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Software guards Web copyrights

A new technology called digital watermarking could prove a useful tool in protecting the copyrights of Web-based graphics and images.

Taehyun Kim needs protection. The graduate student at Ohio State University claims that the local alternative paper, the Columbus Alive, took a photo without permission from his Web site and used it to illustrate a story on the paper's AliveWired site. Not only that, Kim says, but the Alive staff added a bit of pink to spruce up the black-and-white shot of a protester with a mohawk.

Kim is not the only photographer who has such problems. Copying a photo from someone's site is as easy as clicking and dragging it to the desktop. And often the photographers have little recourse. Alive staff did not respond to email or phone calls by press time.

To protect copyrights, photographers are turning to a new technology called digital watermarking that, while new and relatively untested, could prove a useful tool in not only preventing photos from getting ripped off but also serving as an information tag to point potential customers toward creators whose work they'd like to license.

Not all digital watermarks are the same. One version, incorporated in upcoming versions of Adobe Photoshop and Corel Draw and Photopaint, is from Digimarc.

The company's PictureMarc technology embeds an ID number assigned to the photographer within the photo by slightly altering the color of individual pixels and creating an invisible pattern across the photo. If a photo is cropped or if it is printed and then scanned back into a computer the watermark remains, the company says.

But the process is not foolproof. Certain distortion effects in graphics programs can deteriorate the watermark. Another drawback is that the watermark doesn't stop anyone from copying the photo. Its purpose is to serve notice when a photo is viewed that it belongs to someone.

"We've focused heavily on this as a communications vehicle," said Scott Carr, Digimarc director of marketing.

When a user opens a watermarked file within Photoshop, Photopaint, or with Digimarc's standalone viewer, the international copyright symbol appears in the title bar and a button offers to link back to the photographer's home page on Digimarc's MarcCentre online service. Photographers using the watermark don't have to join MarcCentre, but Digimarc is banking on the service as a revenue source.

Some photographers are concerned that the system will hamper free and easy access to copyright protection methods. Postings to the National Press Photographers Association discussion list have advocated a free, standardized creator-ID registration system and opposed Digimarc's solution, which charges an annual registration fee.

Whereas Digimarc is more concerned with getting photographers and prospective buyers together, another technique is tailored to stopping the copying before it happens. Corbis, a private company funded by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, has developed a watermark to protect the millions of stock photos it has acquired, including the famous Bettmann Archive.

"Prevention is 100 times better than going after someone after the fact," said Karen Akiyama, manager of business and legal affairs at Corbis.

Photos on the company's Web site appear with the superimposed Corbis logo and are impossible to download or print without the blemish. It is possible to view them unblemished by holding down a combination of keys, which neutralizes or "handcuffs" the keyboard's ability to print or copy. But Corbis acknowledged that the handcuff approach isn't good for commercial scenarios, like when a consumer plunks down $50 for an art-gallery CD-ROM, or for freelance photographers who need an online showcase for their work.

"If other companies get the idea and develop something similar, that's great," said Akiyama. "But it's not something we're looking to market. It's just to protect the images in our archive."

Other common-sense methods of copyright protection are also cropping up across the Web. Frustrated by copycats who cropped out their watermark, Webmasters of the Dogphoto site took their cue from the license agreements on software packages and installed a click-through on their front page that basically forces visitors to acknowledge that the photos they're about to see are protected.

Other photographers-cum-Webmasters post only low-resolution photos, add a slight blur or discoloration, or add copyright symbols. None of these strategies prevent rip-offs, but at least they heighten awareness or add a pinch of guilt.

As the nascent technology evolves, companies like Digimarc, DICE, NetRights, and NEC are all looking into ways to protect copyright in digital audio and video files.

In the meantime, there's nothing wrong with a little faith in human nature.

"I don't think a specific technology is going to solve the copyright [issue]," said Evan Nisselson, photo editor of @Home. "What will solve it is people's morals."