Protecting Online Photographs – Watermarking and Copyrighting

There is risk when publishing your images online. Whether you are a professional or just writing a personal blog, there is a chance of theft or, more properly, copyright infringement when someone “borrows” your photographs. It feels horrible. Worse, you might have received some money if your images were used with your permission. However, there are ways to prevent copyright infringement and to encourage people to get your permission to use your photographs.


A watermark is a mark, text or image digitally added to another image. It could be your name, your company logo or company name, a copyright symbol or nearly anything. It should be something that uniquely brands your images. Some watermarks are obvious while others are hidden (much to the chagrin of a thief). Watermarks are used on nearly every banknote and passport. Watermarking is an ancient practice, dating back to at least 13th century Italy. As soon as papermaking started, watermarking became necessary. Cartiere Miliani in Fabriano is credited with the earliest watermark dating 1282 C.E. People are still protecting their paper and electronic works using watermarks.

Watermarking your photographs can be done a number of ways.  The most popular route is to create and add a watermark through a software such as Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. There are plenty of tutorials online to teach how to create and apply watermarks to a single image or batch of images. There are also online services to let you watermark your images (e.g. Watermark-Images). In either case, you customize the watermark. One tricky part of watermarking is choosing the position of the watermark on the images.


Copyrighting is a more legalistic way to protect electronic works than watermarking. According to the United States Copyright Office, it is the “protection provided by the laws of the United States” for “original works of authorship.” This protection is available to both published and unpublished works. The 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do at least the following:

  • reproduce the work (make copies)
  • prepare derivative works based upon the work
  • distribute copies of the work to the public by sale or other means
  • display the work publicly

Copyright gives you control of what happens with any image as long as you own the copyright.

Why would someone use a watermark or copyright their images?  You should ask yourself some questions.

  • Is your work available to the public?
  • Can someone see your pictures?
  • Are your images uploaded to a photo hosting website?
  • Do you have a blog that you post photos to?
  • Do you share your work digitally?
  • Do you get paid for your work?
  • Do you not get paid for your work?
  • Are you using your photographs in this year’s Christmas card?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you need to use a watermark. A watermark can help you prove authorship of your picture which can help you to enforce the copyright in your work.

How do I copyright my work? To copyright your images, you can go about it two ways: the easy, free way or the U.S. way.  According to the Berne Convention (which you should read to better understand what it covers and how it legally protects you), as soon as you press down the shutter on your camera you own the captured image.  The copyright is automatic and instantly yours. You own the copyright of that photograph for a minimum of 25 years (duration of copyright depends on the medium).  The Berne Convention states that people can use your work as long as they credit you with it. The Berne Convention does not ensure you will get paid every time someone else uses your photo. It does not clarify how you are to prove that the photo, if it were to come into question, would be proven as yours.

Registering your work with the U.S. Copyright Office is required to enforce your copyright in your work. You can register your work either online or on paper (the website offers a PDF file for you to download, fill out and mail in). Registering online is much less cumbersome, quicker and provides you with a status tracker. It is also cheaper to file online: only $35 versus $50 for the paper route. You can register a single image or an entire body of published work (Form GR/Pph/CON is needed for a group of published works). Registering your work with the Copyright Office is especially useful for those who sell their work to distributed publications. If in fact someone were to steal or abuse an image, you have the Copyright Office and the power of the United States courts, government and FBI on your side. The Berne Convention is like your angry big brother while the Copyright Office is like being supported by the mafia.


Even if you watermark and register your photographs with the Copyright Office, you still need to discover if someone is using your images or photos. A highly useful tool is TinEye – a reverse image search. It is not your ordinary search engine! You can search by either uploading an image or provide the image’s URL. It is a tense wait while TinEye searches for copies of your image, but you will be happy to get the results. It would be awesome if they had a notification service.