Leonardo da Vinci died over 500 years ago. He was not only one of the greatest painters of all time, he also had a mind for science and invention and technical ingenuity. What methods would he have devised in the 21st century to protect his great works of art?
One of the great things about the World Wide Web and websites in general is that more information is available to us in a few seconds than we ever could have imagined just a couple of decades ago. And, through our browsers or other means, it’s also very easy to copy that information.
Intellectual property (IP), according to Wikipedia, is a category of property that includes intangible creations of the human intellect. The most well-known types of IP are copyrights, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets. So, unlike the land your house is sitting on or the car in your driveway, intellectual property doesn’t really have any physical substance. But that doesn’t make it any less the property of a person, corporation, or organization.
At one time, things like music, artwork, and photos existed mainly in the physical realm; music was expressed in notation on pages of paper and artwork and photos were things that could be touched and held. These days, such things can now also be manifested in digital forms and they are well within the definition of IP.
When it comes to your website, pretty well every single element is “free for the picking” — not necessarily by choice. So, not only are those well-crafted words easily copied onto somebody else’s computer in the blink of an eye, but also any of the website’s graphical or other visual components. Photographs, logos, graphical elements — all can all be easily “borrowed” by anyone visiting your website. Of course, I use the term borrowed as a euphemism for what it really is — stealing.
How Is the Stealing Accomplished?
There are free software tools available to literally copy an entire website to one’s local hard drive. (I often use such things when I’m renovating a website and want to have all of its assets close-at-hand.) Once there, the possessor can then pick through it and grab whatever elements it desires. If they are then reused in some way without the owner’s knowledge or permission, I think most of us could then define them as “stolen.” That could be as seemingly-innocuous as printing a high-resolution photo of a painting for framing and hanging on the thief’s wall.
Most of the time, website content is stolen simply by right-clicking. (Windows and Linux users will understand this term, which refers to clicking the right button of their mouse. Apple users will know this as a control-click.) That is, once your mouse pointer is hovered over a graphical image or photo, or you’ve highlighted some text on the page, right-clicking then gives you the option to save whatever you’ve targeted as a file to your computer. It’s as simple as that.
As I’ve aluded to a few paragraphs before, what you actually then do with what you’ve just copied constitutes the difference between simply putting the content into a different form for your personal consumption, or outright larceny.
While recorded music (or sound in general) is an IP and can be stolen from websites and words can be plagiarized, the subject of this post is going to mainly centre on the protection of a website’s graphics, which includes photographs.
The Conflict of Fidelity
While fidelity can mean faithfulness, know that I’m using its other definition: “the degree of exactness with which something is copied or reproduced.” The recorded music term “hi-fi” is really a compact form of “high-fidelity.”
The conflict I refer to in this section title is simply this:
We want to give your website visitors the best experience possible and that means delivering your content in the most hi-fi form possible. The trouble is, by providing those high-quality assets for your visitors to view, you’re also giving them something to easily make perfect, pristine copies of! I guess this is a bit of an irony. If you’re an artist you wouldn’t want to display fuzzy, poor-quality photos of your artwork because they wouldn’t be representative of the quality of your talent. However, the better the image you give the thief, the more inclined they might be to avoid paying you for it.
That section title sounds as if I’m trying to implement those tags that we find in retail stores on expensive clothing and such — but effectively it’s much the same thing! You don’t want people to easily steal and use your IP!
The simplest method of stopping digital thieves is to simply disable the website visitor’s ability to right-click. This can be done easily with a free WordPress plugin. Know that this is an “all-or-nothing” thing and it’ll not only prevent someone from grabbing your website’s graphics and such but also literally any piece of text that’s on it. So, for example, an email address or a website URL in literal terms on your website is going to frustrate users who’re used to simply cutting and pasting it to their email software or browser URL area. (Fortunately, this won’t be an issue if you’re a conscientous websmith like me and embed such things into hyperlinks on websites!) But other things like someone’s name or other text aren’t going to be able to be easily grabbed by your computer-literate website visitors.
The trouble with this seemingly-perfect strategy is that getting around the right-click method is child’s play for someone who knows what they’re doing. All browsers have the built-in ability to view the source code of any web page. Someone merely has to look at it and they’ll get the direct links to all of your beautiful photos and such. From there, it’s a pretty easy steal.
In summary, this “kill the right-click” strategy only stops the user who has a low or moderate level of internet knowledge.
The only other way to stop a direct steal is to alter the photo in such a way that its reuse would be cumbersome or burdensome to the thief. The most common method for that is an embedded watermark.
Watermarks have been used for a long time to authenticate everything from currency to stock certificates and the term has been borrowed for the digital world. There’s nothing tangible about the computer file that holds your artwork image, so we’re left to embedding “an image within an image,” so to speak. The idea is that, this added image will be hard to remove – even digitally. This is because it must be replaced with something and the thief (or more accurately the computer graphics software he or she is using), needs some significant “conjecture power” to try and replace what’s been removed.
Three watermarking strategies are displayed above for your consideration. There are obviously some definite pros and cons with each. In any case, a watermark lowers the quality of the image, hopefully not too much.
For high-value digital assets, digital watermarks are possible, but you need to understand just what they are and how they function. In short, a “marker” is hidden somewhere within the digital file that doesn’t obviously change the asset, whether it’s an image, audio, or any other “art” that can be expressed in digital form. Were someone to copy your artwork from your website, you could use this technique to prove that it was originally yours; buried deep within the file would be that marker. However, the point of the marker is to be virtually invisible, so it wouldn’t prevent someone from grabbing a high-res photo of a painting and then have it reproduced on a poster that they hung on their living room wall.
In summary, there is no “perfect solution” to preventing digital thieves from making off with your website content. What you are willing to settle for will be the deciding factor and the hope that karma, in some form, will eventually find its way into the life of the poacher.