Inspired by this poorly worded question on graphicdesign.stackexchange:

I want to remove a text watermark

Is illegal to remove watermarks?

Off the top of my head I can think of 3 possible legitimate reasons:

  1. The watermark was created by the author who accidentally deletes the original. Now he want's to know how to remove the watermark.
  2. The work is abandoned copyright (grey area?) For example: The watermark could be a logo from a screenshot from an old TV network that no longer exists. Question asker could ask how to remove that watermark for personal non-commercial reasons.
  3. Someone who just wants to learn a skill. IAMAL so the following statement may be incorrect. Correct me if I'm wrong. It would not be considered copyright infringement if someone downloads a sample watermarked image just for the purpose to remove the watermark. After removing the watermark the image is immediately deleted. The image isn't technically being used in any original work. Downloading a publicly displayed watermarked image to your desktop is not illegal as far as I know. Modifying it to learn a skill and then deleting it isn't illegal either. So, no law is being broken.

I think #3 might be the weakest argument I can make because I'm not a (US) copyright expert. However, I still believe there are some legitimate reasons to allow watermark removal questions like this. (If the question isn't worded as poorly)

For an example of abandoned copyright I have the following source. I know it doesn't have to do with art specifically but it proves that copyrighted material can be abandoned and even given a free pass to some extent. (again in my favorite color grey)

The Internet Archive has created an archive of what it describes as "vintage software", as a way to preserve them. The project advocated for an exemption from the United States Digital Millennium Copyright Act to permit them to bypass copy protection, which was approved in 2003 for a period of three years. The exemption was renewed in 2006, and as of 27 October 2009, has been indefinitely extended pending further rulemakings (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abandonware)

  • Feel free to edit my question in any way at all that you think would make it worded or organized better. – LateralTerminal Jan 26 '18 at 18:10
  • 1
    Your example of abandoned copyright is clearly not valid, when the explanation of its origin and use is for software only. You have several other misconceptions about what does and does not breach copyright, which make me think you did not read the basics and should probably browse copyright a lot more. – Nij Jan 26 '18 at 20:54
  • If you redistribute copyrighted material without permission it is still infringement whether you remove watermarks or not. – Brandin Oct 10 '18 at 5:10
  • If The Internet Archive did receive specific permission to distribute some works, or if the copyright holders of works choose not to litigate against The Internet Archive, this does not mean the copyrights were abandoned. – Brandin Oct 10 '18 at 5:12

From the perspective of US law:

Scenario 1: Removing the watermark is perfectly legal, obviously. You own the copyright.

Scenario 2: Abandonware is not really a thing in the US when it comes to copyright (and the Wikipedia article you linked says this.) Even if the company went out of business, the copyright almost certainly went to somebody - the former owners, the creditors, etc. As far as the Internet Archive goes, they are taking advantage of an exemption in the DMCA's anti-circumvention provisions, along with the copyright exemption found in 17 USC § 108. But both of these exemptions require you to be a "library or archive" to take advantage of them, and you are not a library or archive, so you cannot take advantage of either.

As a practical matter, if the software is really abandoned it's unlikely that anyone will actually come after you for infringement, but that's not quite the same as it being legal - you could be on the hook for up to $150,000 in statutory damages per work infringed, if the owner does sue you.

You could attempt to claim fair use, of course. If the image is abandoned you might get a favorable result on factor 4 of the fair use test (the effect on the market for the original) since there's no market if nobody can find the owner. But it would depend on the other factors; that alone wouldn't get you fair use.

Scenario 3: I'm not sure where you get the idea that downloading a copyrighted image to your desktop is somehow protected. It isn't automatically legal to save a copy of something just because it's on the Internet. And the existence of a watermark may indicate that someone wanted to prevent the file from being copied.

The website containing the image will likely have terms of use, which may indicate whether or not you're allowed to make a copy. For example, Stack Exchange's TOS says in part:

Subscriber may download or copy the Content, and other items displayed on the Network for download, for personal use, provided that Subscriber maintains all copyright and other notices contained in such Content.

  • I think the watermark means the copyright holder was Ok with me having a copy with watermark, but wasn't Ok with me having a copy without watermark. For example, I have seen wedding photographers handing out copies with watermark for free, and charging for copies without watermark. – gnasher729 Oct 11 '18 at 8:00
  • @gnasher729 It could mean that sometimes, but it's not safe to assume that, either. Certainly the wedding photographer would not be OK with it if you bought none of the photographs and just made copies of the watermarked photos. – D M Oct 11 '18 at 22:31

Removing a watermark is essentially creating a modified version of a work. This is inherently infringing unless:

  • the work is not copyrighted (unlikely for a watermarked digital work, although a digital version of a public domain work that is a straight transcription or slavish copy with no added content or formatting might have no valid copyright); or
  • you have permission to modify the work, perhaps because it is under a license which allows modification, such as a CC-BY license; or
  • creating the modified version is a fair use (in US law only); or
  • creating the modified version is permitted by some specific exemption in the copyright law of your jurisdiction (unlikely to apply here).

Distributing the un-watermarked version will be a further infringement unless one of the above circumstances applies.

  • In the original question's scenario 1 the modifier has permission, as s/he holds the copyright.
  • In scenario 2 fair use might apply, but probably not.
  • In scenario 3 fair use again might apply.

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