BitDepth 749 - September 21

Protecting images on the Internet means taking some extraordinary measures.
The Copyright condom

On this project, public distribution of a large dataset of images was part of the brief and both Flickr (left) and Facebook made it easy to put watermarked photos in front of an audience quickly.

There was a time, not that long ago, when the only way that you could share images with a large group of people was to make prints and hang them in a public place. If you weren’t fussy about the reproduction, you could also try to get them published in a newspaper.
Both of these processes, as superior as they were to walking around with a box (or a wallet) of prints hoping to ambush someone, were hallmarked by the process of funnelling. There were always more people who wanted to show their photographs than there were outlets and space to accommodate them.

Today, photography does not want for distribution and display spaces. Online web galleries like Flickr and Photobucket offer agreeable and affordable options for even the most demanding photographer hoping to share their images.
Basic services on Flickr are free, but a pro option makes the online gallery site a powerful option for any photographer looking for a way to share large numbers of photographs. Flickr allows users to set privacy options, essentially hiding groups of photos from general view and it’s possible to create galleries to organise images.

The community aspect of Flickr is strong and there are dozens of special focus groups which collect images that meet quite specific criteria. The commenting that ensues is a particularly engaging element of the online gallery experience.
Photobucket’s album design options are more diverse than Flickr’s but they also lead to some of the kind of messiness that plagued MySpace. Photobucket is also positioned more as a gateway to other social media services, while Flickr is, for photographers, a social media destination itself.

Of course, the most widely used photo gallery service in use today is the one built into Facebook and anyone who has followed the development arc of technologies like Betamax and VHS won’t be surprised that it’s the worst thing you might think of doing to your photos.
You can say this for Facebook. Lots of people will see your photos and tag them. What you can’t say is that the engine that powers the display of images is any good. Compression is severe, sometimes creating unwelcome color shifts, you have a choice of exactly one display size and all embedded information in your photos is stripped. 

In addition, despite several rewordings of their notorious terms of use agreement, Facebook’s contract continues to favour its own needs, not those of its users. Facebook’s approach and the popularity of the service as a destination for hundreds of millions of images are an implicit acknowledgement that for most people, posting images online is a social exercise and not one that requires any copyright prophylactics.

If you’re a photographer wishing to share photos on the Internet but not particularly keen on dipping into the bathhouse scene that modern photo sharing has become, first acknowledge that if someone wants to steal your work, they will.
You should, however, be sure to embed identifying information and copyright notices in your images. Most professional image editors include tools to make this process relatively easy. 

Then there’s watermarking. Right up front, let’s acknowledge that watermarking is an ugly business and the more you protect an image with a notice directly embedded in it, the worse it looks.
Each photographer will have to balance aesthetics with protection when it comes to watermarks, but at least in the US, the law is on the side of any level of watermarking, since deliberately removing such an embedded notice directly contravenes the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. That might prove helpful if you want to pursue an infringement case in the US.

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