Bad Ideas for Protecting Your Images

The last several posts have been inspired by a conversation I had with several recent graduates at the 2010 OCAD grad show.
Their work was good, and I was interested in seeing more. When I asked if images of their work was available on their websites, I discovered that they both refused to show any samples of their work on-line due to fears of copyright infringement. This struck me as backwards. Hiding their art from the world seems like the exact opposite of what any young, emerging artist should want.

One of the artists said that he had every intension of making his work available, but he would only do this once he had figured out some technical copy-protection tools.
In this entry, I will discuss my objections to several different technical copy-restriction techniques, and propose some examples of what I think are better alternatives.

There are a number of technical solutions a worried artist could employ in their attempt to prevent infringement, but none of these methods actually work all that well to stop it. They can only make obtaining that content a little more inconvenient.

Locked content gives me the impression that the artist is telling me, “I don’t trust you, I think you are a thief”. Frankly, I find that attitude from an artist insulting. If that’s how they are, I quickly lose any interest in the work.

Remember that line from Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights, “If you’re not first, you’re last”? In the land of all things digital, this quote very much applies. If protection isn’t 100% effective, then it’s 0% effective. It only takes one person to break that protection for the whole world to have access. In an earlier entry, I used the analogy of pushing a giant boulder uphill to describe digital copy protection. It only takes one little slip, and it all comes rolling back right where it started.


Once such method of making life difficult for copiers is disabling the ‘right click’ ability in the browser, so visitors to your website can’t ‘copy image’ or ‘save image as’. This is done by adding a little piece of javascript to the web page. This code ‘hijacks’ the typical right click action, making something else happen instead, like a pop-up window that says “This function has been disabled on this site”.

So, if you are worried about infringement, is disabling right click a good idea?

Well, no. There are some problems with this:

Javascript can be disabled in the browser’s settings, and can also be blocked by popular plug-ins, such as No-Script.

Older versions of Internet Explorer had a bug where the user could hold down the left button for several seconds, then click the right button, this would disable the ‘right click’ prevention, and the file could be downloaded with ease.

After learning of this bug, some may be tempted to think, “But this bug is fixed on newer browsers”. At this point I would like to draw your attention to the top right hand corner of your computer’s keyboard. You might notice a button that’s been hanging out with the ‘scroll lock’ ‘Pause/Break’ and other mostly-useless keys. The one I’m talking about is labelled ‘Print screen’.

And what does this ‘Print Screen’ button do? Why, it prints what’s on the screen!

The user can load any page, hit this button, and the image is saved to their desktop. While it might require some cropping later on, they still very much have a copy of that image that you fought so very hard to prevent from being copied. And, since this is digital, it only takes one person to go though this hassle, and they can share and distribute it with ease.

Blocking the right-click ability used to be fairly common, but I am seeing less-and-less of it these days. I’m not sure if the reason for this is that people simply aren’t blocking right-click anymore, or if the No-Script plugin I’ve installed is blocking this piece of javascript from working, (meaning the protection has been disabled) Either way, I’m glad I’m not seeing much of it these days, since I right-click fairly often as I navigate, so having that functionality disabled is very irritating and feels limiting.

I am undecided on the issue of watermarks. I’ve seen them done well, and I’ve seen them ruin an image. A watermark covering a rather blank area can be edited out with ease, rendering it useless, while a watermark over a complex area is distracting, because it is very likely covering part of the image that the viewer would like to see. As a viewer, these kinds of watermarks turn me off. I won’t go in too much detail, but I would suggest that watermarks, if used, should be kept subtle and as unobtrusive as possible. I’m ok with having your name appear in an image, but it shouldn’t take over that image.

There are some far more sophisticated options available to the determined content-protectors these days. Once such service is Image Rights , which scours the web, looking for and notifying the image owner of any potential infringement, despite any cropping, resizing, or slight modifications made to the image.

The homepage advertises a simple 3 step process: Upload your images to their site. They scan millions of websites looking for a match, then send you the reports.

I do like how this does not take away from a user’s ability to enjoy the work in any way, but I have objections to this as well. First, it’s a little ironic that a service being offered to people who are concerned about their images being copied requires that they make copies of each image in order to protect them from being copied. These are paid services. For a successful late-career artist, something like this could be worthwhile. If prints are bringing in more than what they charge, and infringement is taking a significant chunk out of those earnings, then it might be worth considering something like this.

I am not currently aware of any other brands offering a similar service, but at $10 to $40 dollars per month for this, the images had better be worth a good chunk of change. As I think about this service, there is one question that I keep coming back to: “is it worth the cost?” For many artists, that answer is likely ‘no’.

Including a copyright notice with an artwork is one solution I’ve heard several photographers suggest. While it is important that people understand the copyright issues that surround an artwork, I just don’t like this idea, because I’ve seen it executed so poorly so often.

“You can’t do this. You can’t to that. If you want to do this, contact me and I might let you do it, but I might also demand that you pay me an additional fee”
This just seems petty, like trying to squeeze blood from a stone. I want to deal with someone who has a passion for what they do, not someone who expects yet another paycheque every time you look at or think about the artwork.

As a painter, I am somewhat protected from many reproduction issues. A photograph is very different from an original painting. The texture of the canvas and paint, the difference in luminosity and opacity, the intense pigment-based colour, all these qualities are unique to paint, and just can’t be replicated in print without something being lost. But a copy of a photograph? Any photograph is just a copy of a negative or image file, what separates one photographic print from another? I can understand their concern. If you do chose to go down this route, I would suggest that the notice be worded very carefully.

None of these protection methods actually work against those who are really determined to copy stuff, and it insults the the much larger segment of the audience that just wants to see your work.

The copiers still get their copies, and the real fans just get pissed off. It’s a lose-lose situation.

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Kyle Clements

Kyle Clements is a Toronto-based artist and nerd. During his thesis at the Ontario College of Art and Design, Kyle began working on his Urban Landscapes series, a body of work that aims to capture the energy and excitement of life in the fast-paced urban environment. After graduating from OCAD in 2006, Kyle spent a year living in Asia to gather source material and experience in a different kind or urban environment. His work is vibrant and colourful. Whether painting the harsh Northern landscape, or capturing the overwhelming buzz of life in the city, his acrylic paintings hover between representation and abstraction.