Who owns your identity?

IN THE DIGITAL AGE, "watermarking" is going to be crucial. What it means in practice is simple: a computer "stamps" your identity on a piece of work, so that unauthorised uses can be detected and prosecuted. And, hey presto, photographers who buy the latest version 4 of Adobe's popular PhotoShop program get a free watermarking tool. Good news? Not at all.

There are a dozen competing technologies for digitally watermarking photographs. All use the same fundamental principle. They rearrange the "noise" which is present in all images, and use magic maths to encode an identifying number in the rearrangement. It should be possible to bury a number in any image much bigger than a single-column mugshot, without it being visible to the human eye.

Because the number is spread across the whole image area, even fragments used in a montage may be identifiable. With the best systems, you can watermark a photo; have it printed in a magazine; scan the printed picture back into a computer - and still retrieve the watermark.

The PictureMarc™ system from Digimarc, chosen by Adobe, seems to be technically sound. The problem is this: to use it, you need to pay US$150 a year to Digimarc to register your identifier number. This allows people who receive copies of your digital photos to contact Digimarc, and be put in touch with you.

It gets worse in the small print. Digimarc reserve the right to re-allocate your identifier number if you stop paying them the $150 a year.

That means that once you've signed up, you're hooked -- if you quit, enquiries about your pictures will eventually go to someone else.

NUJ Deputy General Secretary Jacob Ecclestone is adamant that the Union should resist this kind of privatisation of identity. The Freelance agrees.

The Association of Photographers' Digital Imaging Group, which first drew our attention to the matter, also opposes it.

If watermarking is going to work in the long run, it's going to be based on coding systems which are public standards, as the "language" of Web pages is. The alternative is like making people obtain different brands of "tyre" to travel different bits of the information highway.

If you're a digital photographer, what can you do? Spread the word: Adobe's made the wrong decision, and despite its huge market share, it's not going to set the standard. Because you say so, that's why not.

Mike Holderness

Jan/Feb 1997

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