A Flickr Rant! – Copyrights and Watermarks

For most people the internet is now an essential part of their work day and their social life, for others it is a place to look at videos and pictures of cats and for some it’s a means to vent their anger about other people’s videos, opinions or just their own lives. I’ve been writing this blog now since November and I think I’ve earned the right to get something off my chest whilst sticking to a photographic theme. The “Twitter rant” has become an accepted phenomena, but I’m introducing what may be more aptly deemed a “Flickr rant”!

My gripe is about “watermarking” photos. For those of you who have not come across it, watermarking is the act of stamping your name or website directly onto your images. I first discovered this tendency when scouring Flickr for inspiration for my own photography, but it was only when I starting writing this blog that my annoyance of this trend. I would find photographers that I really liked and try to post their images on my site with a view to commending their work, only to find that their name and web address was plastered across the middle of their image. Others had set their restrictions on Flickr to disable downloading and sharing of their content, making writing a blog an infuriating process. Consequently I quickly turned my attention instead to those photographers willing to share.

Image Copyright © Katie Johnson. All Rights Reserved.
Katie was one of the first people to comment on my blog which is something I really appreciate. Having read her comment I visited Katie's blog and was so disappointed that her fantastic photos were stamped with two watermarks. On this stunning abstract I can't help my eyes being drawn away from the image directly to the text.

This reluctance to share is a trend that has become endemic in our society as a whole and has naturally seeped into the world of photography. The desire to hold onto what is yours is a social phenomenon that has grown as the internet has broken down the traditional boundaries associated with ownership. While many people (myself included) see the internet as a providing an opportunity to disseminate knowledge to enrich the public domain others see it as a means for others to steal their ideas.

A big driver for me when starting this blog was that as an amateur photographer I saw lighting and post processing effects in photographs that I liked, but struggled to find photographers that were forthcoming with how they achieved their effects. When I gained this knowledge myself, I thought I would share in my adventures for the benefit of others. There is no doubt that digital photography has enabled anyone with a camera to achieve photographic effects that would previously be open only to those applying photography as a trade. The resulting threat from amateur photographers seems to unsettle those budding professions seeking to cling hold of the knowledge that might allow others to achieve similar results.

Watermarking photos is a similar symptom of this protective mindset. I can only presume the logic is that “I’ve taken this photo, so why should anyone else be able to use it?”. But in response to that, I’d question what the photographer thinks people are going to use it for. If it was to be used commercially, the Creative Commons licence on Flickr ensures that you are appropriately credited for your work, potentially allowing for wide exposure for your work. Alternatively, if you feel uncomfortable about others using it for commercial gain, you can set a Commons Licence to restrict it being used to these ends.

Sprinting By rachelhogue on Flickr

If the concern is with people printing your images, then upload your images online in a smaller format. Your images can then be enjoyed and shared (and credited), but the resolution not high enough to print.

If the reason watermarking your pictures is for greater publicity by stamping your name or website, I would argue that this has an adverse effect. Perhaps I’m being naïve, but my view is that most people in the online community “play fair”. If they use your pictures, they will provide a credit and perhaps a link. Therefore, the wider the photos are used, the more likely it is that internet users will come back to you to view more of your work. Conversely, if you splash writing over the front of your photo, I would argue that it is unlikely that people will want to disseminate it at all, leaving your exposure as solely reliant on direct hits to your pages.

If there is a lesson to be learnt about sharing, it may come from the music industry. Whilst some artists and record labels have spent millions on legal challenges to bring down piracy (with arguably no long-term gain), others have used the power of the internet to widely spread the word about their work which in turn has resulted in their commercial success. The Arctic Monkeys are a prime example of this publicity model, who routinely gave their music away for free just so people could hear it. When they did release their first album, it became the fastest selling debut album in UK chart history.

The video below nicely sums up the history of copyright law and how it has grown in direct opposition to what it initially set out to promote. It’s 15 minutes long, but well worth the watch if you want a contrary opinion to those voiced by the power of multinational companies and record labels.

In the Flickrverse I always find it refreshing to find users who create textures and layers for others to share. Not only do users such ~Brenda-Starr~ and SkeletalMess allow others to benefit from their work, but they spend their own time and effort making textures for the purpose of enriching the public domain.

There will always be the possibility of internet users using your works without crediting them, or even promoting them as their own. But on the whole, the Flickr community play fair and it benefits because of it. The nature of the internet is such that some won’t, but I believe that these risks are outweighed by the benefits, not only to the public domain, but also to individual photographers wishing to further publicise their work.

I write this entry hoping that it might start some debate! I’  am more than open to the possibility that I am naively unaware of the dangers I am putting myself in but sharing my knowledge and my work. So please leave a comment below with your thoughts about watermarks and copyright. Do you feel that you need to protect your photos, or are you happy for them to be used and shared?

Phew … that’s better!! Thanks for reading.



13 thoughts on “A Flickr Rant! – Copyrights and Watermarks

  1. I see your point. I wonder if many just don’t know how to take advantage of the other options, or worry that they are not secure enough. I am just beginning to post photography, and I do wonder about these issues and have been wondering how to approach it.

    • Thanks for you comment. It may be that most people who choose to ‘protect’ their photos have had bad experiences with the usage of their images, and I do have some sympathy if this is the case. As a new photographer starting out, I would definitely recommend being as open as possible as it is a rewarding feeling having others recognise the quality of your work. If it becomes a problem you can rethink your approach later.

  2. I predominantly watermark my music/gig photography. I do this as I began to get more and more pissed off with walking past venues in my town finding my images used on posters for upcoming gigs etc. Simple as that – got fed up with low-rez, right-click to save, shitty versions of my photography being used. Its not a great advert for my work and it does the band or venue no real favours. Id prefer them to contact me not so much to ask for permission to use it but so that I can supply them with a better version of it which is suitable for their needs !!

    • I think this is a fair point, and I certainly have sympathy with people who have had their images used without reference. Do you provide details with your images about contacting for better quality versions and have you found that people have approached you more as a result, or just stopped using them all together?

      I can see the potential use of restrictions if it helps to initiate a dialogue between the photographer and the party wishing to use your images, but if it solely acts as a restriction for sharing, I’m not sure that anyone benefits.

  3. This is really interesting (and I must also say, a very well-written post). I do find it sad when other bloggers feel they have to deface (in my opinion) their photographs with watermarks. I agree with you that most people on Flickr or who write blogs play fair and provide links to the source of their inspiration – doing so makes your post useful to your readers as they can find out more about a particular photographer/stylist or whoever that interests them.

    Stating your personal policy about the re-posting / re-use of your images on your website or Flickr should be enough. If you find that your policy is disregarded by a certain individual you are well within your rights to ask them to take an image down or (better I feel) add the appropriate credit and link. I have a note on my blog asking others to include a link to the credited source if any photos are re-posted from my site. I also include an email address so I can be contacted directly (I often hear people complaining that they weren’t asked about the use of their images when they provide no way for anyone wishing to do so to get in touch). I also display the ‘link with love’ logo: http://linkwithlove.typepad.com/ – meaningless in itself but I hope the odd person might click, read and give more thought to the issue.

    Another point that might be interesting to add to this discussion is that stylists have no rights attached to their images. Despite the fact that they often have just as much hand in the creation of a beautiful fashion, food or interiors image the law makes no provision for them to benefit from the resale or receive credit for their work. Interesting when the photographer and writer of the very same feature would have copyright and intellectual property protection. This is the legal stance and industry standard.

    As a (sometimes) stylist, I’d be interested in photographers’ views on this…

    • The stylist issue is an interesting point for discussion.

      The way digital photography copyright law is written gives ownership to what essentially is a string of computer code which relates to a pixilated representation of the light which hits an image sensor. The law then gives the rights to the person who pressed the shutter.

      Obviously the skill and the art lies in the composition of a photograph. As such a stylist is as equally responsible for the creation of the final product as the person that presses the shutter. But I would question a change in legislation to deal out more ownership rights to wider contributors.

      Yes, it makes more sense to protect the skill involved in creating a photo, but if I frame a certain shot of the Eiffel Tower which is groundbreaking, should I be able to claim copyright for taking a picture from that angle? Arguably, this would make more sense than the existing law and worryingly this is the kind of logic which is extending the reach of intellectual property.

      As the video embedded in my post suggests, copyright law has developed on the basis of capitalist sentiments and has spiralled to a position where giving stylists rights to a shot would seem logical. But where would you stop? Would you give the assistant who holds the reflector or makes the tea copyright for their role in the shot?

      The theory behind copyright protection was lost a long time ago and the introduction of the internet has sent intellectual property spiralling out of control. I think the ideas behind what intellectual property law is setting out to achieve needs to be rethought, but unfortunately, those with the power to lobby for a rethink have a vested interest in spreading the reach of the law to protect their ‘assets’.

  4. Heres the way I see it – bear in mind I dont use stylists, make up people or any other assistants apart from maybe my wife holding a lens from time to time. I press the shutter therefore the image is mine as far as Im concerned. As I mentioned above Ive been burned many a time with photos going ‘astray’ and being used to websites, posters and flyers etc. So much so that I now place a simple watermark across the centre of my image – not as much I think as to completely ruin the shot but enought for me to recognise it as mine and to hopefully deter anyone from using the low rez version. Im in the process of replacing other larger watermarked versions from a more paranoid time with the less obstusive versions. Im not trying to justify what I do – Im way past that – I just do what I do and if it hacks other photographers off then so be it – its not intentional, for me based on past experience its a neccessity. I try not to do it with any shots other than music/gig and again those that are will be replaced by less paranoid versions.

    “If for any reason you would like to use any of my images for publication in print or online please contact me at houdi68@gmail.com I dont bite although I have and will if you steal. Im sure we can come to some arrangement.”

    The above statement appears along with a fairly bog standard copyright blurb on both my flickr and wordpress sites. Theyre polite and straight to the point so anyone ignoring them is just bloody rude but me expecting that to stop people the ‘right-click’ brigade would be naive and as Ive said this is from past experience – once bitten etc. Hope thats not too ranty and/or rambly and makes some sense of why I do things the way I do………..


  5. I see you posted my abstract from yesterday. I put watermarks, as I’m a professional, and I want to discourage people from using my work without permission. People do use my photos without notifying me or giving me credit, and to be honest, it’s quite frustrating, as I put a lot of money, time (decades), effort, education, and my own creativity into my work.

    So my watermark in the lower left is there so people can see it’s my work, and the one in the middle is lighter, but still, it might be kind of hard for people to Photoshop it out, so it’s there.

    I purposely keep my watermarks in the middle of the photo lighter, so they aren’t so distracting, but I don’t want people not to notice them at all. I don’t think they totally distract from the image either. I’ve seen lots of photographer’s who put their mark even bigger, and I do find it distracting, but they are welcome to do it.

    I’m sorry you don’t see our point in the watermarking. Everyone is free to have their own opinion, of course.

    • Hi Katie, thank you so much for taking the time to reply.

      I do understand the thought behind watermarking, but I’m not sure that you are achieving it by using this method. What you want is for others not to be making money from images you’ve taken the time to create. But there are few (if any) commercial sources who would use your images without proper payment or a reference. The few that might use your images incorrectly probably hold no influence or respect in the commercial, photographic or wider internet community. If this is the case then what is the worst that can come from them indulging in these practices? Although it might be frustrating to see others not referencing properly it shouldn’t cause you any concern as they are unlikely to be directly having an adverse effect on your business.

      I would suggest that those who allow this small minority to effect the way they conduct their business are actually having the opposite effect of what they set out to achieve and are reducing the exposure they might otherwise enjoy.

      I understand that this is a different way of thinking, but I think the origins of the now commonplace discomfort at other people using our images (or wider works) stems from the way that copyright law has developed over the years rather than a rational reasoning of what we are trying to achieve (a view explained nicely in the embedded video).

      I was hoping that you might find your way back to my post Katie, as I think this demonstrates a point. I assume that you saw referrers who had clicked on your image on my post? If so, then hopefully this demonstrates the potential good that might come from being more open and that hopefully it might outweigh the harm.

      Thanks again,


    • Hi Houdi,

      I’m really glad you shared this link with me as I think it perfectly illustrates the point I was trying to make in my post.

      If Noam Galai’s photo hadn’t been adopted, reworked and distributed (I personally hate the use of the word “stolen” when it comes to copyright!), he might just be like one of the millions of photographers on Flickr who gain no recognition for their work. Instead, by others reusing his image it has become iconic, he has had numerous news articles written about him, he has a focus for his website and is even selling merchandise in his own online shop!

      The fact that others took his work and reworked it into their own hasn’t had a detrimental effect to the income he makes from photography, far from it, it has acted to make him and his image famous.

      Yesterday I posted my own pop-art mash-up made from artwork I took photos of in the Tate Modern (http://wp.me/p1WRPp-9E). I exercised the creativity that I have, hopefully to make something that others will enjoy. However I did so using images by Lichtenstein and Warhol. Does this amount to “stealing”?

      The irony of course is, that if my use of these works does amount to stealing, then we should ask where Roy Lichtentein got his idea for “Whaam!” from. The answer being that it was taken straight from the pages of a comic book. Similarly, the most iconic of pop-art images, Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, were screen prints of a label designed by another artist.

      My opinion (and this may be controversial in this day and age), is that art and music shouldn’t be driven by money, but created for the enjoyment of the artist and the audience. If artists are good enough to make a living out of doing what they love, then that’s fantastic, but creating art with profit as the goal, will only serve to stifle the creativity and enjoyment of others.


  6. I thought Id just throw that in there as I just watched it on television and found it interesting. His scream photo is not the sort of thing I would watermark in my online portfolios. The bit in the film which equates to my experience the most though was when he found his work on the cover of a book and being credited to someone else. Thats gotta suck !!

    Once again Ill say that I watermark my gig and promo shoots only for the most part. Thats driven by past bad experiences with musicians, venues and promoters taking liberties. Most music photographers I know do the same – now before someone jumps on that to disagree the key part to that statement is “I know”. It may me different elsewhere – I only know what I know. This has been interesting 🙂

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