Digital image watermarks could combat trademark theft

Technology from the Fraunhofer Institute could help companies protect pictures of their products from being stolen by groups trying to promote cheap imitations.

Technology from one of Germany's renowned Fraunhofer Institutes could help companies protect pictures of their products from being stolen by groups trying to promote cheap imitations.

Fraunhofer Integrated Publication and Information Systems Institute (Fraunhofer IPIS), one of 58 institutes within the huge applied research group, had developed digital image watermark technology and a Web search system to hunt down trademark violators on the Internet, the group's spokesman Michael Kip, said.

"Next month, we will have our first user," Kip said. "We can't mention the name yet."

The system lets companies with popular brands, such as Cartier International SA or Sony Corp., embed watermarks in their pictures and, with the help of a Web search system, track down trademark violators.

The watermark technology makes slight changes in the color, contrast or brightness of a picture. The changes, made in tiny areas across the picture, are invisible to the human eye.

"The watermarks essentially change the relation of pixels," Kip said. "The watermarks themselves can't be changed even if the picture is enlarged, reduced, cropped or changed in some other way."

The search agent scans the Internet for the watermarked images and lists Web sites carrying them, allowing owners of the images to confirm their authorized use.

The software required to embed watermarks is already available and relatively ease to use, according to Kip. But the search agent, he said, is more complex, requiring individual configurations.

Pricing information was not available.

Earlier this year, Fraunhofer IPIS unveiled a watermark system to help curb the sharp rise in online music piracy. The system is designed to track pirated audio files in peer-to-peer file-sharing networks.

Watermark technology targeting music piracy has also been a focus at the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, the creator of the MPEG-1 Layer 3 algorithm, later shortened to MP3, which has inadvertently helped enable the illegal copying of music content.

The institute developed watermark technology of its own, which it spun off into a new company, MusicTrace GmbH. In March, the spin-off delivered watermark technology to Optimal Media Production GmbH for a new service aimed at curbing online music piracy.

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