What Happens When You Try to Photoshop Money

A “spocked” CAN$5 bill (image via Facebook)
A “spocked” CAN$5 bill (image via Facebook)

You may recall that last month, when actor Leonard Nimoy died, Canadians went into a frenzy “spocking” their $5 bills — aka drawing on the banknotes in order to turn former Canadian prime minister Wilfrid Laurier into Spock. When I was editing our story about the phenomenon, I discovered something curious: you can’t Photoshop money.

This may not come as news to everyone (someone on Reddit discovered it three years ago), but it was a surprise to us at Hyperallergic. Because it’s not just that you can’t Photoshop — as in edit in the Adobe program — money; you can’t even load an image of a CAN$5 banknote that’s already defaced to picture Spock and say “live long and prosper” into Photoshop. When I tried, here’s what happened:

(screenshot by the author)

Clicking on that “Information” button takes you to the website of the Central Bank Counterfeit Deterrence Group, specifically a page titled “Banknotes & Counterfeit Deterrence,” which warns the visitor quite sternly:

Every country has legal restrictions on the reproduction of banknote images. The counterfeiting of currency is a crime, and while restrictions vary from country to country, in some countries, any reproduction of banknote images — even for artistic or advertising uses — is strictly forbidden. Even in countries that allow some limited use of banknote images, there are specific rules and requirements.

But of course, country-to-country rules and requirements don’t matter if you’re uniformly prohibited from importing images of money into Photoshop. Which appears to be the case, at least theoretically.

I wrote to Adobe to ask for an official statement or policy on Photoshopping images of money, but never heard back. I did find this conversation in a Photoshop community support board, in which an Adobe employee explains that the “CDS system” (counterfeit deterrence system, with a redundancy) has been a “feature … since Photoshop CS (8.0) released in 2003” and is a matter of “stay[ing] on the good side of law enforcement.” Accordingly, in an online forum (ah, good old forums) called The Photoshop Cafe, a post from 2004 reproduces an allegedly official statement from Kevin Connor (a longtime Photoshop manager whose name is misspelled in the post). It says, in part:

Photoshop CS does indeed include a counterfeit deterrence system (CDS) to prevent the illegal duplication of banknotes. The CDS was created by a consortium of central banks from around the world. We, along with other hardware and software manufacturers, have included CDS in our products at their request to address the threat posed by the use of digital technologies in the counterfeiting of banknotes. There are other software products from other companies that already use this same technology. There are also hardware products that use the same or similar technology. For example, most color copiers sold today will not allow you to copy currency.

He goes on to explain that “the current implementation of CDS will prevent you from scanning in your own banknotes even if your usage intent is entirely within legal boundaries.” In order to get legal images of banknotes to use, you must obtain them from the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing, or similar bodies in other countries.

But the funny thing about the CDS feature in Photoshop is that it doesn’t appear to always work. After running an admittedly limited number of tests, I came up with mixed results that don’t appear to add up to any cohesive policy.

My photo of a dollar bill in Photoshop. It probably worked because it's not a very good picture.
My photo of a dollar bill in Photoshop. It probably worked because it’s not a very good picture. (click to enlarge)

Photoshop CS6 (version 13.0 x64) would not load images of:

It would load images of:

I was surprised to find that it worked most of the time, rather than the other way around — but there’s clearly much more analysis to be done on how software programs recognize bills; this is a good start for further reading. Luckily, if you’re just resizing images, like I was attempting to originally, Apple Preview seems to have no scruples. If you’re looking for a Photoshop workaround, try (where else?) YouTube.

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