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How to Copyright Your Images

All about how to copyright your photography. Learn about what happens when you don’t take this important step.

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Imagine this scenario: you’re out shooting and take an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime image of the San Francisco skyline. Pleased with your work, your rush home and put it up on your Flickr account or your 500px gallery. It’s up on Facebook, you’ve Tweeted it, it’s out there for the world to see.

Six months later, your photo is on the cover of a magazine. You didn’t give them permission to print it, and you certainly didn’t get paid for it.

So you decide to sue the magazine for copyright infringement. You head to an attorney’s office and ask them to take the case. Their first question is likely going to be, “Did you register the image with the US Copyright Office?”

If you think that just taking the image, watermarking it, and putting “Image Copyright © 2012 Joe Photographer, All Rights Reserved” in the metadata was all you needed to do to protect your image from being ripped off, you’d be wrong.

To defend your copyright – at least, in court – you need to register the image with the US Copyright Office. Without it, your case cannot even be heard in court, according to Ed Greenberg and Jack Reznicki, authors of the Photographer’s Survival Manual.

“… you cannot file a copyright infringement suit against anyone without a registration in hand,” they write in the book. “Registration is your “key to the courthouse.””

A lot of photographers don’t bother with it because they think they’ll never have an image worth ripping off. In all honestly, however, you just never know when that might actually happen to you.

Witness the case of Noam Galai, a young man from Israel who experienced this first-hand. His self portrait was used hundreds of times in about 30 or 40 countries around the world, often for the financial gain of the people ripping the image off.

Still think it can’t happen to you?

Other photographers don’t go through the copyright process because they think it’s too complicated or too costly. The latter is untrue; it costs about $35 to register a copyright, and you can include 10 images in a single filing. The issue of the process being complicated is more understandable, since it can be a bit daunting to take on.

However, there are plenty of resources to guide you through the process. Here are a few of them:

It’s easy to overlook this vital step, but every photographer ought to be registering their work these days. We live in a litigious and piratical society, where people rip off and sue one another all the time. Having a registered copyright is, as Greenberg and Reznicki put it, “a very big shield that protects your work, and a very big club with which to pursue infringers.”

So go and get your club and shield and defend your work. The smart photographers already are.

Tags: Last modified: June 6, 2020
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