If you are using images or see pictures you would like to use that have watermarks, you may wonder if you are allowed to remove the watermark from them.
In short, it is absolutely illegal to remove a watermark from any picture. This falls under the US Copyright Act, section 1202. A watermark can’t be removed without the explicit consent of the owner.
That is the basic answer to this question, but below we will give you a little more insight into watermarks and the laws that protect them.
Is It Illegal to Remove a Watermark from a Picture
Copyright laws, in general, can be quite daunting to search through, and many people have mistakenly used copyrighted material. There are hefty fines and penalties for breaking these laws.
As far as watermarks go and the legality of removing them and the language of the Copyright Act itself, are relatively straightforward. This means that under no circumstance is it legal to remove a watermark without the direct consent of the person who owns the picture rights.
Why Is It Illegal to Remove Watermarks
Besides the fact the Copyright Act exists, it’s morally and ethically wrong to steal someone’s work. Artists work hard to capture beautiful images to either showcase or sell. Theft of photos happens more often to smaller artists and not big corporations.
What is happening is people may see the image you removed the watermark from and with no link back to them, get zero recognition for the hard work they put in to deliver that image, regardless if it’s actual pictures taken or digital art.
There are severe consequences to breaking copyright laws and that should make anyone take a second to think about their actions. Is it really worth having to pay thousands in fines or do jail time?
Not only do you need to be concerned about the government coming after you for criminal charges, but you can be sued civilly as well. What this means is you can have criminal charges leveraged against you and be sued by the artist or company.
There is no set amount for how much a person can sue you for in this scenario, but you are looking at very hefty lawsuits and if you lose, court fees are tacked onto that as well.
One of the penalties for copyright infringement can include up to 5 years in prison. This also isn’t simply going to jail, more often than not it is charged as a federal crime. The federal government can charge it as a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the situation.
Removing a watermark and using it may end up leaning more toward the felony charge. You may also think you won’t get charged or caught, but the truth is you can simply be the unlucky person that does get caught.
Each violation can be charged up to $250,000 PER violation.
And again, the likelihood of being hit with such a massive fine is not super likely. However, it is significantly cheaper to simply purchase the rights to an image than it is to be hit with any amount of fine from the government.
How to Use a Watermarked Image
You can’t legally remove the watermark and use the image however you want. There are a couple of solutions here if you genuinely love the image!
Pay the Artist
This is the easiest and most straightforward way to get what you want. Reach out to the copyright holder and ask them if you can purchase a watermark-free version of the image. Remember, they are not obligated to sell the rights if they do not want to.
Keep in mind, you do need to inform them it is for commercial use if you plan to sell the image on any type of merch or print. Commercial use fees are significantly more expensive, but if you are caught the artist may sue for the income you earned on selling copies of their work.
Ask the Artist
If you don’t plan on showcasing the picture anywhere, some artists will allow you to have the photo without a watermark. You need to get their consent for it and they’ll send you the file.
Keep in mind, you can’t suddenly change your mind and try to use it publicly to make money off of it because you can be sued.
Copyright comes with some pretty strict guidelines on how to maneuver the sometimes very confusing field. However, never remove a watermark without the copyright holder’s permission or you may land yourself in hot water.
Just because an image is publicly posted somewhere, that does not mean it is free to use however people would like.