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7 Things Every Photographer Should Know About Copyright

Did you know you have the right to use someone else’s work? If you take a photograph, you own the copyright to that image under US copyright law. Copyright law affects all photographers, not just those who are in business and make money from their images. Understanding your rights under US copyright law is more important than ever, given the ease with which images can be shared online. Let’s take a look at 7 things every photographer should know about copyright.

I’m going to start by saying that I’m not a lawyer. I am not giving legal advice; rather, I am sharing what I have learned about US copyright law through my own experiences, research, and classes. Furthermore, copyright laws vary greatly around the world. If you are reading this outside of the United States, it should serve as a reminder to make sure you are familiar with your country’s copyright laws.

If you’ve ever taken a photograph, you’re a copyright holder. To own or establish your copyright, you do not need to file anything, publish anything, or take any action; it is automatic and immediate. When you create an image, you automatically acquire the copyright. There are several reasons why you should register your copyright (some of which we will discuss shortly), but registration is not required to own the copyright to your images.

There is one exception: when you create work under a “made for hire” agreement. If you are shooting for yourself, either personally or professionally, this exception does not apply to you and you should not be concerned. If, on the other hand, you are an employee of a company and create work for your employer’s use, you may be subject to a work for hire agreement, which makes the employer the owner of the copyright. You can assume that this exception does not apply to you unless you are specifically creating work for your employer as part of your job.

It’s a good idea to use the copyright symbol to watermark or caption your images when you publish them. It serves as a good reminder to the viewer that your image is protected by copyright law. Because some people mistakenly believe that images without a copyright symbol are free to use, it’s a good first step toward protecting your work online. However, US Copyright law makes it clear that using the copyright symbol or copyright notice is not required to protect your work. Your images are yours, whether or not you label them when you publish them.

If someone violates your copyright and you choose to file an infringement case against them, you may not do so until you have registered your copyright with the US Copyright office. While it is necessary to register your copyright before you can sue an infringer, it is not necessary to have registered your copyright before the infringement occurred. However, registering your copyright prior to infringement provides you with far more protections and rights.

If you register your copyright prior to infringement (or within three months of publication), you may be eligible for additional protection in the event of a copyright lawsuit. Registering your copyright after infringement limits your case to actual damages (the amount of money you lost as a result of the infringement) rather than statutory damages (damages valued by the law on the basis and type of infringement). Because actual damages can be difficult to prove and may be limited in some cases, the ability to receive statutory damages is a compelling reason to register your copyright when creating new work.

It is critical to understand the distinction between licensing and copyright. You have the right to license your image to another party as the owner of the copyright. Licensing is a method of granting someone permission to use your image without affecting the image’s (copyright) ownership. Licensing agreements can vary in terms of how much control you want to give others over your images; you can grant them rights to use your image for a specific purpose for a specific amount of time, or you can grant them broad usage rights. Regardless of how you decide to license an image, you can grant them permission to use it without relinquishing ownership.If someone wants to use one of your images, make sure you know exactly what rights you’re granting them and whether those rights are for licensed use or copyright.

Owning the copyright to an image is akin to owning a car. When you own a car, you can do whatever you want with it, but there are some restrictions on how you can use it. You must still follow the rules of the road as an owner. Similarly, having copyright gives you ownership of an image, but there may be restrictions on how you can use it. Some situations, for example, necessitate a model release or a property release before publishing an image, and copyright ownership does not negate those requirements. Even if you own the copyright to a photograph, you can create a licensing agreement that limits your own use of it.

Just because someone is using your work does not mean they are infringing on your intellectual property rights

While the law grants the copyright holder the exclusive right to reproduce, display, and distribute their work, there are a few exceptions in which someone can legally use a copyrighted image. For example, sharing an image or quoting a portion of a written work for the purpose of reporting on it (think book reviews) or education may be permissible under fair use. However, the scope of fair use is extremely limited, and in most cases, when someone uses your image without your permission, it is copyright infringement.

As photographers, we must have a basic understanding of the rights and protections afforded to us under US copyright law. Because copyright law is fairly nuanced, I recommend that you consult with a good intellectual property lawyer for information and questions about a specific case. For more information, including how to register your copyright, visit the US Copyright Office’s website.

Note: If you want to make some adjustments to the photo just let me know. I can do it for you at a very low cost. You can hire me to edit your photo.

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