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.
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 reference 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 assures 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.
As a photographer, you’re making creative content. This means that a form of copyright is automatically applied to your work at the moment of creation. This copyright lasts your entire lifespan, and a number of years 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.
For example, a common source of tension between clients and photographers is who owns an image after it is taken. The client pays for the shoot, and the photographer takes the image, so who owns it?
According to copyright law, the photographer does. Unless they transfer the rights to the client through a rights transferring document, the image is theirs.
The client may only use the image with the consent of the photographer. This is regardless of whether 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.
Copyright law is the reason you are able to stop art thieves and people using your work without permission.
How Does Watermarking Play Into All of This?
Watermarks are marks on an image that identify the creator, aka: you. Watermarks can range from logos at the corner of a photograph to transparent text across an image.
Although a watermark will not prevent thieving fully, it has two significant advantages:
- When your image gets re-posted, people will know that you are the creator.
- 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 has committed 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.
How to Copyright Photos
Registering your image with the United States Copyright Office isn’t a necessity. But we highly encourage it.
Registering your photograph provides legal evidence of your ownership. In the event that someone does challenge whether you own the rights to an image, your registration will instantly weaken the opposition’s claims.
What’s more, individuals who register are eligible to obtain statutory damages. This is a damage award in civil law. The amount awarded is stipulated within the statute rather than being calculated based on the degree of harm.
Those who have not registered their work can still win a lawsuit. But they are only entitled to actual damages, which require proof.
You can copyright photos in two different ways. With the power of the internet, you can file for copyright online via the official Copyright Office website or mail in an application.
According to the Copyright Office, general processing times for electronic filing and paper filing can take up to 8 months and 13 months.
During the process, you’ll be able to check in on the status of your application. The fee for a single author with a single photograph is $35.
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. Carefully answer the three yes or no questions to determine what process is required for registration.
The first few steps will ask to select your ‘Type of Work’. Photography falls under ‘Works of the Visual Arts’. The following page will request a title for the photograph. And it will ask you to confirm that the image does not appear in a larger collection.
The next couple of pages will ask the author (creator)’s name and claimants of the work. It is possible to file an ‘anonymous’ copyright claim if desired.
The form will proceed to request personal details once again. This way the Copyright Office may contact you if any questions arise during the claim filing.
Make sure that you do not fill out both the ‘Individual’ and ‘Organization’ fields on the ‘Mail Certificate’ page. Only fill out the field that applies to you personally.
It is important to note that if you misrepresent any information within the copyright forms you have filled out, you can be fined up to $2500. Double check your work!
You then proceed to checkout and pay. You will also receive an email confirmation once finished. And that’s it!
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 worry about.
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:
- 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, like 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.
- Send a take-down notice or a cease and desist order. These are legal letters written to the thief or their web host. Though 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.
- 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!
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!