Why (and How) You Should Copyright Your Photos

Brad Jones 18-09-2017

It’s easier than ever to share your photographs online. Unfortunately, that also means it’s easier for others to use those pictures without your permission.


Fortunately, copyright law is designed to protect creators. Just by taking a photograph, you have certain rights to that image—even if you don’t add a copyright or trademark symbol How to Create Copyright and Trademark Symbols via Keystrokes This post came about because I was searching for ways to create a copyright symbol for a batch of graphics in Photoshop. Read More . However, knowing how to enforce those rights is another story.

Whether you want to register your copyright, or just make sure that prospective content thieves are aware that you know where you stand, you have options. Here’s what you need to know about protecting your ownership of your photographs.

What Is Copyright?

When you possess copyright of a photograph, that means that you have exclusive right to reproduce the work, to create derivative works based on it, to distribute copies, and to display it in public.

In the United States, when you take a photograph, you automatically have copyright of the image Concerned About Copyright? A Guide For Legally Using Images On The Web Copyright is a complex subject. A fair amount of understanding makes it easier. If you're wondering under what circumstances you can use someone else's creative work -- expect some answers here. Read More as soon as the shutter is released (as long as it isn’t a photo of an existing artistic work). However, this isn’t the case if you’ve been commissioned to take the photographs by an employer — they would hold the copyright since they’re footing the bill.

If you don’t register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office before an infringement, or within three months of its first publication, you will only be entitled actual damages. This amount is calculated based on your normal licensing fees, and sometimes any profits made from the illegal usage.


If you do register your copyright, you can pursue statutory damages, which could be worth a lot more. It’s worth making the investment of money and energy in registering copyright on your work if you’re a professional. However, if you’re an amateur, you’ll probably be fine with the automatic protections you’re afforded as a creator.

How to Register Your Copyright

If you do decide to register your copyright of a particular image, head to and click Register a Copyright.

register copyright u.s. government

Next, you need to specify that you want to copyright a photograph.


register photograph copyright

On the next screen, click the Register a Photograph link.

register photograph copyright

Now you’ll need to create a user account. When you’ve done this and logged in, you should see the screen below. Click Register a New Claim.


register new claim copyright

Read the three questions on the next screen carefully, and answer them to begin the registration process. You’ll then be asked to select the Type of Work you want to register. Choose Work of the Visual Arts from the dropdown menu.

work of the visual arts copyright

Make your way through the form, filling it out in as much detail as possible. Anything you omit is only going to delay the process later on, so it’s best to be thorough. Once you’ve given the Copyright Office all the information it requires, you need to pay the $35 fee (if you’re registering a single photograph) and send them a copy of the photograph.


You’ll receive your copyright certificate in the mail.

How to Enforce a Copyright Claim

The most extreme way to protect your copyright is to get in touch with a lawyer 5 Legal Issues No Photographer Can Afford to Ignore As fun as it is to take photos, there are important laws to obey. Ignorance is not an excuse, so stay up-to-date before it's too late. Read More and file a copyright infringement lawsuit. However, in most cases, that won’t be necessary.

If you’re happy with the photograph being used, but you want attribution, get in touch with the owner of the website. In most cases, if you explain your stance, they’ll be happy to comply to keep the content intact.

However, if you decide that you want the photograph taken down, it’s best to raise the legal consequences. You could write up a cease-and-desist letter, or have a lawyer do so on your behalf. A DMCA takedown notice is probably a simpler option. You can find plenty of templates online, like this one from IP Watchdog.

The two techniques above are good choices if you find your work published on a blog or a smaller print publication. If it’s a bigger entity, like a major magazine or website, it might be worth sending them an invoice at your normal rate. These companies have a budget for images, so they might rather pay up than deal with the hassle.

What About Watermarks?

If you don’t want to pay $35 to register a copyright, you do have another option. Placing a watermark over your photograph doesn’t do much to enhance your legal position, but it does offer two major benefits:

  • Anyone who infringes upon the copyright can’t claim ignorance, which might dissuade them from using your work.
  • A properly placed watermark will require some slick editing if whoever’s infringing upon your copyright doesn’t want to give you credit.

The correct format for a copyright watermark is the word “copyright” or the copyright symbol followed by the year it was created and the name of the author. For example:

© 2017, Brad Jones.

To create a copyright watermark, open up your photograph in your preferred image editing software. I’m using GIMP. Add a text element with your copyright information.

watermark text gimp

It’s worth choosing a thicker, bolder font that’s going to take up as much space as possible. I’ve opted for all caps for this purpose too.

watermark thicker text gimp

Next, position your watermark so it’s taking up as much space as possible. You want to make sure that anyone that’s looking to use your image without permission can’t just crop it out. Now is a good time to make adjustments to its color, and while it’s best to stick to either white or black, see what looks better against the predominant colors of your photograph.

watermark tilted

I’m happy with the way this looks, although it’s a little extreme. If you want to make your watermark 13 Easy & Free Ways to Watermark Photos Have you ever needed or wanted to mark an image as yours to prevent others from duplicating it and/or claiming it as their own? You might already know that this is called watermarking. The process... Read More a little smaller or less central, feel free, just remember you’re trying to prevent easy cropping. We can still retain the overall effect of our image by adjusting the opacity of our text element.

Select your text element in the Layers window and adjust its opacity to 50 percent.

watermark opacity

You should end up with something that looks like this:

watermark finished

The watermark isn’t too distracting, but it’s still pretty prominent. Feel free to tweak the opacity to your liking.

Watermarks might not provide any real legal protection, but they’re an easy, cheap way to enforce the copyright you get whenever you take a photo. Whip up a macro Save Yourself Time and Effort by Automating GIMP With Scripts Automating actions with Python scripts in GIMP can save you a ton of time. It's not easy to get started, but once you know these basics, you'll be well on your way! Read More and the process is even easier.

Do you have any tips on photograph copyright that you’re eager to share with other readers? Or are you looking for advice on a particular situation? Either way, why not add your voice to the comments section below?

Image Credit: Jirsak/Depositphotos

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  1. Jeff
    December 11, 2018 at 2:01 am

    This is incorrect: "The correct format for a copyright watermark is the word “copyright” or the copyright symbol followed by the year it was created and the name of the author. "

    The year in a copyright notice is the year of first publication, not the year of creation. The name in a copyright notice is the name of the copyright owner, who may or may not be the author. The order of the elements of a copyright notice does not matter as long as all 3 elements are present.

    This is incorrect: "If you don’t register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office before an infringement, or within three months of its first publication, you will only be entitled actual damages. This amount is calculated based on your normal licensing fees, and sometimes any profits made from the illegal usage."

    The remedies available without timely registration are actual damages, disgorged profits, and injunctive relief. The profits of the infringer are a distinct remedy under copyright law, and are not "actual damages." You also ommitted a key remedy -- injunctive relief (putting a stop to the infringing activity) which is another available without early registration.

    This is partially incorrect in relation to watermarks: "Anyone who infringes upon the copyright can’t claim ignorance."

    Under copyright law, the word is "innocence." A valid copyright notice precludes an innocent infringement defense.

    Lastly I would caution against the use of the word "copyright" as a verb. It ceased to be a verb decades ago. You can register an image, or add copyright notice to an image, but neither activity is "copyrighting."

    Your article otherwise provides solid advice.

  2. Mason
    September 18, 2017 at 3:14 pm

    This advice is useful for a single photograph, but what about hundreds?
    Watermarking, copywriting, bulk uploading. It all seems like a bit of a hassle.