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Getty Images experiments with a new stamp of ownership

How do you stop copyright infringement when it is as simple as copy and paste – or in the case of images, right-click followed by save-as?

One way is to adopt the attitude that if you can't beat them, join them. But this mantra is easier to say than do when your business is built on digital, creative content.

Getty Images, the world's biggest digital image agency, is trying a counter-intuitive approach that actually removes a barrier to infringement. The company has completely revamped its digital "watermark" – the semi-transparent sign of ownership that cannot be removed unless a picture is purchased and which makes it much harder to see the actual image.

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In place of a large "getty images" stamp across the middle of each photograph, its watermark is now a box on the right-hand side. Even more significant, the company argues, is what is written inside of it: a shortened web address and a photographer credit.

The web address, when copied into a browser, takes the user to information about the picture, including details of how to buy the rights to use it.

"The old watermark was seen as more of a hindrance than a benefit," explains Jim Gurke, a marketing executive for the company. In effect, Getty is trying to turn the watermark from a barrier into a signpost back to its website.

The company, which is owned by U.S. private equity fund Hellman & Friedman, is experimenting with a different approach to non-commercial, unlicensed use of its images. In the age of social media, where influential bloggers and online personalities can be just as influential on consumer behaviour as commercial media, the company is tacitly accepting that some people will use its content without paying.

This has been a constant bugbear of picture agencies, who rely on clients to pay for usage. The challenge has been to keep up with those who ignore the commercial rules.

So, the new watermark eschews Getty's name in favour of crediting the individual photographer. "We thought it was more humanizing to put the creator rather than just repeat the company name," claims Yvonne Chien, another marketing executive.

The watermark change goes back to a decision last year by Getty's London office to employ marketing agency R/GA London to revitalize the brand. "When the agency gave us their top four or five ideas, this one stood out," Ms. Chien said.

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The company soft-launched the watermark to 5 per cent of the site's visitors and looked at the data. There was a noticeable shift: Users were more likely to explore the site further, register and purchase.

Ms. Chien accepts that not everyone will like it. "We've had people say to us it's too big, that the opacity isn't right," she says, reflecting the fact that some may still see the watermark as obstructing the view.

Another big debate also emerged over how to shorten the web address. The company eventually settled on, reflecting how other media companies have used distinctive short URLs to promote their content. The New York Times, for example, uses

"It was a big decision to use as the short address – that's the only written link to Getty Images on the watermark now," Ms. Chien said.

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