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Internet ‘Watermark’ Guards Images

October 11, 1997

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) _ Theft on the Internet is as easy a mouse click.

Just ask World Wide Web-site designer Gary Shade, who has found 10 other Web sites displaying his custom images.

The problem is endemic on the Internet: Digital technology allows for perfect reproductions of images. And once an image is posted on the World Wide Web, it can be downloaded by anyone, anywhere, anonymously. Publishers say it’s nearly impossible to enforce copyright laws on the Internet.

But Digimarc Corp. has a solution. Its PictureMarc product embeds an indelible ``watermark″ into electronic images and files. And its MarcSpider tracks down every computer that downloads the image, and reports back to the creator.

``It’s an incredible way to protect yourself on the Internet,″ said Anthony Lupo, a Washington-based attorney who specializes in Internet law. ``The hardest thing is finding out where infringements are. MarcSpider takes care of that.″

The secret is ``noise″ _ embedding a pattern into the image that’s imperceptible to the human eye but readily detected by PictureMarc or a simple electronic scanner.

Creator Geoffrey Rhoads, a physicist and amateur photographer, devised a way to photograph deep-space objects with near perfection. He found that by removing the light refraction and distortion _ or visual noise _ caused by Earth’s atmosphere, he could match the quality of photos coming from the Hubble space telescope.

But his copyright images began appearing on magazine covers and other people’s Web pages without permission or attribution. The problem prompted Rhoads to tweak the concept of noise: If he could remove it, he could add it.

Fifteen patents later, the 2-year-old company has exclusive agreements with software companies such as Adobe Systems Inc. and the backing of investors such as AVI Venture Capital and Softbank Corp., Japan’s largest computer software distributor.

``We are bundled in 90 percent of digital-imaging software being shipped worldwide today,″ said Larry Logan, director of creative marketing.

The watermark technology can be applied to photographs, printed material, graphics, video and security products. It even can be used in car paint.

The company regularly gets calls from investors, and from businesses unrelated to high technology who think the technology could help them.

``The patents are so broad our challenge is always keeping focus,″ Logan said.

For now, the focus is on stock photo and art agencies. Digimarc has attracted alliances with large media companies such as Playboy Enterprises, 20th Century Fox and Chrysler Corp. Soon, the technology is expected to show up in browsers _ the software programs that allow people to look at the Web.

Lupo said litigation can cost $25,000 to $75,000 for people without the registered copyrights who have to prove damages. That’s on top of proving they own the original images, and it doesn’t include attorney’s fees.

With Digimarc, he said, ``you’ve given your attorney a phenomenal case″ because the image has an indelible imprint proving its source, and the copyright is registered. The copyright holder is automatically entitled to $250,000 to $500,000 dollars per infringement.

Shade said the watermark helped his company, Minnesota-based Shade’s Landing, avoid litigation. ``It just scared the devil out of″ the thief in the one case in which he had the watermark.

Digimarc insists, however, its goal isn’t to police the Internet. It wants to enable commerce.

Market research revealed that out of all the Internet theft, only 20 percent was intentional. The other 80 percent was done in ignorance or for lack of information that would allow the infringer to contact the source for permission.

When a person begins to download an image to a personal computer, a warning sign appears saying it’s a copyright image. But it also provides a link to Digimarc’s Web page. Digimarc, in turn, provides links to the artists’ Web pages as well as a fax-back service.

The watermark can’t be marred by cutting up the image, either. The watermark is embedded in every pixel. It’s almost like digital DNA.

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