Is watermarking still a sound way to protect your images? And what threats do AI-based tools pose?

Digital image watermarking is one of the most popular ways to protect images posted online.

Watermarks are easy to apply to images of all varieties, and they give the photographer or copyright owner the chance to promote themselves or their brand beyond their existing audience.

But just how secure is digital image watermarking today? And how can those with assets to protect safeguard their work from potential threats?

What is a watermark and how does it work?

The idea behind watermarking is simple. By including a semi-transparent line of text, symbol or logo into an image, you make it clear that the rights to it belong to a specific photographer or company, and that it cannot simply be used without authorization.

Watermarks are usually embedded so that they become part of the image itself. This means that if the image does get stolen in some way, it will remain in place.

Sign up for a SmartFrame account today

The watermark itself often identifies the photographer or copyright holder, although this isn’t always the case. The image may, for example, simply be marked with a copyright symbol, or with a more elaborate design or repeating pattern that makes use of multiple lines or copyright symbols (or both) to provide greater protection.

What makes a good watermark?

However it appears, an effective watermark serves a number of purposes. First, by making the presence of copyright clear, it underlines that the image in question cannot simply be used without the copyright holder’s consent, which, in turn, serves as a deterrent for would-be thieves.

It also limits the likelihood of it being used, were it to be stolen. Furthermore, in addition to its marketing purposes, it also makes it far easier to prove an image’s true ownership in the event of any unauthorized use, assuming the watermark itself identifies the photographer or copyright holder.

Where things can go wrong

The effectiveness of a watermark depends on many factors. Its visibility, for example; a watermark that’s barely visible is likely to be a less effective deterrent than one that can be easily seen. A watermark that isn’t too visible may also be easier to remove than a more prominent one, in that efforts to lift it away are less likely to adversely affect that image underneath it.