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How Do Artists Protect Their Work Online?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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In  the wake of the recent discussions about copyright sparked by Pinterest’s Terms of Service, I thought it would be informative to answer the question, “How do artists protect their work online?”

Here are the answers from a spectrum of science-artists.

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“Most of what I sell online is original watercolor paintings and collages. I think that makes it a little less risky for me, as far as having my images ripped off, because it’s very hard for someone to recreate the look and the texture of an original using an image from the web. But I know that someone could take one of my designs and put it on a t-shirt or a notebook.
On the other hand, I’ve been featured on lots of blogs and gotten show opportunities because people have seen my work online. The bottom line for me is that having lots of pictures of my work on the web has been worth the risk. So far, anyway!”

-Michele Banks of Artologica

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I place a value on the work I create, therefore I believe it’s worthwhile to do what I can to protect it from infringement. There are a few websites I use to promote my business, so it’s necessary for me to put samples of my work online. I make them relatively small and/or I place a watermark on them. I’m well aware that it’s not a perfect system, but in my mind doing nothing to protect my images might indicate that I do not value them and it would be a disservice to the clients who commissioned them. Some might perceive that trying to protect one’s work online is futile, but I wholeheartedly believe that just because an endeavor is perceived as futile doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the attempt.

-Emily Damstra of Science Illustration by Emily S. Damstra

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By all means use my photographs! They don’t do anyone any good just sitting on my hard drives. But be respectful of the fact they take time and money to create. At least have the decency to inform people where they came from. And if you are using the photographs to make money, I deserve some of it. After all, these photographs would not exist, and could not exist, if I was unable to earn a basic living.

-Alex Wild of Alex Wild Photography

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Every time an artist puts their work online, it’s a trade-off. Sure, it could be ripped off. However, in science-art, the audience-niche can be very small. I often paint fossilized winged trilobites on stone, and at the moment the audience who enjoys these paintings is not huge.

A niche audience has benefits. By blogging, tweeting and being a part of the science social media world, I gain community, friends, fans and clients. The benefit of community is that its members will also help to protect you and your artistic work.

Allowing artwork to be shared under Creative Commons is essential to community-building. It helps an artist gain recognition among people who enjoy the artwork, growing the community of people who respect your contributions.

I put my name and url on my artwork; I put my name in the image filenames. From my experience, the artists in the greatest danger are those who’s online presence is obscure. Engage, and the community grows along with your career, as well as being half the fun.

-Glendon Mellow of Art in Awe of Science

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Definitely post your artwork on the web, as publicity is always a good thing. The only true theft to be worried about is a publisher sniping it in my opinion, but this is easy to prevent by simply uploading a lower resolution version of the piece requiring a real publication to approach you for a higher quality version. As for people cross-posting your work, I won’t worry as much about a lack of credit (though that is annoying), but rather the purposes and use of the work is often more of a problem in my opinion (in my case creationists). To make sure unwanted entities aren’t using your work it is definitely a good idea to use Tineye.

-Craig Dylke of ART Evolved

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The benefits of sharing and promoting my work online far outweigh the potential losses of someone stealing an image off my web page for profit. Additionally, I don’t know of a way to protect your art online without seriously damaging the presentation. Watermarks, for example, prevent any real appreciation of the work. So my best advice is to upload images that look great in your online portfolio, but are not hi-res, with your url small and tastefully in the corner. In the very rare case that Big Company Inc. steals your image for their Big Marketing Campaign then I’m sure you can find a lawyer happy to help you both out.

-Marc Scheff of

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If by “protecting artwork online” you mean preventing someone from gaining access to your web based images – you can’t.
All of the silly right-click defeating JavaScripts and clear GIF overlays in the world won’t deter a simple third party screen capture utility. A graphics professional such as myself can extract images from Zoomify boxes and Flash files and, to a large extent, even remove watermarking.
The only way watermarking can prevent image use is if it’s so onerous as to render your image unusable for anything, including promoting your art. Keeping images too small to reproduce elsewhere likewise makes them too small to be useful for showcasing your work. Invisible embedded watermarks, which add a layer of “noise”, can degrade image quality as well.
If your work is in print, anyone with access to a $50 scanner with a de-screening option can make a much higher resolution copy of your images than you are ever likely to put online.

The single best way to protect your images is to register them with the Copyright Office (they don’t have to be published, you can register an “unpublished collection” of multiple images).
For image files posted online, a simple copyright line and the addition of your domain name, placed on the image in a way that doesn’t detract from the effective presentation of your art, increase the chances for image credit to find its way back to you if the image gets reused, and provide the ability to say legally that the initial version of the image was identified as yours.
It may also be worth adding your domain name to the filename of the image (people are lazy, and will likely just use your original image file, unless you force them into a screen capture), e.g. “dinosaurcartoons_com_600.gif” (extra dots “.” are not allowed in a web  filename).
If you need to be absolutely certain your images are safe, put them in a drawer and don’t let anyone see them.

-Charley Parker of Dinosaur Cartoons

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My thanks to everyone above who gave us their thoughts!

How do you protect your artwork online?  Answer in the comments below!


Glendon Mellow About the Author: Glendon Mellow is a fine artist, illustrator and tattoo designer working in oil and digital media based in Toronto, Canada. He tweets @FlyingTrilobite and is on Instagram. You can see Glendon's work-in-progress at The Flying Trilobite blog and portfolio at Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. 2:28 am 03/31/2012

    Trying to control your images once they’re online is like insisting on being in the passenger’s seat of your teenage daughter’s car at all times. You could spend your entire life obsessing over where she’s going and what she’s doing or you can trust that 99.9% of people out there are good and honest and mean no harm. That’s how I feel about copyright protection on the web. Most people are trying to do the right thing and just need a little educating about copyright and why it’s important to ask permission before using images. I’ve only been burned seriously once – in 2010 an illustration of mine appeared in a South Park episode without my consent, and although it was funny, a television producer friend of mine thought that use would have been worth anywhere from $3500-$10,000 had they gone about it appropriately. But I doubt that most infringements are so egregious.

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  2. 2. juliabrucker 12:36 pm 03/31/2012

    I am there with Michele of Artologica– my work cannot be easily reproduced, so the chances of someone ripping it off and trying to sell it as their own is very small. But I love when my work gets featured on blogs, and usually the people doing it credit me. I have a Google Alert set for my name, so each time someone posts about my work (or me) and credits me I find out about it. Only once has someone not told me before posting my work on their blog, and the alert was how I found it.
    Also, your suggestion for putting your name in the image file is a good one, and something I am going to start doing. Thanks for the post!

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  3. 3. hydrocorax 12:48 am 04/1/2012

    I make my living with my intellectual property, but I think people can get really obsessive with policing copyrights. What ever indignance I feel when I see an image of mine that’s been used without authorization is overshadowed by the flattery. “Stealing” an image is a far inferior crime to stealing an original piece of art.

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  4. 4. DrKrishnaKumariChalla 2:06 am 04/4/2012

    Want to copy my work? Okay, go ahead and try it!And see what happens! All most all the people in the science based art and science-art arena in the world have seen and know my signature-specific work and they can easily recognize it and will tell me if somebody copies my work! Nobody can escape with all those eyes watching!People around the world themselves are my culture cops.
    Okay let me get serious. Personally I feel knowledge belongs to the whole world. If people get too greedy and demand lots of money to give knowledge they possess what will people who cannot afford it do? Shall we limit knowledge to only a few rich who can buy it? I don’t subscribe to this idea of “knowledge for sale”! It makes people steal!I give information for free on my network.
    But if people who try to pass off my work as theirs, I get a bit annoyed in the initial stages. At the same time, can you stop if people try to steal “parts of your ideas” on the internet and propagate them as their own? You can’t. However, imitation is imitation and won’t be like the original.A person who is copying can never go as far as the person with original thoughts and ideas.
    This fake intellectual identity shows up at some time or the other and gives clues to “copying crimes”.
    So don’t bother about such mean mentalities. Try to Stand out in a crowd and your work protects itself with its unique bar code!Like the one I have on

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  5. 5. Glendon Mellow 1:55 pm 04/4/2012

    Illustrator Emily Damstra (above)is not only Image of the Week, she also expands on her thoughts on her own blog: News from the Studio.

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  6. 6. FrankIhler 5:03 pm 04/15/2012

    As Emily Damstra explained in her blog, copyright infringements by unauthorized parties can be the cause of serious trouble for the artist, as the artist may not be the owner of the copyright any more.
    Outside the US, in many if not most cases where artwork is commissioned by design or advertising agencies, the copyright is transfered to the client of the agency and any use of the work by the artist is strictly limited to self promotion.

    I consider putting a nicely shaped watermark which is not easily erasable the best way to prevent copyright infringements by third parties, as shown here on one of my images:

    Link to this

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