Open Access

ARTICLE

# LKAW: A Robust Watermarking Method Based on Large Kernel Convolution and Adaptive Weight Assignment

1 Engineering Research Center of Digital Forensics, Ministry of Education, Jiangsu Engineering Center of Network Monitoring, School of Computer and Software, Nanjing University of Information Science & Technology, Nanjing, 210044, China

2 Wuxi Research Institute, Nanjing University of Information Science & Technology, Wuxi, 214100, China

3 Jiangsu Collaborative Innovation Center of Atmospheric Environment and Equipment Technology (CICAEET), Nanjing University of Information Science & Technology, Nanjing, 210044, China

4 School of Automation, Nanjing University of Information Science & Technology, Nanjing, 210044, China

5 School of Instrument Science and Engineering, Southeast University, Nanjing, 211189, China

6 School of Teacher Education, Nanjing University of Information Science & Technology, Nanjing, 210044, China

7 School of Computer Science Engineering, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

* Corresponding Author: Xiaorui Zhang. Email:

*Computers, Materials & Continua* **2023**, *75*(1), 1-17. https://doi.org/10.32604/cmc.2023.034748

**Received** 26 July 2022; **Accepted** 20 October 2022; **Issue published** 06 February 2023

## Abstract

Robust watermarking requires finding invariant features under multiple attacks to ensure correct extraction. Deep learning has extremely powerful in extracting features, and watermarking algorithms based on deep learning have attracted widespread attention. Most existing methods use small kernel convolution to extract image features and embed the watermarking. However, the effective perception fields for small kernel convolution are extremely confined, so the pixels that each watermarking can affect are restricted, thus limiting the performance of the watermarking. To address these problems, we propose a watermarking network based on large kernel convolution and adaptive weight assignment for loss functions. It uses large-kernel depth-wise convolution to extract features for learning large-scale image information and subsequently projects the watermarking into a high-dimensional space by convolution to achieve adaptability in the channel dimension. Subsequently, the modification of the embedded watermarking on the cover image is extended to more pixels. Because the magnitude and convergence rates of each loss function are different, an adaptive loss weight assignment strategy is proposed to make the weights participate in the network training together and adjust the weight dynamically. Further, a high-frequency wavelet loss is proposed, by which the watermarking is restricted to only the low-frequency wavelet sub-bands, thereby enhancing the robustness of watermarking against image compression. The experimental results show that the peak signal-to-noise ratio (PSNR) of the encoded image reaches 40.12, the structural similarity (SSIM) reaches 0.9721, and the watermarking has good robustness against various types of noise.## Keywords

The task of robust watermarking for digital images is to secretly embed watermarking into the cover image and to extract it correctly after malicious or unintentional attacks. In recent years, digital image watermarking technology has been widely studied in copyright protection, traceability, anti-counterfeiting, and authentication of 2D images. Many researchers have proposed various methodological strategies that balance the imperceptibility and robustness of watermarking well.

Deep learning [1] uses neural networks’ powerful feature extraction ability to extract image features while adaptively embedding the watermarking to obtain better results. Zhu et al. [2] proposed an auto-encoder-based neural network for watermarking, which embeds the watermarking into the cover image through an encoder, and then a decoder to parse out the watermarking. Using a noise layer to simulate the attacks on the encoded image and adding a Generative Adversarial Network (GAN) to reinforce the imperceptibility, thus affecting the process of watermarking embedding and extraction. Luo et al. [3] further proposed using the idea of adversarial training instead of a specific noise layer to extend the distortion to an unknown range. Although they have achieved good results [4], these methods all use small kernel convolutional networks, and the continuous accumulation of a mass of small convolutional kernels will deepen the neural network and lead to the degradation problem of deep neural networks, which makes the difficulty of optimization significantly increase. Although ResNet [5] eases the optimization problem by skip connections to some extent, the number of layers in the network is too large, resulting in substantial training parameters. Further studies [6–8] found that deep neural networks stacked with multiple small convolutional kernels do not obtain larger effective perception fields, and the last convolutional layer only can see an intensely limited range of the original image, as a result of which deep convolutional neural networks (CNNs) [9,10] only learn features in a small area. Global information on the image is extremely scarce. Applying this to watermarking methods will result in fewer pixels associated with the extracted features, making watermarking more modifiable for the cover image and fewer regions available for watermarking embedding. In contrast, large kernel convolution [7] inherently has a large range of effective perception fields, even in the last layer of the deep network, which allows the network to learn features to approximate the whole image. This is especially crucial for watermarking. Because embedding the watermarking that is according to the large kernel convolution changes the cover image, which will be reflected in more pixels. When the encoded image is attacked, there will still be enough pixels that retain the watermarking information for extraction.

In addition, considering imperceptibility and robustness, our method needs to accomplish two tasks: (1) The encoded image should be as similar as possible to the cover image and indistinguishable from the human eye. (2) The decoded watermarking should be as identical as possible to the input watermarking. For this purpose, the watermarking network uses multiple losses to guide the network training. However, the previous multitask approaches [2,3] usually use a naive weighted sum of losses, with fixed loss weights set by manual mode. The performance of the model is heavily dependent on the choice of weights. Determining an optimal weight by manual tuning is also extremely expensive. Such a mode using fixed weights does not yield the best training results due to the varying speed of convergence of each loss [11].

Image compression is a prevalent attack in the field of watermarking. How to improve the robustness of watermarking against image compression is extremely important. Image compression usually removes the texture and edge parts of an image that are not sensitive to the human visual system, to reduce the image volume. The texture and edge parts of the image are usually reflected as high-frequency components in the frequency domain, such as the HH sub-band in the wavelet domain. If the watermarking is embedded in the high-frequency component of the image, the watermarking will be removed and difficult to extract once the image is compressed. Traditional discrete wavelet transform (DWT) and discrete cosine transform (DCT) watermarking are only embedded in the low-frequency components to avoid damage to the watermarking from image compression. In frequency domain watermarking based on deep learning, there is a similar need to embed the watermarking in the low-frequency components.

To solve the above challenge, this study proposes a wavelet domain watermarking network, named LKAW, based on large kernel convolution and adaptive weight assignment for loss functions. The large-kernel convolution is used to enhance the learning ability of our LKAW for a wide range of information and adjust the scale of features learned by the large kernel. In addition, an adaptive weight assignment strategy for loss functions is proposed in this paper. The weights are trained as network parameters, and their size is dynamically adjusted in the training process. Further, a high-frequency wavelet loss is proposed to keep the cover image and the encoded image to be as similar as possible in the high-frequency wavelet sub-bands, by which the watermarking can be embedded into the wavelet low-frequency sub-bands, thus improving the robustness of the watermarking against image compression.

In summary, the main contributions of this paper are summarized as follows:

• We introduce a novel watermarking network based on large kernel convolution. By integrating large-scale features with one

• An adaptive weight assignment strategy for loss functions is designed to dynamically adjust each loss function’s weight to obtain a better training effect and solve the problem of gradient disappearance. Furthermore, a high-frequency wavelet loss is proposed to ensure that our LKAW can adaptively embed the watermarking into the low-frequency sub-bands of the cover image after the wavelet transform, which prevents the watermarking from being corrupted by image compression.

The rest of this paper is structured as follows. Section 2 presents the work related to the model design. Section 3 shows the detailed architecture and loss functions of our proposed model. Section 4 gives the experimental results. Section 5 finally concludes the paper.

This section dwells on the related work involved in our approach in terms of digital image watermarking, large kernel convolution, multitask learning, and wavelet-based watermarking.

2.1 Digital Image Watermarking

Digital image watermarking can effectively solve the problems of copyright protection, content authentication, and traceability. The basic idea is to use the embedding algorithm to embed the watermarking into the cover image and extract the watermarking by the extraction algorithm to prove the copyright ownership. The traditional robust watermarking algorithm mainly adopts the manual method to embed the watermarking into the spatial domain or transform domain of the cover image. Still, it is often difficult to find the most suitable embedding areas, and the embedding capacity is shallow. With the development of deep learning, more neural networks based on an auto-encoder framework for watermarking have been proposed [12–15]. Zhong et al. [16] proposed a method to encode the watermarking and then embed it into the feature map of the cover image. Finally, using a neural network to preserve the watermarking and reject noise after converting the encoded image into a high-dimensional transform space, they achieve the robustness of watermarking without a priori knowledge of image distortion. Although a multi-branch small kernel convolution is used to extract multiple features of the image in parallel, it does not consider extracting features with larger effective perception fields to embed the watermarking. Liu et al. [17] proposed a two-stage watermarking training method: noise-free encoder-decoder training and noise-decoder training. It circumvents the requirement that the noise must be differentiable and enhances the robustness of watermarking against undifferentiable noise. But the two-stage training is essentially a greedy algorithm, and the optimal solution in each stage is not necessarily the optimal global solution, which limits the watermarking performance. Previous studies have shown that neural networks have great potential for digital image watermarking.

Recently, CNNs is challenged by the vision transformers [18,19] in computer vision. In many visual downstream tasks, such as semantic segmentation and object detection, the vision transformers performs better [20,21]. Previously, it was often thought that the multi-head self-attention of the vision transformers played a decisive role. It is less inductive bias, is more robust to distortions, and can model long-range dependencies [7]. Still, the use of simple spatial pooling or Multilayer Perceptron (MLP) instead of the self-attention also shows better performance, such as MetaFormer [22] and MLP-Mixer [23], which demonstrates that it may not be irreplaceable. Recent studies have shown that expanding of the effective perception fields due to the global relational modeling of the vision transformers may be the winning formula. Liu et al. [8] proposed a novel network ConvNext that modeled the design of Swin Transformer [17] architecture and introduced

The purpose of multitask learning is to learn multiple targets in a shared representation to improve learning efficiency and prediction accuracy [26]. Multitask learning is extremely active in computer vision because of its convenience and efficiency in solving multiple problems at the same time, as well as it benefits stronger generalization performance and better learning due to the information sharing across models that cannot be possessed by a single task [27,28]. Watermarking requires both imperceptibility and robustness. It is a typical multitasking system, but previous approaches [2,3,12–17,29,30] use a weighted sum of losses to balance the importance of individual tasks, and the loss weights are manual tuning. Liu et al. [31] proposed an end-to-end training model named MTAN that learns task-specific features from the globally shared representation while allowing features to be shared across tasks. It has a simple implementation and achieves better results. However, an additional network structure needs to be added, and loss weights are directly related to the learned features, which are not stable enough. Cipolla et al. [11] proposed that model performance is highly dependent on an appropriate choice of weighting between each task’s loss and offers a principled way of combining multiple loss functions to learn multiple objectives using homoscedastic uncertainty. It obtains better performance compared to learning each task individually. The adaptive weight assignment for loss functions can learn to balance these weightings optimally, resulting in better imperceptibility and robustness.

2.4 Wavelet-Based Watermarking

The essence of the traditional frequency domain watermarking method to achieve better imperceptibility and robustness is that the watermarking can be well diffused into the cover image. Because the frequency domain coefficients are associated with almost every pixel of the cover image. Modifying the frequency domain coefficients will also influence almost virtually any pixel, reducing the amount of modification for each pixel to obtain a higher image quality. At the same time, the features of more pixels can be integrated into the extraction process, which is more robust to noise attacks. Traditional frequency domain watermarking algorithms mainly include DCT, DWT, and discrete Fourier transform (DFT). The discrete wavelet transform can decompose the image into four sub-bands: LL, LH, HL, and HH. The LL sub-band can continue to decompose to form a multi-scale wavelet domain so that different scale wavelet domains can be selected for watermarking embedding according to different needs, which can better adapt to the visual characteristics of the human eyes and obtain higher imperceptibility and robustness. In addition, it can avoid the block effect of DCT-based watermarking algorithms. Therefore, traditional frequency domain watermarking algorithms often choose to embed watermarks in the DWT domain. Most deep-learning-based watermarking methods [2,3,12–17,29] extract deep semantic features directly on the cover image by convolution and embed the watermarking adaptively based on the features to achieve the effect like frequency domain embedding, but the embedding effect depends on whether the learned features can be associated with almost all pixels, which is almost unfeasible for the small kernel convolution they use. Some deep-learning-based watermarking methods realize the advantage of embedding watermarks in the frequency domain. For example, Ahmadi et al. [30] used a

In this section, we propose a watermarking neural network based on large kernel convolution and adaptive weight assignment for loss functions that can extract image features in a larger range and find better watermarking embedding regions to achieve adaptive embedding of the watermarking. Meanwhile, the weights are dynamically adjusted and the watermarking is embedded into the low-frequency sub-bands in the DWT domain, which can further enhance the robustness of the watermarking against the image compression.

Fig. 1 shows the architecture of the LKAW. Large kernel convolution usually refers to the convolution kernel with more than

The watermarking processor uses transposed convolution and SENet [36] blocks to extract the watermarking features, and increase the watermarking redundancy, which can support the image encoding process. The noise layer adds a random type of noise to the cover image to form the noised image in each mini-batch, simulating possible noise attacks to the watermarking in reality and improving the extraction ability of the decoder.

3.2 Large Kernel Convolution Block

Fig. 2 shows the large kernel convolution block used, where DW-Conv represents depth-wise convolution,

The combination of large kernel convolution and

3.3 Adaptive Weight Loss Function

The adaptive weight loss function consists of a combination of five losses, but the size scale and convergence speed of each loss varies, and it is arduous to balance by using fixed weights. Inspired by [17], an adaptive weight assignment strategy for loss functions is used, wherein five weights are input to the network and trained together. The last term acts as a correction term to prevent the trained weight parameters from being too large.

where

High-frequency wavelet loss: To avoid the watermarking being destroyed by image compression, we propose a high-frequency wavelet loss

where

Embedding loss: The purpose of invisible watermarking embedding is to make the encoded image

where

Extracting loss: In the process of watermarking extraction, the network should be able to extract the watermarking from the noise image

where

LPIPS perceptual loss and adversarial loss: To minimize the difference between the encoded image and the cover image, LPIPS perceptual loss

Algorithm 1 shows the pseudo-code of our LKAW training. For each mini-batch: (1) the cover image

To verify the performance of our proposed watermarking method, we compare it with state-of-the-art watermarking models. Also, we do relevant ablation experiments to manifest the effectiveness of the proposed method. In addition, some noise attack experiments are added to prove the robustness of the watermarking method.

Dataset and setting: We selected 10,000 images from the COCO data set [37] as the cover images for training, 1000 images from the COCO data set as the validation set, and 1000 high-resolution images from the DIV2K data set [38] as the test set. The initial values of the weights

Evaluation metrics: Four metrics are used to measure the quality of the encoded image: PSNR, SSIM [41], root mean square error (RMSE), and mean absolute error (MAE). They can reflect the similarity between the encoded image and the cover image, which are used to verify the imperceptibility of watermarking. Meanwhile, two metrics are used to test the extraction ability of watermarking, including bit error rate (BER) and normalized correlation (NC). BER calculates the percentage of error bits in the decoded watermarking, and NC calculates the similarity between the decoded watermarking and the input watermarking, all of which are used to verify the robustness of the watermarking. There are all calculated as the average on the test set.

Noise attacks: We utilize combined noise to train all watermarking models, which can enhance the robustness of the watermarking. Specifically, the combined noise includes Identity, Gaussian noise, Salt-and-pepper noise, Gaussian blur, Quantization, Median filtering, Crop, Cropout, Dropout, and JPEG compression. Dropout, Cropout, and Quantization are from HiDDeN [2]. JPEG compression includes non-differentiable real JPEG and JPEG-MASK [2] which is a differentiable noise layer and simulates the high-frequency information loss caused by real JPEG. Although in some batches the non-differential real JPEG is applied for end-to-end training, we can use the momentum-based updating optimization method to ensure the correctness of the whole updating direction [42]. During the testing, a total of six kinds of noises are used to attack the encoded image, to detect the robustness of the watermarking, including Gaussian noise (

4.2 Comparison with the Previous Methods

To verify the effectiveness of the proposed watermarking methods, which have two versions: using the

Imperceptibility: Table 1 records the similarity between the encoded image and the cover image of HiDDeN, MBRS, and our LKAW. As can be seen from Table 1, our LKAW significantly outperforms HiDDeN in terms of all four metrics: PSNR increases by 8.13, SSIM increases by 0.0426, RMSE decreases by 4.04, MAE decreases by 3.42. The visual quality of our LKAW is also better than MBRS. Using the

Robustness: Tables 2 and 3 record BER and NC of the decoded watermarking under various noise attacks, respectively. GN, S&P, MF, and GB refer to Gaussian Noise, Salt-and-pepper noise, Median filtering, and Gaussian blur, respectively. As shown in Tables 2 and 3, our LKAW has better watermarking extraction ability than HiDDeN and MBRS in almost all cases. Moreover, our model is superior to HiDDeN in resisting JPEG compression. Although, JPEG compression is realized by quantizing and deleting the high-frequency components in the DCT domain, which may not be completely consistent with the high-frequency sub-bands of DWT. The essence that high-frequency components reflect the texture and edge information for the image is the same. Therefore, high-frequency wavelet loss can indeed enhance the robustness of JPEG compression.

An ablation experiment is designed to demonstrate our method’s the effectiveness in terms of large kernel convolution, adaptive loss weights, and high-frequency wavelet loss, an ablation experiment is designed. Among them, the small kernel convolution block is a

Imperceptibility: Table 4 records the similarity between the encoded image and the cover image, where LK denotes large kernel convolution, WH denotes high-frequency wavelet loss, and AW denotes adaptive weight assignment for loss functions. Under only using the large kernel convolution, for PSNR and SSIM, our LKAW increases by 1.10 dB and 0.0375, respectively; for RMSE and MAE, our LKAW decreases by 0.69 and 0.05, respectively, compared to using small kernel convolution. Furthermore, adding high-frequency wavelet loss results in a reduced visual quality, PSNR decreases by 0.43 dB, and SSIM decreases by 0.0375. RMSE and MAE are also higher. Because the large kernel can see an extensive range of feature maps, so it can use the shape basis to make the best embedding region decision, and the features extracted by the large kernel convolution correspond to a larger range of pixels. Note that, the changes to the cover image are diffused to more pixels, making the changes to each pixel smaller, thus obtaining a higher similarity to the cover image. In addition, the integrated larger range of neighboring features can further reduce the probability of artifacts affecting the image’s visual quality. The adaptive weight assignment strategy dynamically adjusts the relationship between each loss, which makes the network converge better and the visual quality stronger than that of fixed weight training. The high-frequency wavelet loss modulates the watermarking embedding region, thus obtaining worse imperceptibility.

Robustness: From Tables 5 and 6, the architecture using small kernel convolution shows a higher BER overall. After using high-frequency wavelet loss to select the embedding region of the watermarking in the frequency domain, both large kernel convolution and small kernel convolution have lower BER. Using all of them, BER is the lowest and NC is the highest in most cases. This indicates that the large kernel convolution can sense a larger range of image changes, as a result, it is more sensitive to watermarking modifications and can have a stronger watermarking extraction ability. In addition, introducing the adaptive weight assignment strategy improves the training and achieves stronger robustness. Adding high-frequency wavelet loss to avoid watermarking embedding in image texture and contour regions can indeed effectively enhance the watermarking resistance for JPEG compression.

To examine the performance of our LKAW against many different attacks, we design noise attack experiments: 6 common types of noise are added to the encoded image. The BER of the decoded watermarking with the attack strength gradually increasing is recorded.

Figs. 4 and 5 show the BER between the decoded watermarking and the input watermarking under 6 attacks, respectively. Our LKAW shows a high tolerance to these noise attacks, especially for Gaussian noise, Salt-and-pepper noise, and Gaussian blur. The decoded watermarking still has a low error even under the stronger distortion. For example, as can be seen in Fig. 4, the decoded watermarking has a low average BER of 0.6%, 7.1%, and 3.0% under severe distortions including Gaussian noise (

In this paper, we propose a robust watermarking method based on large kernel convolution and adaptive weight assignment for loss functions, which captures the robust features invariant to image attacks, so that the optimal embedding method for watermarking can be learned. Meanwhile, due to the different convergence speeds and magnitude of the five losses, we use an adaptive weight assignment for loss functions to dynamically adjust the weight and add a regular term to prevent the weight from being too large. Moreover, to avoid the watermarking being removed from the image compression, we propose a high-frequency wavelet loss to force the watermarking to be embedded in the low-frequency sub-bands in the wavelet domain. The experimental results demonstrate that the method better maintains the balance of robustness and imperceptibility of watermarking. We will further improve our work in the following aspects in the future: (1) Exploring better methods to expand the effective perception fields, such as the global modeling capability brought by the self-attention mechanism of the vision transformer [18,19]. (2) Exploring the robustness of watermarking for unknown distortion, thus improving the generalizability of watermarking, such as using adversarial training to simulate unknown distortion [3,16].

Acknowledgement: The resources and computing environment was provided by the Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology, Nanjing, China. We are thankful for their support.

Funding Statement: This work was supported, in part, by the National Nature Science Foundation of China under grant numbers 62272236; in part, by the Natural Science Foundation of Jiangsu Province under grant numbers BK20201136, BK20191401; in part, by the Priority Academic Program Development of Jiangsu Higher Education Institutions (PAPD) fund.

Conflicts of Interest: The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest to report regarding the present study.

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## Cite This Article

X. Zhang, R. Jiang, W. Sun, A. Song, X. Wei*et al.*, "Lkaw: a robust watermarking method based on large kernel convolution and adaptive weight assignment,"

*Computers, Materials & Continua*, vol. 75, no.1, pp. 1–17, 2023.