Respecting Artwork (Watermarks & Copyright)

This is a drum I beat in all my classes.  I know a lot of well meaning friends who I’ve had to talk to myself about displaying my artwork without proper credit.  I know it doesn’t seem like a big deal, and I may be alone in my vehemence, but things are different than they were 20 years ago–digital and social media has changed the game a LOT.  In the last two weeks I’ve had FOUR former students and a two photo professional friends give me very recent accounts of when someone has used their work inappropriately, so I figured I might explain this from a professional artist’s point of view.  And if you aren’t sure why you should read this lengthy article, I say skip to the end and read the last sentence–If you are an artist or you know, love, or care about an artist, it’s worth considering.

For a sculptor, any kind of 3-D artist, the issue isn’t *quite* so pressing because a recording isn’t the same as the work in reality (though it still isn’t legal, or even nice…unless the artist states otherwise).  But for a 2-d artist, your work can be copied IN ENTIRETY if photographed.  I have a friend I love take a photograph of a painting of mine and put it on facebook–my name was mentioned in the comments below, but I still had to ask him to take it down. Why?  Because it was a public post, and anyone could reshare that image…without his comments, and thus without my name.  Suddenly that work is out there being shared without due credit.  It could be recopied and used for memes, tshirts, postcards, screensavers…all without me getting a red cent.

This happens even more often with photography–on facebook, instagram, pintrest…People think photography is a word-of-mouth kind of business; it’s not.  Not really.  You might get a referral for a wedding by a previous client, but you know what that other person does before they call you?  They look at your work.  People decide on whether they want you based off your images.  I’ve gotten jobs based off of someone seeing my published work online and loving the style. So if you have an image that gets reshared three thousand times on instagram, it does you no good if your name isn’t on the image–no one will know to hire you!

Here’s an article of another artist who went through just that.

A lot of non-professional artists think “well, the work is being shared, isn’t that what’s important? Your work is inspiring the masses”  Maybe if you ONLY make art for the love of it. But if you rely on it or even consider relying on it in the future to pay some of your bills, you need to be able to direct where your image goes, and be able to take credit so you can possibly get new clients.  Comments or links aren’t enough, because they are easily removed with the next re-post.  I add my name as a watermark on each of my images–that way even if it is reused, my name will always be copied with it–I don’t rely on just comments or captions.

copyright vs cc icons
Sometimes the information is stored in the metadata of the file. All photographers can add this in Lightroom, Bridge, or Photoshop.

Now, I’ve seen people crop watermarks out of images. Please don’t.  It destroys the composition that the artist designed (as does your own color filters on images, ahem).  It also destroys the possible connections the artists may make with future clients.  With the rise of Instagram and the like I’ve seen comic artists have their work reused by other people who erase their original signature and put on their own, or cover it up with a clever caption, which is seriously shady.  I’ve also heard of models of photographers, who are given a copy to use as a portfolio example, trying to publish the images themselves in magazines or in exhibitions.  That’s plagarism, and technically theft.  And again, a model might not understand the value of the image–most non-artists don’t realize that many galleries or magazines that might select the work have rules about first right usage (fnasr).  So if a model publishes it somewhere else, suddenly the artist (read owner) cannot use their own image!

If you’re an artist, I highly suggest you always be as professional as possible–meaning you write a contract with each sale or each person you share images with, even if you are best buddies, to make sure the rules are clear.  There may still be hiccups, but you’ve clearly communicated with the other party, and it reduces the need for damage control. I know it seems awkward, handing a friend your contract, but you are really extending the same courtesy to your friends you would to anyone else.  Calling up someone who has misused an image is never fun, either. You may worry about how you are perceived, but here’s the most important thing: if you don’t respect your artwork for what it’s worth, how can you ever expect anyone else to?   

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2 thoughts on “Respecting Artwork (Watermarks & Copyright)

  1. THIS. EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS!!! Thank you for this, it’s a necessary thing in this day and age with the technology that we all use to share our work. <3

    1. You betcha. ;) When I was a photo assistant 20 years ago, photographers were a little more laid back because they had the negatives, and scanners were pretty awful. They didn’t really impress the idea of copyright strongly because the possible infringement was very limited. But a lot of people in my generation didn’t get that copyright education and that laid back attitude has become the norm…at the same time social media exploded and art/photo use trends shifted, like music did. Now with newspapers and ad companies firing full time photographers, even more reason to retain your image control, since it’s now a gig economy, yeah?

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