Ownership & Copyright [Updated]

Short Version:
You can’t watermark images of artwork or photographs you don’t own the copyrights to. No, even if you buy a book and scan the images.

TLDR Version:
There’s a Tumblr I follow called Vintagegal. The site features tons of photos of classic movie stars from the 1920’s through to the 1970’s as well as pinup illustrations and shots from horror films.

It seems though, that the site’s creator, Cat, is confused about copyright law. In a post from 1 November titled, Here We Go Again, she (unintentionally) makes it clear how little she understands.

Below is the post in it’s entirety:

People you are just going to have to get over the fact that I will indeed watermark my scans. Just like people watermark their gifs.

I can physically hold these pictures, so yes I own them. I paid for them. I bid on them. I buy things and take the time to scan and edit them to share. And since people constantly re-post them, yes I will watermark them.

The hypocrisy that makes it ok to watermark gifs and not scans on here is ridiculous.

I am sorry some of you STILL can’t grasp this concept.

I really do not care if you choose to unfollow for this reason, or any reason, just don’t waste my time sending me some lame message about it.

Reposting is not the same as re-blogging.

This is the last time I will ever address this.

Cat is not the only person ignorant of what is legal and not legal in the realm of copyrights surround art and reproductions of art. I’ll even be the first one to admit I have a lot to learn on the subject.

But I do know this: When you buy a book of artwork (photographs, paintings, illustrations) and then scan images from the book and post them on your blog, you do not have the right to put your watermark on them. You actually don’t even have the right to post them to your website in the first place. You do not own the copyrights to those images. The right to copy is not yours. Is this sinking in?

This is similar to a DJ who creates a carefully curated playlist of tracks by other musicians and thinks it’s ok to “watermark” a voiceover saying their DJ name on top of the tracks they’ve arranged. You can’t do that.

In the case of a work of art, the copyright usually resides with the artist or artist’s estate, if they’re deceased. In the case of stills (or animated GIFs) from movies, the copyright usually resides with the movie studio that produced it.

I understand these laws when I post images to Daily Exhaust I don’t own the copyrights to. How does the law work when there’s a violation? The copyright owner contacts me about the offending image and I take it down.

The other issue Vintagegal brings up in her post involves reposting versus reblogging. Reblogging is an important function on Tumblr, where her site is hosted. Reblogging a post from someone else’s Tumblr on to your Tumblr maintains the trail of attribution. Reblogging allows you to see where the content of the post you’re looking at originated. It’s part of what makes Tumblr such a thriving community.

I agree with Vintagegal that reblogging is not only important on Tumblr, it’s just plain courteous. In the case of Daily Exhaust, I host it on a shared server environment on Dreamhost and I’ve been using Movable Type for my blogging software since I launched the site in 2006. Movable Type has no built-in reblogging feature which means I manually type in and link to the sources of my posts. The Internet is built on the strength of links and I think it’s important to give credit where it’s due and who knows, when someone sees I’m linking to their site, they might end up interested in Daily Exhaust and decide to reference one of my posts.

There’s another detail about reposting I should mention: I always download, rename and upload images to my server when constructing my posts. I do this for two reasons. First, it’s illegal to deep link to an image on someone else’s site. It’s called ‘bandwidth stealing’ because you’re not hosting the image, but reaping all the benefits of showcasing it on your site. And what if your site receives thousands of visitors a day and the site you’re deep linking to has a small bandwidth cap? You could potentially cost that person thousands of dollars. The second reason I re-upload images to my site is so it can be as self-contained an archive as possible. Sure, embedded YouTube videos eventually die, but I at least want the images posted to Daily Exhaust to last as long as the words written on it do.

But just because someone does not reblog or link back to your post does not give you the right to watermark images. In fact, if I wanted to, I could crop off any (illegal) watermarks from images I find and repost them on my site. In turn, I would also have to take down those images if the copyright holder asked me to.

Note: There are scenarios I have not accounted for in this post where you can post copyrighted material without risk of prosecution, such as reproducing images in educational environments. I also didn’t discuss images in the public domain.

Update: Reader (and law student) Eli Stoughton emailed me to correct my use of the term “deep linking”:

What you are doing is actually the exact opposite of what you would want to do to steer clear of infringing. What you are describing is not deep linking, but actually inline linking. And the legal precedent on inline linking is that inline linking is not infringement. The reason for this is that when you inline link an image, you have not copied that image on your server. In fact, you are merely telling the web browser to display that image. If you, instead, make a copy of the image on your server, then this constitutes making a copy and could potentially be infringement.
So, despite the fact that your intentions are well-meaning, the way you are doing things could be found to be infringement, whereas if you were inline linking, you would most likely be in the clear.

I’m happy people are keeping me on point. While my process of copying images to my server is more of a copyright infringement than inline linking to another site, I’d still rather have a archive of posts without broken image links (that I might have to take down) than to feed off of someone else’s bandwidth.

Truth be told, most of the images I post on Daily Exhaust run little risk of being taken down since many times they’re kitschy ads and illustrations from books and magazines from the early 20th century or photos by people who know and are ok with me reposting their work (like Just A Car Guy).

In my experience, if your intentions are good and you properly credit and link back to your sources, most people don’t have a problem when you repost their content.

Update 2: Seems Vintagegal has pulled the link I was referencing from her Tumblr. I’m not sure why. I guess she doesn’t realize it’s still accessible via Google Cache.