Navigating the Digital Seas: A Concise Guide to Digital Watermarking and Copyright Protection

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By Aleke Francis AO

The digital age has brought many benefits and opportunities for creators, but also many challenges and risks. Some of the most pressing issues is how to protect one’s intellectual property rights in the vast and often unregulated online environment. How can creators ensure that their works are not copied, modified, or distributed without their permission or compensation? How can they prove their ownership and authorship in case of disputes or infringements? How can they prevent or deter unauthorized uses of their works that may harm their reputation or income?

One possible solution is to use digital watermarking, a technique that embeds a hidden message or mark in a digital signal, such as an image, audio, video, or text file. A digital watermark can serve various purposes, such as:

✓ Identifying the owner or creator of the work.

✓ Verifying the authenticity or integrity of the work.

✓ Tracking the distribution or usage of the work.

✓ Enabling access control or licensing of the work.

✓ Providing additional information or metadata about the work.

Classification of Digital Watermarking
Digital watermarking can be classified into two main types: visible and invisible.
1. Visible watermarks: These are those that can be seen by human eyes, such as logos, text, or symbols that are overlaid on the original work.

2. Invisible watermarks: Comprises those that cannot be seen by human eyes, but can be detected by special software or devices. Invisible watermarks can be further divided into robust and fragile:
Robust watermarks: These watermarks are those that can withstand common modifications or attacks, such as compression, cropping, filtering, or noise.

Fragile watermarks: These are referred to those that can be easily destroyed or altered by such modifications or attacks, thus indicating tampering or corruption.

Common Techniques used to Embed Digital Watermarks
Depending on the type and purpose of the watermark, different methods and algorithms can be used to embed and extract it. Some of the common techniques include:

Spatial domain methods: These methods modify the pixel values of the original image or video to embed the watermark. For example, least significant bit (LSB) embedding changes the least significant bits of selected pixels to encode the watermark.

Frequency domain methods: These methods transform the original image or video into a frequency domain representation, such as discrete cosine transform (DCT), discrete Fourier transform (DFT), or discrete wavelet transform (DWT), and then modify the coefficients to embed the watermark.

Spread spectrum methods: These methods spread the watermark over a large frequency band using pseudorandom noise sequences, making it difficult to detect or remove.

Modulation methods: These methods modulate the amplitude, phase, or frequency of the original signal to embed the watermark. For example, amplitude modulation (AM) embedding changes the amplitude of selected samples to encode the watermark.

Encryption methods: These methods encrypt the watermark using a secret key before embedding it into the original signal. For example, chaotic encryption embedding uses a chaotic map to generate a random sequence that is used to encrypt and decrypt the watermark.

Limitations and Challenges of Digital Watermarking
Digital watermarking has many applications and advantages for creators, but it also has some limitations and challenges. Some of these include:

Trade-off between imperceptibility and robustness: A good watermark should be imperceptible to human senses, but also robust against attacks. However, these two properties are often conflicting. Increasing the imperceptibility may reduce the robustness, and vice versa.

Trade-off between capacity and security: A good watermark should have enough capacity to carry sufficient information, but also secure against unauthorized detection or extraction. However, these two properties are also often conflicting. Increasing the capacity may reduce the security, and vice versa.

Trade-off between complexity and efficiency: A good watermark should have low complexity and high efficiency in terms of computation time and resources. However, these two properties are also often conflicting. Increasing the complexity may improve the performance, but also increase the cost.

Legal and ethical issues: Digital watermarking involves modifying the original work, which may raise legal and ethical questions about ownership, consent, attribution, privacy, and fair use.

Some notable cases of digital watermarking and copyright infringements
Digital watermarking has been involved in several high-profile cases of copyright infringement in recent years. Some examples are:

The Associated Press vs. Fairey: In 2008, street artist Shepard Fairey created a poster of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama using a photograph taken by Mannie Garcia for the Associated Press (AP). The poster became a symbol of Obama’s campaign and was widely distributed and reproduced. In 2009, the AP claimed that Fairey had infringed its copyright by using the photograph without permission or credit. Fairey responded by suing the AP for a declaratory judgment of fair use, claiming that his poster was transformative and did not reduce the value of the original photograph. The case was settled in 2011, with Fairey agreeing to pay an undisclosed amount to the AP and share the profits from the poster. The case highlighted the role of digital watermarking in identifying the source and ownership of images, as the AP used a digital watermarking service called Digimarc to track down its photograph online.

Getty Images vs. Highsmith: In 2016, photographer Carol Highsmith sued Getty Images for $1 billion for allegedly infringing her copyright by licensing her photographs without her consent or credit. Highsmith had donated thousands of her photographs to the Library of Congress for public use, but Getty Images had obtained copies of them and added its own digital watermarks and metadata, claiming exclusive rights to them. Highsmith discovered this when she received a demand letter from Getty Images for using one of her own photographs on her website. The case was dismissed in 2017, with the court ruling that Highsmith had no standing to sue because she had effectively waived her exclusive rights by donating her photographs to the public domain. The case raised questions about the legality and ethics of adding digital watermarks and metadata to public domain works.

BMG vs. Cox: In 2018, music publisher BMG won a $25 million verdict against internet service provider (ISP) Cox Communications for contributory infringement of its musical works by Cox’s subscribers. BMG had hired a company called Rightscorp to monitor online piracy of its works using digital watermarking technology. Rightscorp sent thousands of notices to Cox, demanding that it terminate or suspend the accounts of infringing subscribers. Cox refused to do so, arguing that it was protected by the safe harbor provision of the DMCA, which shields ISPs from liability if they adopt and reasonably implement a policy of terminating repeat infringers. The court rejected Cox’s argument, finding that its policy was not reasonable or effective, and that it had willfully ignored Rightscorp’s notices. The case demonstrated the use of digital watermarking as a means of enforcing copyright online.

The case of Musical Copyright Society of Nigeria (MCSN) v. Compact Disc Technologies Ltd: The Federal High Court awarded N3 million as damages to MCSN for the infringement of its musical works by the defendant, who reproduced and sold pirated copies of CDs and DVDs without MCSN’s authorization.

The case of Musical Copyright Society of Nigeria (MCSN) v. Details Nigeria Limited: The Federal High Court in her verdict awarded N5 million as damages to MCSN for the infringement of its musical works by the defendant, who broadcasted and communicated MCSN’s repertoire to the public without its license.

The case of Kraft Foods Holdings Inc. v. Allied Biscuits Co. Ltd: The Federal High Court ordered the removal of the defendant’s trademark “Oreo” from the Trademarks Register, as it was confusingly similar to the plaintiff’s trademark “Oreo”, which had been registered and used in Nigeria since 1963.

The case of L’Oreal v. Bellurey: The Federal High Court granted an injunction restraining the defendant from importing, distributing, selling, or offering for sale any products bearing the plaintiff’s trademarks “L’Oreal”, “Lancome”, “Garnier”, or any other mark similar or identical to them, as it amounted to unfair competition and passing off.

Benefits of Digital Watermarking
Despite these challenges, digital watermarking remains a valuable tool for creators to protect their rights and interests in the digital world.

However, it is not a panacea that can solve all problems. It should be used in conjunction with other measures, such as:
Registration: Creators should register their works with appropriate authorities or agencies to establish their ownership and authorship.

Licensing: Creators should use clear and enforceable licenses to specify the terms and conditions of using their works.

Education: Creators should educate themselves and others about their rights and responsibilities in relation to intellectual property laws and norms.

Enforcement: Creators should monitor and enforce their rights against infringers using legal or technical means.

Notably, Digital watermarking is a powerful technique that can help creators protect their intellectual property rights in the digital age. However, it is not without limitations and challenges, and it should be used wisely and responsibly. Creators should also be aware of their rights and obligations under intellectual property laws and norms, and seek legal or technical assistance when necessary. By doing so, they can navigate the digital seas with confidence and creativity.


Aleke Francis AO is a Cybersecurity expert, CyberThreat Intelligence Analyst, Researcher and an InfoTech blogger –, 08062062303