If you share your photography online, you know that your images will be re-distributed and re-published without your permission.
If you are a professional photographer, or a photo enthusiast, you probably also realize that rampant online copyright infringement costs creative professionals a significant amount of lost revenue – every image that is published without a valid license is a lost sale for someone.
If you have always wanted to fight back against copyright infringement, or if you just want to see exactly who is using your photography where, one solution is to apply an invisible digital watermark to your photography.
In this article, we will review Signili, a new service that can add invisible watermarks (as hidden copyright information) to your photos, and then help track exactly where those photos are used online…
The Copyright Infringement Problem
As a content creator, you probably distribute your work through two different channels:
The first channel is distribution to clients who have purchased a legitimate license to use your work for a specific purpose. In this channel you may provide clients with digital copies of your photography directly, or it might be distributed by a third party, such as a stock photography agency. Either way, you get paid in exchange for the use of your work which is governed by a photography licensing agreement.
In the second channel, you self publish your work online to your own website, blog or various social media outlets (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, 500px, Flickr etc.). In this channel you are publishing your own work to your own networks as promotion, to “get your work out there”.
Copyright infringement happens when your photography is taken from either channel and then re-distributed or re-published without your permission. This commonly happens in a number of ways: images are manually re-saved and re-uploaded, images are taken from a screen capture or images are automatically scraped by a bot from the platform where they were originally published (this ability is actually baked into the API for most social media platforms) and then re-distributed by a host of offshore accounts where they are then downloaded and re-published by other users.
The problem then arises, if you do a reverse image search, how can you tell what image was published with a valid license versus an image that was re-published without your permission?
The solution is to apply an invisible digital watermark to your photography – that way you can track exactly where your work has been used online and immediately know if you need to pursue a copyright infringement case to get paid for the use of your work.
Invisible Digital Watermark Software for Photographers
Invisible digital watermarking isn’t a new approach to copyright infringement.
Unfortunately, Digimarc Guardian for Images is not a viable solution for photographers.
Digimarc Guardian for Images seems to have been quietly abandoned by Digimarc – the only current links I could find on their website lead to a contact form for Digimarc Barcode for Digital Documents – with a minimum annual contract of $5000 per year for up to 5000 watermarks (according to my correspondence with Digimarc).
Obviously that is a non-starter for any photographer.
The only invisible digital watermark software alternative I could find is Signili – which promises to do everything that Digimarc did – but do it better, with a service specifically designed for photographers.
The Signili App
Signili offers two different services. The first is their invisible digital watermark software app. The second is a search function that tracks where your Signili watermarked images have been published online.
Here is a promo video from Signili that outlines what the service does and why:
To use the Signili service, you will need to register an account.
Signili offers a 14 day free trial of their lowest paid package which allows you to watermark up to 50 images per month which are then tracked for up to six months.
There is also a completely free package that would allow you to watermark up to 20 images per month.
Prices then increase from 9,99 € for 50 watermarked images per month to 74,99 € for 500 watermarked images per month. Unless you are a large production studio, 250 or 500 images per month seems like a reasonable cap for most photographers.
The only problem with the current Signili pricing model is for new users who might want to bulk watermark their existing collection of photography. Once you are established with Signili, watermarking 50 – 500 images per month might be enough, but there is no way to initially watermark hundreds or even thousands of photos.
I spoke to the team at Signili about this and they promise that bulk upload are a feature that they are looking at in a future release.
Signili Invisible Watermark Image Export
Once you have an account registered, there are three ways that you can use the Signili software to add an invisible watermark to your photos. You can use their web application, a desktop app – or by far the best option for production photographers – the Signili Lightroom Plugin.
Using the Signili Lightroom plugin is relatively easy. First you download and install the plugin, then when you export your photos from Lightroom you simply enter your Signili login credentials and choose Export To > “signili watermark” (instead of the default “hard drive” setting). All of the other usual Lightroom export functions are the same.
Using the Signili Lightroom plugin your image exports will automatically be watermarked by Signili’s invisible digital watermark software, saved to your local hard drive (in the location you specify) and uploaded directly to Signili’s cloud server for tracking.
There are a few limitations on the watermarking software: the exported image must be in jpeg format with a minimum size of 300px x 300px and a maximum file size of 2.5MB.
For most Lightroom exports this isn’t a problem – for example, I normally export my images to 2500px on the long edge at 80% quality which usually results in images around 1MB or less in size.
The export process does take a little longer than a standard Lightroom export and you need an internet connection.
I should also note that it is important to also export your images with a small traditional watermark too (which you can do directly within the Signili Lightroom plugin export – like normal).
When an infringer removes or crops out a traditional visible watermark, it helps to prove intent if you choose to pursue monetary compensation later.
One issue I had with exporting and applying the Signili watermark is that there does not appear to be a way to delete an image from the Signili app once it has been watermarked.
If you make a mistake and watermark a set of images by accident, you can’t delete them – and they will count against your image cap. Similarly, if you hit your image cap for the month, there is no way to delete a few photos to make room.
Image Quality and File Size
Signili promises that the watermark is invisible and does not significantly increase the file size. Looking at the images I have watermarked, I can’t tell the difference.
Signili also promises that the invisible watermark can survive resizing, resaving, conversion to grey scale, screen captures and other manipulations.
However, I would not deliver images that have been watermarked to a client who might use them in hard copy. Since stock photography may be print or digital, I also do not watermark the images that I upload to my stock photography agency.
Here are a few watermarked photos – can you tell?
Once your images have been exported to Signili, they are automatically tracked online. It usually takes a few days for the Signili tracking app to find them after they’ve been published, but so far the tracking service seems pretty reliable.
In the Signili web app, clicking on Image Overview will bring up a page with all images that you’ve watermarked.
From there, clicking on each individual image will show the URL of every location where the Signili tracking app has found the image published online.
The tracking app identifies both watermarked images and un-watermarked matches. However, in my case the app only seems to report un-watermarked matches, even though I have only ever published watermarked versions. I suspect that this may be a reporting error – but it is a concern.
It would also be nice to have more details, such as when the usage was detected and the ability to save this information to some sort of certified report (which would come in handy in an infringement case) – but for now you just get the URL.
Further, the tracking period of 3 months (free) or 6 months (paid) seems very arbitrary – using Pixsy, I routinely find infringements of photographs that were originally shared many years ago.
I contacted Signili about this and they promised that the current tracking period restrictions will be extended in the future.
If you find a possible infringement on your own, you can manually check for your watermark by clicking on “Detect” and then uploading a copy of the suspected image.
This feature would be much more useful if you could just copy and paste the URL of the page where you found the suspicious image instead of having to download and upload an actual image file.
You are also limited to ten detection attempts. This seems very arbitrary and not nearly enough for images that are constantly stolen over a long period of time.
It is also not clear what happens after you hit the detection limit – or if the monitoring period runs out.
Further, you must use the Signili app to check your watermark. According to Signili this is a requirement of their contract with their watermark technology supplier. The problem for the user is that you could invest in years of watermarking with Signili but if they were to close shop, there would be no way to read or check the watermark on images that have already been published.
Using the Signili detection app, I discovered that the watermark is not 100% effective. For example, the detection app does not identify a watermark in any images from this underwater series even though all the published images were watermarked.
Even when I upload the exact watermarked image as exported (the uploaded image and checked image are the same file), the watermark is not detected. This indicates that either there is an error with the watermark or the detection – but I have no way of knowing which.
It would be better if the Signili app would automatically certify that the watermark has been applied and is readable for every image exported – that way you would know if there was a problem or that the watermark might not be effective before you publish your images online.
One final small oddity with Signili’s manual watermark check – the confirmation messages are in German (Signili is a German company – but it’s a little weird to have to Google translate the messages!)
The easiest way I have found to incorporate Signili watermarking into my photography business is to export sets of finished images directly from the Lightroom plugin to a “Signili Watermarked” folder on Dropbox.
Then, whenever I publish a blog post or share an image on Instagram, 500px, Twitter or Facebook (those are all the outlets I publish to) I just grab whatever images I need from my Signili Dropbox folder knowing that whatever image I am using has already been watermarked and is ready to go.
It is a bit of a hassle when you are on the go and want to publish something from your mobile directly to Instagram or other social media platform. In those situations you could always use the online Signili app to apply your watermark before you send it out – but it requires an extra few steps and some restraint.
The Signili invisible watermarking software is so easy to use, and so effective my initial thought was that this is a service that every single photographer should use before publishing a single image online.
In fact, it’s so effective, that I can’t believe invisible digital watermarks are not the norm – imagine how much better life would be for creative professionals if cameras just attached an invisible digital watermark at the point of capture!
However, to justify the business case for investing in a monthly fee for a watermarking service like Signili, I think you need have to know how to pursue monetary compensation for infringement when you find it – or at least have a plan of what to do when you identify infringement (even if that is just a DMCA take down).
Personally, I use Pixsy to search for infringement cases and pursue monetary compensation on my behalf (which has been remarkable successful). When it comes to legal cases, proving copyright ownership is not actually very difficult (I have the original RAW image files and the infringer does not).
However, I see Signili as an essential complimentary service. When Pixsy identifies a possible infringement, I can use Signili to immediately check to see if the usage is legitimate or an infringement – it’s like having a big red X on an un-licensed image that nobody else can see.
A single infringement settlement easily pays for several years of Signili fees – so to me it is a good investment.
Signili is a relatively new company, and I do have a few key issues with the service.
It was a surprise to discover that Signili’s watermarks are not 100% reliable. I would like to know that every image I publish does in fact have a readable watermark when it is published. If there is a problem with the watermark, I need to know before I send it out.
The tracking time limit (currently capped at 6 months) and limit on discovery attempts (currently capped at 10 per image) also seem like a major limitation. My understanding is that Signili is working to extend these – but to be useful I need to be able to track watermarked images years into the future.
Having said that, I am pretty excited about the potential for pursuing copyright claims that using an invisible digital watermark enables, so I am willing to work around the current issues identified above.
For me, the potential return on investment is huge.
Would You Use An Invisible Watermark Service?
Have you tried Signili, Digimarc or another invisible digital watermarking service – how did it go?
Is there value in marking your photography with a secret watermark? Why or why not?
How would you incorporate invisible watermarks into your photography workflow?
Leave a comment below and let us know what you think!