files and really only works if you watermark images only rarely.

Image Resolution

Additionally, posting low-resolution images can help limit what others do with you work. It’s hard to use a <100KB image, for example, for the wallpaper on a 27” screen–unless you find pixellation appealing. But, it might look OK on the much smaller screen of a smart phone.

As a general rule, the images I post on my website and Facebook are between 100-200 KB. These images full size are 24+ MB–that’s 120-240X bigger than what I’m posting. I sometimes break this rule when I really don’t want an image to start pixellating on a big screen–pixellation looks like this:Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 9.57.51 AM

It’s as annoying as a giant watermark over the center of the image to me–even worse because a low-resolution image can also appear out of focus.

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