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Protect your Art in the Digital Age

“Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” United States Copyright Office

In the September Art Festival Newsletter we discussed how the world has changed in regards to image ownership and the basics of copyright law and how it applies to artists. This article details the concrete steps you can take to help protect your artwork.

Recently, artist Richard Prince sold a series of other peoples’ Instagram photographs and made out with around $100,000. Though this seems like an outright copyright infringement, the issue is actually in a legal gray-area. One thing we know for sure – these images would have been protected if they had been registered federally with a copyright. Whenever you are posting your artwork to other platforms, be sure to read the terms and conditions to determine what copyright protection your art has there.

Before you post on line, think ahead of how to protect your artwork and what you need or expect from the online experience; for example:

  • can people buy it online?

  • can people download it?

  • is it available for private use only, or can it be used in public?

The sad truth is that it is impossible to prevent others from copying your online images. Anything which is displayed can in principal be copied since the image information has already been transmitted. What you can do is make sure that people know you are the copyright owner of your work and what they can do with your work. You must ensure your usage terms are clear and be proactive to protect your art.

Always Sign Your Name on Your Work

This is the first step in protecting your art against copyright violation. Adapt the habit of signing all your works.

Keep Digital Records of Your Work

A picture is worth a thousand words – especially if someone is claiming that your work as their own. Having a digital library of your artwork will save you a lot of hassle in the event of copyright infringement, as you can present this record in court. Make sure your photograph has the date that the pictures were taken.

Register Your Work

It is recommended that you officially register your artwork with the Copyright Office of the U.S. Library of Congress. Even though a copyright is automatically in place at the moment of creation, registering the work ensures you have sufficient proof that the work is yours. In the event of a copyright infringement suit, this would potentially allow for a higher settlement.

Go to the Library of Congress website and click on the electronic Copyright Office (eCO). Fill out the registration form and pay the required fee.

Once the registrar’s office examines your application, they will send you an official certificate of registration. This serves as documented evidence of your copyright, and is filed online as a matter of public record.

Protecting Your Art on Your Website

While nothing is foolproof, there are some measures you can take to help protect your art on the web.

Contact Info: Give people the possibility to contact you. It will be easier for someone to ask for your permission to use your work if they are able to email you and would doucment if permission is given or not.

Convert Your Images to Flash: Before posting them online, you may wish to convert your images into a flash slideshow. This makes it impossible for those on the web to simply copy and paste the image. You can do this by downloading special slideshow converters or consulting a web design professional.
Only Publish Small, Low-Resolution Images: A small, low-resolution image - no more than 72dpi is simply not worth stealing for most people. However, be sure to save your original high resolution images/files and then create a separate resized low-resolution set of files. Let your clients know that a high resolution image(s) is available for purchase.

Add Watermarks to Your Images: A concern for many is that watermarks can distract from your image – potentially negating the reason for sharing in the first place. And if the watermark is too subtle it can easily be edited out. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) has provided some insight into why you should continue to watermark your work.

The DMCA makes it illegal to remove copyright information from your photos, and this includes watermarks. You can recover for the removal of your watermark under the DMCA if you can prove that the original watermark was removed or changed. A DMCA takedown notice can be issued for a registered work as well as an unregistered work.

A watermark is a logo or name that is placed on top of an image. Not only does a watermark plainly tells the viewer that your work is protected by copyright, it will also help in a court case, as the other artist won’t be able to say his or her use of your work was “innocent infringement”. The one most used is the copyright notice, best known as the C symbol (©), plus the year the work was published. You should also include your name into this watermark.

A helpful watermarking tip is to tile your watermark. This creates a horizontal light mark that is tiled across the whole photo in multiple places making removing the watermark more difficult.

A software to consider is something like Digimarc (built into Photoshop but the feature is not free). This software digitally encodes the watermark as image noise that is imperceptible to our eyes, but detectable by a computer with the appropriate software. The Digimarc watermark can also still be removed, but only if the violator knows it is there in the first place. The disadvantage is that this software can increase your image file size.

Digital Image Frames: An alternative to watermarks is to create a frame for your image, wher you list your name, date created and name of the composition. This would give you immediate credit even when the photo is used on another site but it is also the easiest type of attribution to remove.

Hidden Layers: Place the image behind a transparent foreground image. The online image will appear completely normal, but when someone tries to right click and save it, the resulting file will be the blank foreground image, not the background. Learn how to create a hidden layer.

Tiling: Tiling is the process of cutting or slicing a digital photograph into multiple pieces using photograph software, uploading the pieces to your webpage, and piecing it back together. Though this process can be very time consuming, it can offer an additional layer of protection that doesn’t affect the visual quality of your photographs. Only someone attempting to download your image would know it was sliced and diced. Learn how to cut and slice.

Disable Right Click: Use flash to display the image. This prevents any kind of right clicking or saving in standard browsers. Please note that a determined person can still access the original image if they view the page’s HTML source code but it will make it clear that you are serious about copyright protection.

Since you cannot prevent all type of photo copying, the next line of defense is to be able to identify when your images are being infringed upon. Consider conducting a reverse image search using sites like and These sites will help you track the use of your work online.

Take Action When you Find a Violation

  1. Contact the person directly. Surprisingly, many times people just don’t consider copying images an issue. If you write something simple and not too confrontational, many times they will just take it down.

  2. Contact their web host. Unfortunately not everyone is as cooperative as we hope. A common next step is to contact their web hosting company directly. Make sure to include all correspondence, a link to both the infringing pate and its original use on your page. To find the hosts contact information – type “whois IP lookup” in any search engine and you’ll find several different websites that can perform this for free.

  3. Notify their advertisers or other affiliates. Pay careful attention to all potential revenue streams on the infringing site and try notifying each of them. Make it clear to them that this website’s traffic is achieved by sharing copyright-protected content. The most common contact will be Google’s AdSense program, which is usually very receptive to violations.

  4. Take legal action. If the above fails you may have to resort to legal action if you determine that it is worth your time and energy.

Please note that this article is NOT legal advice, the author is an artist and festival director with an interest in best practices. Please consult an attorney if you have a copyright violation case.

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