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Digital application of analog concept helps protect creative work

Back in the 13th century, someone in Italy got very clever with their paper making processes and developed the watermark. This is a term that might be new to many readers in the digital age. It comes from the analog world, after all.

The watermark is a faint design embedded into some paper stock. It is visible only under certain conditions, such as when the paper is held up to a light. Their purpose from the outset has been to provide users a measure of security against forgery and counterfeiting. Governments commonly use watermarking to secure documents, stamps and currency.

In the digital environment, items exist as electronic files. This can present some interesting copyright challenges for those who produce written or graphic work these days. Once it is on the internet, what is to prevent someone from copying and using the material – presenting it as their own?

Enter the digital watermark

Digital watermarking can be similar to analog watermarking, but it can also provide some greater defensive flexibility. A graphic artist wanting to establish copyright control over his or her work can employ an overlay system that creates a "stamp" image. The benefit is that it serves to highlight the source of the work. However, as some in the graphics field note, some users sometimes just crop out the mark.

In response to that, some artists have come up with clever ways of incorporating the watermark somewhere within their pieces. It's well camouflaged so that it doesn't stand out, and it can't be removed without corrupting the copied work.

A more sophisticated alternative, and one that is likely to cost more, is embedding creative information within the metadata of the electronic file. By definition, metadata is data within the coding that identifies the creator, the date of the work, and more. What it does is effectively create a catalog record that follows the work wherever it goes, thus making it possible to track how and when an asset is used. If it is misappropriated, defensive action becomes much easier.

Whether digital watermarking is something for you to consider depends on your situation. To be sure you understand all your options, it's wise to consult with an experienced intellectual property attorney.

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