Photography Copyright Laws: It’s Not as Difficult as You Think

If you don’t take the necessary precautions, it might be as easy as “right click” and “save as” for someone to steal your photographs on the internet. Professional photographers know this. Your personal photos are, however, more vulnerable to being used without permission because of the current image-grab nature of social media platforms and the competitive nature of the photography market. 

Even simple things like downloading an image for a blog post can sometimes cause trouble. Without even thinking about it, that person is violating the law. Breaking the photography copyright law can cost a person’s blog or business thousands of dollars.

This article explains what copyright is, how to dispute someone else’s claim of infringement, and when it’s appropriate to use the copyright symbol. (It’s simpler than you think.)

What Are the Photography Copyright Laws?

Copyright is a term that is widely misunderstood, especially in the context of the visual arts and photography. A photographer’s copyright is his or her ownership of photos taken, which are their property. With that ownership, photographers have the following exclusive rights to the photos: 

  • The right to reproduce the work in copies;
  • The right to prepare derivative works;
  • The right to distribute copies to the public by sale or rent;
  • The right to transfer ownership;
  • The right to display the copyrighted work publicly or on the internet.

There is a good reason for copyright laws to exist. If photographers invest their time and effort in something, they should have some control over how their work will be used.

When Do Photographs Receive Copyright Protection?

Photographers can get copyright protection if a photo is original. The picture should be created independently and possess a little bit of creativity. There are no formal requirements for receiving copyright protection. As long as the work is original and fixed, it’s automatically covered.

A photographer can still obtain copyright protection even if the photograph closely resembles one taken by another photographer. For instance, both photographers would be protected by copyright if they independently captured Notre Dame de Paris from the same angle at the same time. Even though the work may be remarkably similar to another’s, it can still be unique and contain subtle differences.

The originality requirement should not be confused with novelty, worthiness, or aesthetic appeal. The content must be the author’s own independent creation and not just a copy or slight modification of another person’s work in order to be considered original.

Examples of Photo Copyright Infringement

Some copyright violations with photos are easy to spot, like when someone downloads a picture to put on Instagram and pretends to be the original author. Others are trickier. The following are examples of common photo copyright law infringement:

  • Using copyrighted photos on your company’s website without permission;
  • Modifying an original copyrighted photo and then displaying it on your social media;
  • Creating merchandise for sale that features copyrighted photos;
  • Illegal use of images taken from social media like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter;
  • Using photographs taken from a photo exhibition or gallery;
  • Using photos as a part of a video;
  • Using part of a photograph. 

Penalties for Copyright Infringement

The statutory damages, the penalties for photograph copyright infringement, range from $750 to more than $30,000 as the court considers just, plus attorney’s fees. The penalty can become extremely high if the copyright owner proves that the infringement was committed willfully. In such cases, according to the image copyright laws posted by the U.S. Copyright Office, the penalty can be up to $150,000.

The Benefits of Registering Photography Copyright

The photographer has an automatic right to copyright. However, if the work is infringed, proving the claim may be challenging. So, any photographer who wants to avoid a case of “their word against yours” should think about registering the copyright.


If you’re still hesitant, the following are some of the benefits of this double-security step: 

  • Securing ownership—Registering a photography copyright makes it impossible for someone else to register it in their own name. After registering your copyright, you will have the required documents and a unique number for your photo.
  • Bringing and accelerating an infringement action—Copyright registration enables the owner to file a lawsuit to enforce copyright in federal court. A person must go through the registration process before he or she can sue someone for infringing copyright.
  • Claiming statutory damages and attorney’s fees—Copyright registration enables the owner to claim statutory damages and attorney’s fees.
  • Having a public record—In case the device with the original photo is lost or damaged, copyright registration puts others on notice that the work is protected by copyright and names the copyright owner. Public records also help people who wish to license a particular work to ascertain the status of the work and contact the owner.

How Long Do Photo Copyrights Last?

The great news is that copyrights do not expire until a significant time has passed. In the United States, images are protected by copyright during the photographer’s life and for 70 years after his or her death. After that period, the protected work enters the public domain and is only then free to be used without legal repercussions.

Avoiding Copyright Problems with Photos

The following key steps will help to ensure that your photo will never be used without permission or that you will never inadvertently use someone else’s photo illegally.

Registering copyright

If you are a photographer, you should consider registering your copyright once a photo has been taken, before publishing it on the internet.

Using full-image watermarks

Unfortunately, most popular watermarks don’t work. A simple watermark should protect a person’s pictures from piracy, but there are apps that can remove watermarks in just a few clicks. Instead, use a full-image watermark that is impossible to remove completely.

Marking your work as copyrighted with © 

The copyright symbol is seen most often in books and other written material. However, it possesses true value when it is used to declare copyright on each page of a personal website. Usually, this circle C is used in the footer and alongside each photo—© Copyright [Entity or Individual Name] [Current Year]. This information may also be included in the image as part of a small watermark. Those who view the photo will see that the image is the intellectual property of the named person or entity. The symbol also acts as a deterrent for copycats. 

Keeping comprehensive records and getting to know “metadata”

A copyright owner should be ready to effectively prove that copying has occurred. Keeping comprehensive records of creating and processing your creations can help. Because we live in a tech-driven society, most digital cameras and phone cameras immediately encode “metadata” on images, and this information can also serve as proof.

Using a photo release form

What if you take a photo of another person? Even though your photos are automatically your intellectual property, you might have restricted rights if another person is present in your photo. A photo release form is a contract between the photographer and the model in a photo. Without this form, you may not have the right to use the image to publish it on various media platforms. Get an easy-to-customize photo release form template to avoid gray areas when it comes to using an image.  Even if you have a professional photoshoot tomorrow, Lawrina photo release form got everything covered!

How To Get a Copyright for Photography

Although registering for copyright can be tedious, it’s relatively easy. Just follow these steps:

  1. Go to copyright.gov.
  2. Choose the Registration section and then click on the Photographs category.
  3. Click on “Register a Photograph” (Note that with a standard application, you can register only one photo. However, you may apply to register up to 10 unpublished works by selecting the link for “Register a Group of Unpublished Works.”

The official website can also be used to search for copyright records. There is also a detailed guide for filling out the forms correctly on the official page.

Key Takeaways

Stress no more over the idea that somebody might steal your genius work. Make sure your photography business is protected by taking necessary precautions, such as registering copyright and getting a signed photo release form if your photo is of another person. Once you understand the basics of copyright law, registering your photograph should be easy.

FAQ

Do you need to add the “©” symbol to maintain your rights to your photo?

Once you take a picture on your device, you become the author of your photo, and the U.S. copyright law automatically protects your ownership. Therefore, you don’t need to put the copyright symbol on your photos to prove your ownership on your social media posts, for example. However, if you work under a work-for-hire agreement, it is recommended to put the © notice to claim the authenticity of the images and your ownership. Although this measure doesn’t guarantee complete copyright protection, it might remind copyright thieves of the consequences of their crime.

Does adding a watermark help boost copyright in images?

It depends. Watermarks can be quickly removed using modern tech solutions, but full-image watermarks are more difficult to cut off. They will help you protect your photos from infringement and claim your copyright on them.  The cut photo elements are easy to spot, so even if criminals try to steal your photos by cropping out the watermark, you can still sue them for copyright infringement.

What if I want to give my copyright to someone?

Through a legal copyright assignment document, you can transfer the copyright to whomever you like. This document should contain the following information:

  • The key information about the parties and their contact details; 
  • The particular works assigned to the other party;
  • Fees for transferring the copyright, if applicable;
  • Warranties;
  • Termination of the copyright transfer; and
  • Governing law.
Article by Sofi Ostymchuk

Sofi Ostymchuk is a Content Lead and Legal Writer at Lawrina. Sofi manages the content on the blog, communicates with contributors, looks for interesting topics, and creates articles in cooperation with lawyers and law experts. If you would like to be a blogger for Lawrina, you can contact Sofi for all the details via email at s.ostymchuk@lawrina.com.

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