Should There Be A New Business Model For Photographers?

by Christopher Paul on January 4, 2013

Yesterday, Glenn Fleishman and I had a few tweets back and forth on watermarking photos. He had tweeted a link to an app that made watermarking images on the iPhone easy. It’s a neat app and if you need that sort of thing, I guess it’s something you’d want to buy (though I think it’s free for a limited time).

But my point to Glenn is that watermarks don’t work and actually make me not want to use a photographer. First, they’re distracting. They make my eye move from the feeling towards a rather cold, business-like message. Any emotion evoked is quickly removed or altered after seeing it. The artistry is lost. Second, they don’t always prevent theft or non-payment – which he argued watermarks do. I don’t agree. Watermarks can be cut out unless their in the center of the image – and it might not be the focal point that a thief is looking to pass on as their own or without credit. And if they’re on the sides, they can be cropped without much damage to the image at all. So credit can be removed easily. And likewise, a watermark doesn’t equal payment; an artist isn’t going to get paid for an image simply because their name and copyright notice is on there. The music and movie industry has been battling that for over a decade. Without protracting the discussion over Twitter, I was trying to get him to see the analogy between the digital distribution of photos to the war over piracy the studios claim are taking away their profits (despite evidence to the contrary). I felt there has to be a way for artists to make money but we might not know what that is yet.

He explained there is no way to police the use of images on the internet. I suppose that’s true. Music signatures don’t change much even with different ripping techniques, resampling, or compression technology. Image compression, from what I’ve read, is different; it changes every time it’s saved. I guess it’s also harder to scan every image everywhere. Google seems to do a good job but what do I know. He also argued that without the use of watermarks, photographers couldn’t make money. I don’t really think he meant it so literally but his point is well taken. If someone steals your work and passes it off as their own, it’s going to be hard to get paying customers. Worse, any payments made might go to the wrong person. And, if no one knows who really took the picture, I suppose it’s harder to market yourself.

He seemed to be in agreement with my understanding of watermarking as a tool which he pointed out isn’t right for every situation, everywhere, and for everyone. It isn’t. Some people feel its needed, others don’t. For me, those that don’t get a better reaction from me and are more likely to get my business. One thing he did say that I thought was wrong was how it’s not used in “final” copies. Over Twitter, this is hard to define so all I said in response is that I see it in final images all the time from photographers. It’s more common than he made it seem to be.

But the point of this backdrop isn’t to re-question Glenn – who is one of my favorite writers on the internet (and the editor of the only Magazine I subscribe to, The Magazine) – here. It’s really to ask if there is a way we can police the internet for infringing users without watermarks. Is there a DRM like solution for images? I hate DRM and it doesn’t prevent piracy at all in other media so it won’t be the solution to this real problem photographers face. Is there a way to scan images – pixel by pixel to see if it’s similar to others? And how do screen captures change this search?

But is there a totally different business model that we’re overlooking?

Reading TechDirt has me thinking there is – and we just don’t know it yet. That site often talks about how music and movie piracy isn’t going away and that the producers have to come up with new ways to earn money. They often cite how digital distribution reduces production costs (no CD stamping), marketing (file sharing), and delivery (through iTunes or digital delivery of films to movie theaters). Mike Masnick always tries to point out there are ways to use the infinite to make money off the finite like concert sales, limited edition posters, signed CDs & LPs (which are coming back in style), producer credit for backing a project (the possibilities are almost endless). I see my discussion with Glenn the same way. Can photographers get their craft out without a visual DRM like watermarking and make money in other ways?

What about using Adobe Flash to display images? What about invisible layers on top of jpegs to prevent easy copying; Flickr does this. Or what does it matter? Why can’t you just plaster a few images out there to as many sites as you can to get your name out making it harder for someone to pass off those images as their own? Then, sell your services for an expose or studio session? Sell your processing techniques for other people’s images or do something to produce limited, value add, items – prints is an obvious one; give digital ones for free and offer prints. Control the DPI on the images to be crappy for print so those you do give away are of limited use. Email the 300 DPI images to the people who pay for your craft. I don’t know enough about the industry to know if any of these ideas work but there has to be a better way.

I fully understand the artist needs to be paid. People shouldn’t steal their work no matter what their reasons are – impersonation or cheapness. It’s wrong and it should be stopped when possible. I wish I had the talents to think of a solution to a very real problem that Glenn makes abundantly clear. But I don’t think watermarking is the way to go.

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