How to Protect Your Work with Digital Watermarks

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If your design work is out there on the internet, everybody can see it—or steal it. But fear not, for the digital watermark can save you! Stamp your images with a logo, wordmark, or both using any number of apps, including some you might already have. But whether you use visible or invisible digital watermarks, you need to learn how to protect your work using them, and about the pros and cons of using them. And keep in mind that during this day and age of social media and online sharing, you might not need digital watermarks.

The Watermark, Then and Now

Paper-based watermarks pre-date digital watermarks. Fine paper, such as high quality paper or paper with significant value, can include a mark that is visible, tactile, or both visible and tactile. At first glance, the mark may be invisible but turning the paper at a certain angle or holding it up to the light reveals the mark. You can find watermarks on important documents or materials to help prevent against counterfeiting, such as on currency. The U.S. Currency Education Program has an interactive site showing not only watermarks, but also other features such as security ribbons and color-shifting ink. In addition to acting as a security measure, watermarks can also be a part of an organization’s branding, with their logo or wordmark appearing on stationery and paper.

At first glance, this sheet of paper looks plain, with a continuous white surface.

But you can see the watermark when holding it up to the light.

Methods such as the dandy roll and cylinder mould processes have been used to render watermarks. Other methods that leave behind an impression, such as embossing, can even be used. Like paper-based watermarks, digital watermarks are intended to provide protection. They can be visible and placed over imagery or they can be invisible, embedded within a file’s metadata. The Federal Geographic Data Committee likens metadata to a library catalog record, with metadata including “the who, what, when, where, how, and why of a data resource.”

Sophisticated digital watermarks live in metadata, and go beyond merely stamping your image with a logo or wordmark. Digimarc has been a leader in digital watermarking methods and tools, and offers solutions for small and large businesses, including the ability to track how visual assets get used. The Digimarc plugin is available for Photoshop as a free download. InDesign also has digital watermarking capabilities.

Using Adobe Photoshop with Digimarc.

Adobe’s Photoshop and Lightroom both provide methods for rendering digital watermarks, including the use of Digimarc copyright protection. At the most basic level, you can overlay a graphic, typography, or a combination of the two in order to “stamp” an image.

With Adobe Lightroom you can overlay text on top of images.

Not only can you use Photoshop or other Adobe software for digital watermarking, but you can also use Apple’s Preview, Microsoft Word or PowerPoint, or even a mobile app such as Over.

Where and When Watermarks Matter

Andrew Novialdi, graphic designer and lettering artist, has used digital watermarks over the years. He places them on his work and they’re visible in images on his digital, online portfolio with a logo always appearing in the bottom-right. “I used to put a watermark only on the lower right corner of every image. But they were so easy to be cropped,” said Novialdi.

An example of Andrew Novialdi’s work with his logo and name in the lower right.

While that logo has what he calls “standard placement,” he’ll also incorporate a digital watermark as a visual overlay. “The watermark only appears on certain images… and the placement of it is adjusted to fit each image. The visibility of it is also adjusted case by case. The main idea is to keep it subtle, but place it overlapping other elements so that it would be tedious if someone wanted to clone stamp it out.”

Andrew Novialdi’s work with a watermark overlay in the center, and his name and logo in the lower right. Bottom image enlarged for detail.

Interested in having the digital watermark work with the image, not against it, Novialdi says, “…sometimes, I skewed the watermark to fit the perspective view of the image.” Novialdi does not put that overlapping digital watermark on every single image on his website, but just, what he calls, “the beauty shots.”

A digital watermark overlay by Andrew Novialdi that matches the image perspective. Bottom image enlarged for detail.

He does something else that goes beneath the surface. “In addition to the watermark, I also put a transparent shield overlaying every image. So a Save As Image would only grab the transparent.” Most recently, he disabled Save As Image preventing users from downloading anything at all. Taking things even further, he’s added copyright metadata as much as he can. But despite all of these steps, Novialdi has had the unfortunate experience of having his work taken and used, all without credit and without payment. He still finds the entire experience unfortunate, and believes that watermarking or not, if a person really wants to get something, they’ll do it no matter what.

Digital Watermarking, Lessons Learned

If and when somebody steals your work for their own uses—with or without it containing a watermark—consider reaching out to the person who took it. That’s what Amanda and Alan Altman did. Amanda Altman, principal of A3 Design, Inc. in New York, recounted the story, saying, “One time someone published one of Alan’s business cards on his Behance page as his card, but he did such a horrible job because the image of Alan’s card he used was directly off of our website (an older version) and the guy never even photoshopped Al’s name off of it! So, me just calling him out on it was enough for him to take it down.” Even with this happening to the wife and husband design team, Amanda is skeptical of digital watermarks. “I’m not sure I believe it is necessary… watermarking our design takes away from the equity of the design (in my opinion).”

Another wife and husband team, Anne Jordan, a graphic designer specializing in book covers, and Mitch Goldstein, assistant professor at RIT, have also “never watermarked” any work. Like the Altmans, Jordan and Goldstein feel a watermark gets in the way. But what if a client asked for a digital watermark? Jordan and Goldstein said, “If a client felt very strongly about protecting design assets we have created but needed them to be distributed in a public way (perhaps to shareholders or a board of directors) we would happily watermark at their request.”

When Jordan and Goldstein notice digital watermarks on work by another designer or studio, it doesn’t change their perception of them or their work. “It’s totally up to them and we don’t pass any judgment on the decision to watermark. It’s just not something that we feel we need to do with our own work.” But according to them, there is one audience that does feel strongly about these matters. “Some students get very worked up about having their work online and essentially out of their control, but we remind them that literally everybody else who has ever posted work online is in the same boat. We also suggest they go look at the work of designers they admire—then we ask them how much of that work is watermarked. The answer is very little. This helps to alleviate students’ fears.” Although Jordan and Goldstein don’t talk about digital watermarking in classes with their students, they do cover Creative Commons. “If students use an image created by someone else, they must credit the artist just as they would credit a quotation in a written paper. Plagiarism of visual work is never acceptable.”

On the Mark, or Off the Mark?

Ultimately, whether or not you use digital watermarks is up to you. But if you do incorporate them, consider the following:

  • make sure the watermark does not interfere or get in the way of the image, don’t want to blemish the work
  • with digital watermarks that are visible, consider testing variants on your website or your portfolio, posting images with watermarks and some without
  • get feedback from others about the watermarks you use, and consider testing different layouts among your audience
  • when you find one that works, use it consistently across all of your work
  • if you’re worried about people downloading your images, especially hi-res versions, disable right-click throughout your website
  • if you’re very concerned about theft, embed an invisible watermark on images with Digimarc or other tools, and look at how to register a © symbol, for copyright, in the image itself and its filename
  • continue to educate yourself by reading more about watermarking tools and also how the DMCA, Digital Millennium Copyright Act, can assist with protecting your content

Using and designing your own digital watermark can be a personal decision, or a corporate one. If you’re at an agency, studio, or in-house at a large company, you may have to use digital watermarking. In which case, follow your organization’s guidelines and brand standards. In some cases, you may have to get any and all images and their digital watermarks approved by your organization’s legal department before publishing the images online.

For studios and agencies, freelancers and consultants—and especially students—what’s most important is that you get your work online with or without a digital watermark. Not sharing it, and not posting your work online could be the biggest mistake you make, according to Jordan and Goldstein. “We live in a public, shareable, searchable world, and trying to get around that is futile and sometimes can make it much more difficult to get work. If you’re not willing to post your work online, you will have a much harder time getting work.”

In addition to watermarks, how else can you protect your work online? Check out “5 Easy Ways to Protect Your Work Online” by Callie Budrick for some additional measures. And to learn even more, enroll in HOW Design University’s Intellectual Property Rights for Designers course today.

The Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom images are courtesy of Adobe, and are used here with permission.

A special thank you to Andrew Novialdi for reaching out to the author and instigating a discussion about digital watermarks that became the basis for this story.