Photography and Copyright: The Definitive Guide

So, you can take beautiful pictures. Maybe you want to post them online or even start selling your work. Maybe you already are selling your work. Naturally, you have questions. How do you protect your work? Do you need to? Do you own the copyright? Let’s clear it up.

I took this picture. Is it mine? Or can anyone use it?

According to the U.S. Copyright Office,

Ownership of a “copy” of a photograph – the tangible embodiment of the “work” – is distinct from the “work” itself – the intangible intellectual property. The owner of the “work” is generally the photographer or, in certain situations, the employer of the photographer. Even if a person hires a photographer to take pictures of a wedding, for example, the photographer will own the copyright in the photographs unless the copyright in the photographs is transferred, in writing and signed by the copyright owner, to another person. The subject of the photograph generally has nothing to do with the ownership of the copyright in the photograph. If the photographer is no longer living, the rights in the photograph are determined by the photographer’s will or passed as personal property by the applicable laws of intestate succession.

In short, as soon as you snap the picture, it is copyrighted, and you own it. The only way that changes is if you transfer your copyright in writing and with your signature. That’s not all there is to copyright, though. There is more to the story when it comes to protecting your work against infringement.

Copyright Notice

This is a statement placed on your photos that informs the public you are claiming ownership of your work. To have a proper copyright notice there must be the copyright symbol ©, the word “Copyright” or “Copr.”, the year of creation or publication (if published), and your name or a recognizable abbreviation. Copyright notice is completely optional but has some benefits.

According to the U.S. Copyright Office,

  • It puts potential users on notice that copyright is claimed in the work.
  • For published works, notice may prevent a defendant from attempting to limit liability for damages or injunctive relief based on an “innocent infringement” defense.
  • It identifies the copyright owner at the time of first publication for parties seeking permission to use the work.
  • It identifies the year of first publication, which can be used to determine the term of copyright for anonymous or pseudonymous works or works made for hire.
  • It may prevent the work from becoming an “orphan” by identifying the copyright owner or specifying the term of copyright. Orphan works are original works of authorship for which prospective users cannot identify or locate copyright owners to request permission.
Example of copyright notice.

Copyright Registration

This is the key factor in protecting your work against copyright infringement. But what is it?

According to the U.S. Copyright Office,

Copyright exists automatically in an original work of authorship once it is fixed in a tangible medium, but a copyright owner can take steps to enhance the protections of copyright, the most important of which is registering the work. Although registering a work is not mandatory, for works of U.S. origin, registration (or refusal) is necessary to enforce the exclusive rights of copyright through litigation.

This means that you do not need to register your photos to own the copyright, but if you intend on suing someone for stealing your work, you must register your photos. Registration also offers additional benefits.

According to the U.S.  Copyright Office,

  • Registration establishes prima facie evidence of the validity of the copyright and facts stated in the certificate when registration is made before or within five years of publication.
  • When registration is made prior to infringement or within three months after publication of a work, a copyright owner is eligible for statutory damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs.
  • Registration permits a copyright owner to establish a record with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for protection against the importation of infringing copies.

In short, if you are going to publish your photographs, think it is possible that someone will steal your work, and want to enforce your exclusive rights to those photographs, it is better to do it sooner rather than later.

When you register, all the information in your application is a public record and will be available to anyone on the internet. However, you can register using a pseudonym. All this requires is that you check the “Pseudonyms” box when filling out the author portion of your application.

How to Register

To register the copyright to your photos, you need to register for an account on the Electronic Copyright Office (ECO) login page found here.

After you have registered click on the link to the application that makes sense for you.

  • Are you registering a single photograph? Choose the Standard Application
  • Are you registering multiple photographs? Choose Register a Group of Photographs (up to 750 per application)

When registering a group of photographs, the photographs are registered as individual works, not as a collection or compilation.

After you select the correct application, you will need to do three things to complete it.

  1. Provide all required information
  2. Pay the required fee
  3. Upload or mail-in a copy of your photograph

According to the U.S. Copyright Office this information is required,

  • The title of the work
  • The year the work was completed
  • The date and nation of first publication, if the work has been published when the application is submitted
  • The name of the author or author(s), unless the work is anonymous or pseudonymous
  • If the work is a work made for hire, a statement to this effect
  • The name and address of the claimant(s)
  • If the claimant is not the author, a brief statement explaining how the claimant obtained ownership of the copyright
  • A description of the work being submitted for registration
  • A statement describing any preexisting material contained in the work being submitted for registration
  • The name of the individual certifying the facts provided in the application

The standard filing fee for online registration is currently $55 for a single or group registration. There is a lower filing fee of $35 for registering a single work, not made for hire, with a single claimant.

In most cases you should be able to upload your image file directly, but there are cases where you must mail in a hard copy of your photograph.

 According to the U.S.  Copyright Office,

You must mail hard copies of your work if it meets both of the following criteria:

  • Your work is published in a hard copy format; and
  • You are required to submit the “best edition” of the work OR you are required to submit the work as first published. 

How long does it take to get your registration certificate once you’ve submitted your application? It depends. To see current processing times for different types of claims, see here.

US Copyright Internationally

The United States has copyright relationships with many other countries and those countries uphold US copyrights. Not every country has a copyright relationship with the United States though. For a complete list of countries and their copyright status see here.

Copyrights, Patents, and Trademarks

These three laws protect different things. Copyright protects original works of authorship such as books, articles, poetry, paintings, or photographs. Patents protect inventions and discoveries such as the telephone or a computer mouse. Trademarks protect words, phrases, symbols, or designs identifying the source of the goods or services of one party and distinguishing them from those of others. Another way to put it is if a word, phrase, symbol, or design is associated with a specific brand or product, it can probably be trademarked.


The US Copyright office will grant copyright registration to minors, but state law may govern how that copyright can be used for business.

How Long Does It Last?

Normal Copyright for anything created after January 1, 1978 lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. Copyright for photographs under a pseudonym or that are anonymous last 120 years from the date of creation if unpublished or 95 years from the date it was first published, whichever happens first. You cannot renew a copyright registration made after January 1, 1978. For more information on fringe copyright duration circumstances, see here.

That is everything you need to know about Copyright for photography. I hope you found the article useful!

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