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. 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 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 copyright.gov and click Register a Copyright.
Next, you need to specify that you want to copyright a photograph.
On the next screen, click the Register a Photograph link.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
I’m happy with the way this looks, although it’s a little extreme. If you want to make your watermark 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.
You should end up with something that looks like this:
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 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