How Do I Protect My Photos’ Copyrights?

An overview on copyright protection, policy, law, photographer rights and best practices(Article by WPD Guest Writer: Jerry Winthrop)


One common misconception for any startup photographer is: once you’ve captured the photo, it completely belongs to you. However, in order to claim ownership and file a potential copyright infringement suit, you must properly present and copyright your work, register your photos, and know your rights as a professional photographer.


Step One: Properly Copyright Your Print and Digital Photos

Many photographers often include a copyright notice in the footer of their photo; some even overlay their copyrights with a watermark. It may seem like a no-brainer at first, but consider the following three rules:

  1. Include the copyright symbol: ©
  2. Include the year, or more precisely the date of your photo’s publication
  3. Include your professional photography business name

Two more recommendations for copyright inclusion:

  1. Consider adding your geographical location. This could help in court to speed up the process of identifying potentially similar business names.
  2. It’s also a good practice to include “All Rights Reserved”. This phrase is automatically assumed in the U.S., however, it’s not always the case in other parts of the world. Although the U.S. serves as the dominant photography market, consider the option of registering a copyright in other countries. Some countries make clear distinctions between moral rights and economic rights in photography usage and copyright restrictions.


Step Two: Register Your Photography with the U.S. Copyright Office

Although you may register your photos at anytime, you may only recover the damage over the duration of your valid photography copyright registration. Without it would make recovering (or partial recovery) your attorney and court fees difficult. In order to prepare yourself before you proceed, you might consider registering your photography under these three fundamental guidelines:

  1. You must register your already-published photos within three month of the date of your publication.
  2. You must register your yet-to-be published photos before the infringement.
  3. In order to qualify for copyright, your work must be tangible (on print, on media, not just an idea) and original.

It only costs you $45! To register, contact theRegister of Copyrights, Library of Congress, Washington DC, 20559, and obtain the Works of Visual Art (VA) Form, or Short Form VA.

You may register a multitude of works under one registration fee. To get your money’s worth and speed up your filing process, include as many digital photos as you can onto a single CD or DVD. You are not required to include high-resolution images, as long as your photos could be clearly identified and compared with a “violation”; photo dimension ranging between 250 to 300 pixels should suffice.



Step Three: Getting to Know Your Photography Ownership Rights

Whether you are selling your photo to National Geographic, or finalizing details for your anxious bride or groom, you may wish to define the proper usage of your images in your contract. You may also consider including incentives for allowing restriction on the usage of your work. Example: a discount to your journalistic or wedding photography services in exchange for more control of your photo’s commercial usage.

  1. Exclusive Photo Rights – The buyer is guaranteed exclusive rights to your material. No other vendor or publication could use your images. This exclusion could be further defined in a specific market, product sector, or geographical location. Certain flexibility could be negotiated to grant you more leverage. Example: A major wedding magazine wishes to exclusively purchase the rights to your image to be used for their summer magazine cover. You are prohibited from selling your image to any other competing online or offline wedding-centric publications. However, you may still sell your images to another market, such as a greeting card company.
  2. One Time or Lease Rights – Your photo may be licensed for usage for a certain period of time, or a predefined number of usages.
  3. Electronic or Online Media Rights – Your photos may be included in electronic format (CD, DVD), or be displayed on an online media website. You may wish to embed digital metadata in your photos. (for related info on metadata, refer to article: Protect Your Privacy When Sharing Photos)
  4. Print Rights – Your photos may be published via traditional print media or publications.
  5. All Rights – You surrender all rights to your photos permanently, or for a specified duration.
  6. First Rights – This is similar to obtaining a One Time Right to your photo, but the buyer often pays extra to procure the privilege to be the first to feature your work.
  7. Transfer Rights – Under special circumstances, you can transfer the copyright of your image to someone else. Be on the lookout for such hidden clause in certain client contracts, and stay vigilant on copyright renewals. The U.S. law currently only covers copyright transfer ownership rights for 35 years:

    “…The present law drops the renewal feature except for works already in the first term of statutory protection when the present law took effect. Instead, the present law permits termination of a grant of rights after 35 years under certain conditions by serving written notice on the transferee within specified time limits…”- U.S. Copyright Office

  8. Work for Hire – Your photos belong to your employer, either automatically, or declared in contract. If you agree to a Work for Hire clause, negotiate to your best ability to balance the loss of your photography copyright ownership.

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