DRM never works and only frustrates your customers. Watermarks obscure and degrade the images you want potential clients to appreciate (and can easily be removed by anyone with PhotoShop in a few minutes). What, then, is the solution?

For a long time, traditional copyright has been the only answer. Copyright (which is automatically granted to every creative work; a formal process is not necessary) asserts the ownership of a work, rights that are enforceable in a court of law (assuming you have the money to do so).

Traditional copyright is absolute: one entity owns all the rights to the work, and no-one else does. (Under current Canadian law there is no provision for “fair use”, not even for the purposes of parody). Large corporations love copyright, and are constantly lobbying to extend the law’s reach, providing themselves with greater control over the use of their intellectual property.

The rest of us – designers, creative and entrepreneurs – aren’t that avaricious. Most of us wouldn’t object to a six-year old using an illustration we made as the cover of a birthday card for her mother, even if it is, technically, a violation of copyright. We have pride in our work, and want a degree of control over its use; at the same time, we recognize that the digital economy works on the open distribution of content. We want as many people as possible exposed to our work, to see it plastered on websites and talked over. That isn’t going to happen if we slap a giant watermark over the image. We want to gain attention, reputation, and work; we just don’t want to be ripped off.

Over the last 20 years, alternatives to copyright – legally enforceable solutions that recognize the right of a creator to be associated with their work, but also promote free distribution – have become well established. They go by many different names – “copyleft”, the open source movement – but all have the same premise: a willingness to share content, the right to use it in a not-for-profit manner, and accreditation for work.

Probably the best-supported of these systems is the Creative Commons license. The text you’re reading right now is licensed under Creative Commons, as are all the images and code on this blog. The license is very simple:

  • you can take this work, adapting it for your own purposes if you so choose
  • when you do so, you must provide credit to me
  • you cannot use my work or your derivation of it for profit
  • your derivative work must be shared under the same conditions under which I provide this work to you.

The Creative Commons license has been legally tested, and is applicable to all forms of media: text, images, video, music, and software. It’s easy to gain a license: one can be automatically generated for you with just a few clicks. It provides the best of everything: legally unimpeachable rights of ownership, built-in publicity (Google, along with many other companies, promote open-source content), and a pragmatic approach to sharing your work with everyday people who will promote it on your behalf. In a world based on links and reputation, Creative Commons is a near-ideal solution: there are even for-profit versions of the license.

Still want to watermark and identify your work? There’s nothing wrong with that: just place the watermark discreetly in a corner, so as not to obscure the beauty of the image. Need to built in more proof that it’s your work? Use to add metadata to individual images via the File / File Info… menu and turn on the option to include the metadata when you export the image in a web-ready format.

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