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How to Copyright Photos – Protect Yourself!

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As a professional photographer, you have to know some legal basics to protect yourself and your creative work. One part of this is knowing how to copyright photos to avoid any unpleasant situations. 
A lot of us artists don’t think about the legalities until we’re faced with a problem. That’s understandable. We’d all rather focus on our art, our images and shoots, rather than the paper-pushing aspects of a photography business.
That’s why we’ve put together this simple guide with all the copyright information you might need. And it’ll only take five minutes of your day to learn how to give your photos copyright protection.
A pet portrait of a dog jumping to catch a frisbee
Disclaimer: I am not an attorney nor a lawyer. The information presented in this article is not intended to act as your legal bible. This is solely referenced material. Please consult a lawyer for any legal matters. The below mentioned laws are based on the United States legal system. The information can vary by country, provinces, and districts.

What Is Copyright?

Words like ‘copyright’, ‘copyright owner’ or ‘intellectual property’ are some of the most frequently mentioned terms in photography. They’re also some of the most important.
Copyright, to put it nonchalantly, is a law that tells you and the world that you own the piece of art that you create. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, this ownership allows you to reproduce, sell, and do whatever you wish with it.
A form of copyright is automatically applied to your work at the moment of creation. This copyright lasts your entire lifespan and for some time after your death.
But sometimes it’s better to have your photos officially copyrighted. Don’t just rely on this automatic copyright. In case of any usage issues, official copyright can help you with any legal processes involved. 
Atmospheric portrait of a female model - how to copyright photos
For example, a common source of tension between clients and photographers is who owns an image after it is taken. The client essentially buys the photographs in the shoot but the photographer takes the images, so who owns the content?
According to copyright law, the photographer does. Unless they transfer the rights to the client through rights transferring, the image is theirs. 
The client may only use the image with the consent of the photographer. This is regardless of whether a payment was made or not.
This is where using a photography contract becomes very important. Use it to avoid any miscommunication. Highlight the permitted image usage guideline for each photo shoot that you do.
This way, the client is granted legal permission to use the image as outlined in the contract. And your work as the photographer is protected. The image cannot be used in unapproved ways.
It’s advantageous for both client and photographer, who are protected from any troubles.

How Does Watermarking Play Into All of This?

Watermarks are marks on an image that identifies the creator. Watermarks can range from logos to text that are placed on an image.
Although a watermark will not prevent thieving fully, it has two significant advantages:

  1. When your image gets re-posted, people will know that you are the creator.
  2. Thanks to Section 1202 of the U.S. Copyright Act, anyone that removes your watermark (via cloning or cropping in Photoshop) to hide the infringement commits a crime. They can face fines anywhere from $2,500 to $25,000. Of course, it is recommended to consult your attorney at that point. But, watermarks are an absolute godsend to artists everywhere.

A pet portrait of a white dog looking towards the camera

How to Copyright Photos

Registering your image with the United States Copyright Office isn’t a necessity. But we highly encourage it.
This is because registering proves that you own the picture that you have taken. In legal cases, this serves as evidence. 
Furthermore, if you sue and do not register, you are only entitled to actual damages. But if you register, your damages now extend to something called statutory damages. These damages are the amount you may have lost on these images rather than what you actually did lose. 
You can copyright photos in two different ways, much like filing most government documents. There is an online application that can be filled out or you can mail in an application.
Make note that this can take up to eight to thirteen months according to the Government Copyright Office.
The fee for a single author with a single photograph is $35.

Casual portrait of a female model posing with a dog in autumn leaves - how to copyright photos
Here is a basic outline on how to copyright photos:
First, go to the official Copyright Office website and select “Register a Copyright.” Follow the on-screen instructions. Answer the questions that follow which will aid in the system determining what process is required for registration.
You will be prompted to answer questions such as ‘Type of Work’. Photography falls under ‘Works of the Visual Arts’. 
The next couple of pages will ask the author (creator)’s name and claimants of the work. If you want your name out of it, it is possible to file as anonymous.
You will then be asked to provide contact information in order for the Copyright Office may contact you if any questions come about during the registration process.
Whatever you do, do not fill out both the ‘Individual’ and ‘Organization’ fields on the ‘Mail Certificate’ page. This will be confusing, make sure only the field that applies to you is marked. 
It is important to note that if you mistake anything you have filled out, you can be fined up to $2500. Yikes! Take your time, do not rush on these forms.
You then proceed to checkout and pay, and you’re all done!
A cute pet portrait of a dog covered in autumn leaves

What to Do If Your Image Is Stolen

Say that despite your best efforts to copyright photos, your image does get stolen. You will understandably feel angry and upset over the situation.
The first thing you should do is take a few deep breaths and decide whether or not it is worth doing something about, or whether it is best to just leave it be. Sometimes it truly isn’t worth the battle!
If the photograph in question has no significant value, the website isn’t making a profit, or the image doesn’t necessarily benefit you in any way, it’s probably not worth spending too much time worrying about.

Casual portrait of a male model posing outdoors - copyright photos
On the other hand, if the image is worth being belligerent over, or if you feel that you are being specifically taken advantage of, you have a couple of options:

  1. Politely ask the culprit to remove the image or add your credit. This is best used in situations where the person in question is not profiting off of your work. Or when it is clear that they are simply ignorant of copyright law. The response you receive from this type of request may not always be a positive one. But there are times when it will work as it did here! If the culprit ignores your request or responds very negatively to it, you can contact the webmaster to remove the image and/or proceed to approach B.
  2. Send a take-down notice or a cease and desist order. These are legal letters written to the thief or their web host. Through them, you demand that they remove your copyrighted material from their website, account, profile, and so on. You can find sample templates via Google, or contact an attorney. This is best used in cases where approach A has failed. Or if you want the photograph removed immediately. If the infringer is profiting off of your work, you can also send them an invoice along with the take-down notice. You can charge them a licensing fee for its use up to that point. Of course, there are risks involved in sending such letters yourself. It is highly advisable that you contact an attorney to help you through this ordeal.
  3. Sue. File a copyright infringement lawsuit against the perpetrator. This method is best used when your stolen image is generating a profit. Or when it’s providing a substantial benefit to the thief, and they have ignored your other contact and invoicing attempts. In situations such as these, it’s time to get that lawyer friend of yours involved!

Casual portrait of a female model - how to copyright photos

Conclusion

Knowing how to copyright photos protects you and the beautiful photographs you create. Being aware of copyright law aids in resolving image disputes and clarifying who is able to do what with a photograph.
Do keep in mind that despite copyright law, in the United States, a photographer can get in trouble for using someone’s likeness commercially without a release form from the subject.
Likewise, it is illegal for a client to commercially use images from a photographer without a photo release form. Because of this, it is a good idea to have an attorney on retainer to aid you in all legal matters!

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