How to prevent art theft without watermarks?
August 15, 2012 4:59 PM   Subscribe

What is the best way to prevent art theft without putting a huge watermark on a piece?

I draw fanarts for a certain Japanese series as a hobby and usually have no problem with sharing my fanarts online. Lately, though, especially on websites like and tumblr, there've been a few people tracing, reuploading, etc. my artworks without my permission... and it's kind of irking me. I should add that the fandom associated with the series I draw fanart for is mainly comprised of a younger audience in general (teenagers, I guess), so I guess I shouldn't be surprised that some of them aren't very considerate about stuff like attributing a fanartist and listening to his/her wishes.

Personally, I'm not very fond of putting a huge watermark on top of my artworks, mainly because it sort of detracts attention from the piece itself, and partly because I always feel a little sheepish to be announcing "THIS IS MINE" while much more experienced artists seem to leave their works--which are way more amazing than mine--unmarked. But I've had friends who added a small tagline to their artwork (stating their name and website's URL) find their artworks reposted with the tagline completely erased...

So my question is: is there some clever alternative to putting a huge watermark on an artwork in order to avoid people tracing/reposting it elsewhere? I guess, if it really comes down to it, I'll just put the watermarks on and be done with the issue, but I'd love to hear any ideas/suggestions for an alternative method.

Thanks for reading, and sorry for the wall of text...!
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
In the digital age, there is no way to prevent this. All you can do is make it difficult -- but every way of making it difficult also creates obnoxious side effects for legitimate consumers.

The only decent answer now is "grin and bear it".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:06 PM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's non-visible digital watermarking such as Digimarc which is available as a Photoshop plugin; it appears to cost money these days, and I have no idea how effective it really is.
posted by reptile at 5:21 PM on August 15, 2012

I'm glad you have the instinct to not watermark your work. I feel almost sick to my stomach when i see people destroy their beautiful photo or art with some hideous watermark or logo. My feeling is, if you're going to brutalize your own work, why even put it online?

The best compromise I know is to offer only a low-res sample, then only give the "real thing" to those who pay/login/whatever. This might not exactly apply since I'm not sure if you're selling your work...

If it's just about people re-posting without attribution, are there few enough that you can just contact them and ask nicely to add attribution? If they're just kids, they might just not know any better.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:22 PM on August 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Are these people profiting from your work, or claiming credit?

If not, I wouldn't worry about it. The culture of sites like Pinterest and Tumblr is sort of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's a great way to get your work seen by many more people who would otherwise know about it. On the other hand, there are no attribution standards.

If people are specifically claiming credit for your work, or worse, selling tracings of your work, in my opinion the best thing to do is to single out the individuals who are doing it and send cease and desist emails. If you have reason to think the person is a young teenager, maybe start with the assumption that they don't know what they're doing is wrong, per se, or that is has real consequences. If they're adults, remind them that, if they are monetarily profiting from your work, you can sue them, and you'll probably win.
posted by Sara C. at 5:24 PM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

You could try adding your signature/url into the art itself. Can be kinda tacky, but you can make it blend into the piece instead of hogging the show.

Hard to do for already finished work, but maybe a thought for future projects.
posted by Fishstick3000 at 5:25 PM on August 15, 2012

As a fan who haunts Tumblr & plus4chan & the like, I always really appreciate it when fanart has text with the artist's username/signature and/or the URL of their DeviantArt, blog, etc. Art-reposting is GOING to happen regardless, but attribution text at least means if you like the art you can find the artist and more of their work later. The most frequent fanart-cry on 4chan is "SAUCE (source) PLZ?"
posted by nicebookrack at 5:33 PM on August 15, 2012

Agreed with all the above: there's really no way to stop people from copying your images, and watermarks are self-defeating.

However, your issue appears to be the lack of attribution, not the fact that people are sharing your work online. If that's the case, why not do a little copyright akido and license the image under Creative Commons? That way, you exert your moral right to your work, make it easy for people to attribute it to you, and legally protect yourself against misuse of the image. CC won't stop everyone ripping you off, but it will curb a good deal of it, especially if you place a small rider of text below the pictures (something to the effect of "While I'm happy for you to use this image on your site or share it with your friends, I'd really appreciate if you attributed the work to me, using the information below. I worked hard to make the image, and I know that you'd want the same courtesy shown to your own efforts. If you're interested in commercial licensing, please contact me. Thanks!")

Every so often, check out DeviantArt and tumblr for any remaining copycats and follow up with them politely - you might want to use an image search service like TinEye to make the job easier. Most people are surprisingly open to this approach, as long as it is made without without scolding.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 5:42 PM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

P.S. I agree with the idea to only offer large, high-res images to people who commission pieces or otherwise offer compensation. I'm not sure about all the legalities of selling fanart online (contact the Organization for Transformative Works?), but artists' alleys at fan cons always do a brisk business in fanart prints, commissions, etc. without crackdown.

P.P.S. I feel that posting to Ask about one's art should follow the same rules in posting about one's cats in requiring PIX, but I am fannish and biased. ;P (And realize crossing fannish and MeFi identity streams may cause an explosion.)
posted by nicebookrack at 5:43 PM on August 15, 2012

I'm a pro artist. I can understand and empathize with the urked feeling.... but it's really not something you should worry too much about. People who poach fan art aren't going to make any money, and real fans can smell a cheat pretty fast. People who trace are also often young and trying to learn, not realizing they are even commiting a faux pas.

Sign your work on the image. Use creative commons. Report it to mods if you find a stinker. Then just let it go.

As a side note- people who poach art to promote bands, parties and shows are the real dickweeds. They don't think they should pay because they don't often don't make a profit. What they don't understand is that if a person willing to pay sees the poached art around used for selling other things, it's less valuable. Save your real irritation for them.
posted by Blisterlips at 5:52 PM on August 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Also, a good rule of thumb- you can sell original fan art pieces, but not to market something else, and not large sets of prints. If the character belongs to someone, you're poaching their sales. It's the difference between selling the prada shirt that you restiched, ans selling a line of knock off shirts.
posted by Blisterlips at 5:57 PM on August 15, 2012

It's technically a derivative work. There are a bunch of enforceable laws and rules, but when a lesser name goes after a no-name, well, you end spending more time playing whack-a-mole than actually making anything.

I think the answer is to promote yourself better than they are promoting themselves and try to gain a popularity and reputation advantage.

It ain't easy these days being a graphic artist, that's for sure.
posted by roboton666 at 6:33 PM on August 15, 2012

If it's a straight reupload or copy of your work on DeviantArt then please just report it. That kind of crap is really not what DA is for, and last I checked the admin are pretty swift with the ban hammer for copyright violations. This won't stop the next idiot from doing the same thing, but again just flag it and move on.

(Hell, even if the copyright is not a problem, DA is still not the place to just reupload someone else's work. DA is not "look what I found on the internet".)
posted by anaelith at 7:54 PM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, copies and pastes are not derivative, but the traces and whatnot are.
posted by roboton666 at 8:38 PM on August 15, 2012

(Oh, and a side note, even if it technically may not be violating copyright that doesn't mean any of these websites are required to host it. Reputable sites will tend to side with the original artist in borderline cases because the original artist is the one who could sue them. If you see something that's immediately recognizable as your art and which doesn't obviously fall under one of the fair use guidelines then go ahead and report it, don't waste energy trying to split hairs about how many pixels were changed or whatever.)
posted by anaelith at 9:02 PM on August 15, 2012

Tracing can't be prevented by watermarks or anything else (other than legal action I suppose) but how about incorporating your signature in the art? If it's part of the art itself then many people would miss it or find it too hard to be worth erasing.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:06 PM on August 15, 2012

If you do go with a signature somewhere, you can also make its removal a non-trivial task (though always possible):
- locate the signature somewhere that a simple crop would cut off an interesting part of the picture
- use backgrounds or textures if appropriate, so a simple copy/paste or clone effect will look awful.
You'll never stop everyone, but if you make it more work, they will move on to another image instead.
posted by whatzit at 3:48 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

The only decent answer now is "grin and bear it".

And educate people about intellectual property.
posted by gjc at 7:25 AM on August 16, 2012

I've seen 3D texture work that I used to sell on torrent sites. I've seen my images used as avatars, in Google Chrome themes, in print advertisements, and on the covers of books. (And I don't even think my stuff is all that great.) I stopped caring because it was taking up too much emotional energy, and I wanted to continue to post my work online. I do my art for my own pleasure, I license it under CC and appreciate it when people attribute as directed by the license. Since I started using deviantArt's CC attribution, I've even had my work used by people developing free collectible card games and received some nice notes thanking me for my freely available work.

To directly address your question: With content-aware fill in Photoshop, just about any kind of subtle watermark or signature is easily defeated. No right-click scripts are easily circumvented. Huge watermarks are ugly. Small, low res images can be resized and repaired. Basically, there's nothing you can do.
posted by xyzzy at 4:00 AM on August 17, 2012

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