When the jpeg is good enough

By Saturday, March 8, 2014 grafphoto
watermarks from hell

Is your image still safe?

Raise your hand if you have heard one of these statements before:

“The photos on my website aren’t large enough for print quality.”

“I am not concerned about web theft, only if someone steals for print.”

“I don’t like watermarks, web images aren’t good for printing anyway.”

I thought much the same, for many years actually, until a business experience that happened to me last year that threw a curve at me.   I was contacted by a publisher in Italy who wanted to use one of my images for the back cover of a new novel by Federico Moccia.   We negotiated and agreed upon the usage fee, and I was to send them a 300 dpi file once I received the PO.   I also asked if I could get a copy of the novel just for my own records.

A couple of weeks went by, and I am still waiting for the PO from their purchasing department.   Strangely enough, around the same time, I also received a package in the mail from Italy.    It was a copy of the novel with the use of my photo on the back, complete with photo credit on the inside cover.   My first reaction was I was pretty geeked to see it.   Mr. Moccia is no small time author in Italy.   Then it hit me.  HEY!!! – I never sent them the 300 dpi file! WTF?!  I was still waiting for the PO.

The image on the back was an alteration of my original image because they wanted to incorporate a heart shaped rock that related to something in the story.  The designer also took some liberties with the sky, and they cropped in a bit, added some space, and reversed the whole image.    It actually looked pretty good considering.   A little too good!   It was a normal sized paperback (around 5.5×8 inches/140 mm x 210 mm).   Very close inspection showed it wasn’t quite as sharp as a fine print would be, and you could see some artifacts if you got out the magnifying glass.   Nothing I think the average person would even notice for the back of a book.

Federico Moccia's Quell'attimo di felicitá

Federico Moccia’s Quell’attimo di felicitá

Well, I contacted the picture researcher to thank her for the book and to also ask how they did it given I hadn’t sent the file.   Since we had already had a lot of correspondence, I didn’t think I was getting ripped off.    I assumed they ran into a publishing deadline – which would be the more likely explanation for such a large company and author.  I got assurances that I would be paid per our agreement, but the question of how they did it went largely unanswered.   The only place they could have got it was from my website, or someplace else this particular image has been shared on the web, where the max size it could have been was around 750 pixels tall.   They even cropped in on those 750 pixels to create the final version.

From there it is a long story in dealing with the accounts payable department in Italy, dealing with the July/August European vacation time, etc, etc.   I did eventually get paid.   Happy ending right?   Well, the publication was nice, but it left in my head much larger questions.   How many photos are being printed, distributed, even published that I don’t know about?   Apparently web quality jpegs CAN be used for some print purposes.

Michael Russell did a nice series of posts recently on tracking down copyright infringements and I have previously written about doing reverse image searches.  But this only tracks down images that are online.    If you look at the Google Trends indicators for where nature pictures are being searched for, Sri Lanka and India come up high on the list. Pakistan, Lebanon – other places where, and I could be very wrong, I don’t think copyright laws are the foremost concern.

I have these mental pictures that range from some street vendor selling post cards or prints of the various photographs they have collected online to an actual publishing company printing calendars, books, who knows what else.   Is there something that can be done about it?  The only fool proof way is to take your work completely offline, and look at only your own prints or on your computer.   Well, what fun is that?

As it is now clear to me that even web jpegs can be used (and are being used!) for print publications, I suppose each of us has to make a personal decision on the time and investment you want to spend worrying about this or in tracking it down.  Obviously from this example, watermarks can be cropped out or removed with success.   I know some photographers complain about them.  I have used them ever since reading this post by Attorney Carolyn Wright:  Watermarks can be music to your ears.   They can give you some legal benefits in infringement situations.    Whether that becomes meaningful in some far off land, who knows.   

This particular instance just solidified to me that use of web jpegs are something that go beyond unauthorized use on someone’s blog or website.   They are indeed good enough for many purposes.


Join the discussion 16 Comments

  • Sagar says:

    Nice post

    I would firstly like to complete the title as “When the JPEG is good enough, sharing it can earn us money ” . There are many people who use the images of others without even asking the concerned person. They just rob those images even if it is copyrighted.

    Not many people are caught, but it is not a good way of using the images. If any image is copyrighted then firstly we should take the permission or should pay for the particular image to use. The best way to keep our own developed images safe is to make them copyrighted. The advantages by it is that no one would use our images or pictures and even if some one wants to, should pay or be approved by us.

    Thank you for sharing.

  • I’ve seen the images my mother has printed from my website of my grandkids and they are not that good. However, there certainly are those who have the skills to do otherwise. I’m glad you got the money. I’m also glad I’m not trying to make a living with my photography.
    Monte Stevens recently posted…It’s Good NewsMy Profile

  • Ive put images for Seniors on my facebook page and they will print them for thank you notes or invitations and they look pretty good.
    Bernie Kasper recently posted…Virginia Bluebells | Madison IndianaMy Profile

  • martin says:

    Put pictures on the internet is risky. Especially now that there is software for enlarging an image and give it a close look of orginale. Topaz Labs produced plugins that can do this kind of thing.

  • TCP says:

    Great article exactly explaining what Jpeg could be used for
    Thats right if you dont want ur prints else where stick it with ur computer alone…
    well said

  • Paul says:

    Wow! What a story, Mark. I’m glad that you finally got paid and got a copy of the book. Most certainly, putting anything on The Internet is risky, even if it is a ‘lowly’ jpg. 🙂
    Paul recently posted…Shutter lag and AF speedMy Profile

  • Earl says:

    Much as with the use of padlocks or locking your home’s door, watermarks and copyright registering is more for keeping the honest people honest. Real thieves will have all the knowledge and tools to quickly erase any trace of a photo’s originator and probably do a damn fine job of it to boot! Also there’s photo enlarging software which does an acceptable job of enlarging photos well beyond their original size — you can bet these theives will probably have priated copies of such software as well. It makes me glad I’m not trying to make a primary living via photography — I might not sleep so well.

    • Mark says:

      Software companies, musicians, and I suppose photographers have been dealing with this for a long time. It seems when anything can be passed along electronically with little deterioration of the original – the crooks swarm in. Maybe there will be an online registration technology for photographs someday that can’t be so easily stripped away. A new file format perhaps.

  • Tom Dills says:

    I’m one of the few people I know who bothers to register my photos with the copyright office, and sometimes I wonder if it is worth the effort. You could probably never get an attorney to take a case like yours, and even if you did, would you ever be able to collect enough to pay the fees? And tracking down someone in Sri Lanka or Beirut? Not a chance.

    A lot of people steal images because they are not aware of the law. Others, like the publisher in your example, knows full well what the value of an image is, although I suspect that what they did pay you was not what your image is actually worth for the usage.
    Tom Dills recently posted…March 2014 WallpaperMy Profile

  • I’ve heard of prints being made from screen grabs in situations where the photo was not available for download and as you say watermarks are no guarantee. As an alternative to keeping all your photos off the Internet, you could only post the crappiest photos you’ve got, the ones no one would want 😉
    Cedric Canard recently posted…The dead have the last laughMy Profile

  • I am not surprised that web images are being lifted for prints – but that they are of seemingly good quality is not great news. I had always imagined my usual maximum of 900 px wide could be printed as something like a 4×6 – and I guess the back of many books is not that much larger. I guess we can only hope that they advertise such books on the web so that we can find the print use that way?

    Thanks for mentioning my blog posts here I appreciate it!
    Michael Russell recently posted…Skutz Falls on the Cowichan RiverMy Profile

    • Mark says:

      Indeed! I guess interpolation is now evolved enough that the old 300 dpi rule doesn’t matter much anymore. I am going to try that ImageRights service you mention in your post Michael. I’ll start with the free version for now and see how it goes. Until then, I have blocked some countries I am suspicious of for this type of thing.

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