Creative work is among the most casually stolen things in the world – yet protecting your designs is simple…

Did you pay for this magazine, or did you pick it up, slip it into your coat and hope no one would notice? If you did steal it, do you think such behaviour is acceptable? Probably not, but would you feel as strongly if the ‘product’ happened to be a digital image you’d used without permission?

From the creative’s point of view this is straight-out theft, but from the user’s perspective it’s ‘fair game’ – after all, the work is out there, already published on a Web site, so what’s the harm?

The harm is that the creative – who makes their living out of design – doesn’t get paid, and design and designers are discredited and devalued. But what can you do if this happens to you?

Quite a lot, according to the law, but you have to be proactive. Here are a few simple pointers on protecting work, licensing it properly, and chasing copyright offenders.

Compress it
If posting artwork or photographs to a Web site, don’t upload high-resolution versions – these can easily be downloaded and printed off. Resize images to 72dpi. Flatten the image, and use ‘Save for Web’ in Photoshop to compress it.

This won’t stop people stealing the image and using it on Web sites, but it does mean it can’t be printed at any useful size. This is because printed images are printed at 300dpi. A four-inch Web picture at 72pi becomes a one-inch image when printed off – which is pretty useless, unless you are printing stamps.

Add metadata
You should add metadata – embedded text information – to all digital files. In Photoshop and Illustrator it is accessed through File > Info. This uses the International Press Telecommunications Council (IPTC) standard for metadata and allows users to enter captions, names, keywords and other information in a standardized way.

The information is embedded in the file using XMP (eXtensible Metadata Platform), which means it can be read by other programs, not just the one that made it.

You should put copyright data in all your images. It’s also a good place to put your contact details – that way you make it harder for unlicensed users to claim “we couldn’t get in touch”.

Visual watermarking
All your design work should carry a watermark. This can either be visible or invisible. Photo libraries often use a visible watermark to protect their low-resolution images online.

The name of the company is emblazoned across the image in see-through type. Don’t simply stamp the corners of your images – these can be easily cropped out or masked. Go for your full name across the whole image.

Various programmes can do this for you (for example Or you can do it in Photoshop: type ‘copyright your name’ across the image and put the opacity down to 20 per cent. Flatten the image before releasing it.

Invisible watermarking
Invisible watermarking is just that – you can’t see it. It is not metadata that can be stripped out and changed. Simply ‘Saving for Web’ in Photoshop for example, will remove all the carefully entered metadata unless you instruct it not to.

Instead it is a digital signal embedded into the data of the photograph. It is robust, and, it is claimed, will not change when the image is cropped or resized.

The beauty of this type of watermarking is it can be used to track your images. MyPictureMarc for example includes a Web-crawler that tracks watermarked images and reveals what sites they are on.

Digital watermarks like these can be embedded in video as well as stills. The downside to invisible watermarking is the cost. The MyPictureMarc service from DigiMarc for example costs from a basic $79 a year for 1,000 images to $499 a year for up to 5,000 images including picture tracking.

Watermarking is one of the last steps in workflow: process the image, flatten it, watermark it and then release it.

Licensing for freelancers
What you create as a freelance designer is yours. When you sell it to an editor or agency, you traditionally sell a licence to use it. That licence can be for anything from one-off use in the UK to multiple use globally for several years.

In general, clients want designers to sign over as many rights as possible as cheaply as possible. A designer’s perfect world is where they get paid for each and every use of their design: a new fee each time the design is used online, on TV, in print, and so on.

A client’s perfect world is where the designer assigns ‘all rights for ever’ for a one-off fee. Most licensing tussles happen as designer and client are forced meet in the middle. Wherever possible, do not hand over copyright – do not ‘assign your rights’.

Ask the client what they want to use your design for, and negotiate a fee for that ‘single use’. If you do assign all rights, then typically you should charge at least four times the single-use fee. If the design is used outside the contract, you are within your rights to pursue the client for more money.

Licensing for staff
This is simpler. What you create while in the employ of the company, the company owns. If you are contracting for an agency, then make sure you understand what claim the company will make to your work. If you are not happy handing over rights, discuss it and get the agreement in writing.

Chasing copyright thieves
If you think pursuing clients for misuse of digital files sounds like a pipedream, then think again. Photographer David Hoffman ( spent two evenings in February 2006 tracing unlicensed use of his photographs online.

By the end of the year he had recovered more than £27,000 in fees from seven major Web sites, including several councils and a broadcaster. “Every sale must have a clear licence limiting the use permitted,” he says.

“Send nothing out without an accompanying document stating your terms and conditions. Without these basic professional precautions you’re cutting off any moves to recover the fees due.”

Hoffman used Google Images and to find his images. He searched on his name and subject matter. He made electronic and print copies of all illegally used images.

After discounting “mad personal Web sites”, he then approached only the UK sites – “The US have their own system of copyright and it’s a total pain,” he says – and requested payment.

Some sites, like one of the councils, hid behind obfuscating emails and removed the images. With his electronic papertrail he exposed their cheek, and got his cheque. If you think that’s a success story, Getty Images is an even bigger one.

The company has a team of people using similar techniques, as well as digital fingerprinting to track unlicensed images.

Jonathan Lockwood, Getty’s vice president corporate counsel, told Digital Arts it collects “several million dollars of revenue globally each year from image misuse”.

The future
Hoffman traced his unlicensed images the old fashioned way – a sort of search and destroy method based on searching on key words associated with the image.

“If you find a suspect image yourself you don’t need a watermark to know it’s yours,” says Hoffman. Indeed, watermarking is, he argues, “pretty useless. It’s easily removed, even by accident.” And Web crawlers he dismisses as “rubbish”.

However, technology does have its part to play, and the future lies in systems – PicScout is one – that make a mathematical algorithm from the image and search the Web for a match.

Nick Galvin, archive director at Magnum Photos London, says, such technology is “working and proven”. But, he adds, “It’s in its infancy and so is very expensive.”

Companies charge an annual subscription, charge to search and also take a cut of fees recovered from unlicensed images. With increased economies of scale though, expect this type of technology to be available to the masses in the not too distant future.

Preserving metadata in Photoshop

‘Saving for Web’ in Photoshop is used by many photographers and designers to streamline their workflow when producing work to display online. The benefit of this approach is that colour is corrected and file size reduced in one easy action.

Unfortunately, however, this way of working also strips out all of that file’s metadata. Adobe has reasons for this (“images can be copied by screengrab – and that leaves all the metadata behind anyway,” is one) but most photographers would like to have the option at least of preserving it.

A workaround is:
1. With your RGB image open in Photoshop, push the ‘Edit in ImageReady’ button;
2. Select 2-Up to display optimized images;
3. In the Optimize palette window select Options;
4. Tick the Metadata box and click Settings;
5. In the pop up box, select ‘Add XMP Metadata’, click OK; and
6. Select File > Save Optimised As…, name the file and hit Save. Now, when you open the file in Photoshop, the metadata is preserved. While you’re at it, stick on a visible watermark.

Tips to protect your digital images

  • Only use low-res images on Web sites
  • Stamp them with a visible digital watermark
  • Embed copyright information in the image’s metadata – ‘File info’ in Photoshop does this
  • Consider subscribing to a digital watermarking tracking company
  • Issue a licence with your images setting out terms of use
  • Search for your work regularly and chase down unlicensed use

Illustration Johann