Over the past week, I’ve found that I’ve had somewhere upwards of 10 conversations of varying degrees around intellectual property, watermarks, trademarks, etc.  This ranged from industry friends, to other photographers, to DJs, to clients, to family members. Everyone that I spoke to had a differing opinion and a different approach which clearly impressed on me that no one really has a good understanding of the issues.

For simplicity’s sake, I wanted to take the time to talk about what I do in my business and how I use watermarks. Your approach may be different, or you may disagree, but you don’t run my business. I do.

The Principles

Here are my basic principles for my images (the “if I lived in a perfect world” rules):

  1. I watermark everything that I do. Every image that I place online will have some degree of watermark on it. I output different sizes for Facebook, Instagram, etc so that the watermark is present regardless of size. It is a marketing tool and not a protection device.
  2. I sell Personal License photos through my shop at Firelance.US. These are NOT for commercial use. I do NOT sell commercial use licenses on Firelance.us. The provider places a large watermark on images while being viewed, which is removed when purchased.
  3. I do not allow re-watermarking of my photos for any reason without a commercial license
  4. If asked what I prefer, I do not allow people to add filters or change colors of photos on their social media feeds
  5. If asked what I prefer, I do not explicitly allow cropping the watermark out of my images to fit a social media banner or profile pic
  6. When watermarks are not present due to some pre-arranged reason, I ask that photo credit be issued.

Today, laws gets blurred and general practices of “the many” often conflicts with the desires of “the few.” I have a duty to protect my brand to the degree that I can. I police different sites, trace online presence through image tracking, and get feedback from friends that know what I shoot and where I shoot it and let me know if they see my images “out in the wild.” Basically, I just want to know where my images are being used and how. If my images are being used in a way that could dilute the brand, that’s when I take action.

Think about it in a different setting:

A baker bakes a wedding cake for a bride. The delivery person feels like they want to add a few more decorations or a pound of salt to the cake frosting to suit their tastes before delivering the product. The bride gets the cake, hates it, and now the baker’s reputation is diminished. The delivery person feels no different about what they did since they don’t have to deal with the repercussions.

In this case, the baker is the artist, the bride is the overall market, and the delivery person is anyone that changes the original product.

SIDENOTE: Understand that I am most concerned with other companies using the images without a license, and NOT tracking down individuals that use pictures personally.



The Reality

Once I place my images online, anyone can steal them. I can’t control that and don’t try to. I have tried placing “right click” prohibitions on images, but that does not prevent screen captures and reposts. It also doesn’t prevent someone with Photoshop skills from removing the watermark. Does it take potential revenue away from me? Yes, but that is already a factor in my business plan.

When I see the image being used outside of my guidelines on a business page or in a commercial way, I generally have a private conversation with the person, understand what they did, explain my position and either ask that the image be brought into line, or removed. Sometimes this conversation goes very smoothly and it’s a non-issue, sometimes it is a bit more heated. Very rarely is anything malicious, and I never treat it as such.

I watched a lecture this weekend about Intellectual property rights where it was stated that theft is acceptable in today’s digital world, and that reputation is all that matters. As much as I understand the speaker’s points, I disagree.

I get excited when I see that people enjoy my work. I like the fact that they enjoy it enough to repost it as profile images or banners on their social media pages. When I see that an image has been obviously screen captured from Firelance.us instead of purchased for a minimal fee I don’t do anything. Why? Because that big-ass watermark across the center of the screen is giving me promotion, not protecting the image. I would rather understand how the images are being distributed and used so that I can enact future measures to limit true theft down the road. I’m not trying to limit exposure, but as a businessperson with a product to sell, I also have a duty to educate customers on finer points of product usage.

Usually, if a friend wants an image and they asks me first, I am happy to provide that to them so long as the watermark stays in place or photo credit is issued, and it is not used commercially. That’s just marketing. But like I mentioned, if they violate #4 or #5, I’m not going to be a dick about it.

Commercial Vs. Personal Work

Commercial work is another story all together. My contracts are very clear as to how the image use has been negotiated, and the penalties associated with stepping outside of those bounds. Sometimes watermarks apply, sometimes (meaning most of the time) they do not. It all comes down to the client.


Before you use an image that you didn’t create in a way that removes artist credit, do your best to get in touch with the owner and ask permission to use it. I think you’ll find most of us are pretty generous.