My buddy Jesse and I were recently discussing the issue of online image theft and strategies for attempting to reduce the threat.

Jesse and I are both in the midst of major redesigns of our web sites, and we’re using very large images for display. This increases the potential for theft: an unscrupulous person might want to lift a photo for their own purposes, and larger images provide more potential for reproduction. Since Jesse and I both make our living from our photos, this is a serious concern. The question is how to deal with it.

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

Jesse: OK, I’m REALLY posting big web images. Much larger than I ever have before. What are you doing for watermarking/copyright? I think I may need to plaster a copyright line on these.

Nat: I’ll also be using much larger images than ever before. These could definitely be printed with “decent” quality at 8×10 etc. It’s probably more likely that some folks would take them to use as screen savers/desktop wallpapers.

I think our shared fear is that someone would take an image and claim it as their own, say, in a contest or something.

In these cases, I don’t think that a larger watermark would really be much of a deterrent. To watermark a photo in such a way that nobody would want to take it would also make it horrible to look at.

In the end I think we need to serve our true customers first, and give them an exemplary experience. I like the way Photoshelter deals with it. With the Image Security on, there’s a single pixel gif in a layer above the photo, so people can’t get it with right-click or drag and drop. Of course, somebody could always do a screen capture.

Although we should take SOME measures against theft, it can’t be something we obsess about, and certainly our efforts should not get in the way of the customer experience.

So I’m against large watermarks.

This is a good reminder for me to get my next submission in to the copyright office, though. If someone steals an image and uses it for a commercial purpose at least we can [attempt to] recoup monetary damages.

I’ll do my copyright submission before the public launch of my site.

As photographers, we need to protect our property. But we shouldn’t do this in a way that inhibits our customers from engaging with our products. I will be placing my watermark on every full-size photo, but in a way that doesn’t detract from the viewing experience.

Devious thieves will remain as such; on the internet, there’s no way to completely ensure that somebody won’t steal our stuff. Registering our work at provides some peace of mind, and though it won’t stop somebody from taking a photo, it allows us to sue for monetary damages if we find out about it.

What do you think?

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