Creative Technology Explained

How to Copyright Your Photos (And Why You Should)

Gavin Phillips Updated 18-06-2020

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

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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 the 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 US 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.

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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 the copyright on your work if you’re a professional. However, if you’re an amateur, you’ll probably be fine with the automatic protections afforded to you as a creator.

What Is Poor Man’s Copyright?

You may have heard of “poor man’s copyright,” which some posit as a basic alternative to proper copyright registration. The idea is that you register the date of creation of the media using an alternative source, such as a notary, via an email, or another method that establishes possession at a specific time.

While poor man’s copyright can help establish legal ownership in countries without strong copyright law, there is no provision or protection in US copyright law for this method.

Another thing you may have heard about is copyleft. Here’s what copyleft is and whether it applies Copyleft vs. Copyright: 3 Key Concepts You Need to Know Content creators are beginning to embrace copyleft over copyright. Here's what that means and why it's important, especially if you're a creator yourself. Read More to your work.

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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.

register a copyright US

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

register a photography copyright

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

us copyright register a photograph

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.

us gov copyright claim options

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Read the three questions on the next screen carefully and answer them to begin the registration process. You’re then 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.

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 someone using your photograph, 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 photo 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.

Can You Use a Watermark to Copyright a Photo?

If you don’t want to pay 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 cannot claim ignorance, which might dissuade them from using your work.
  • A properly placed watermark will require some slick editing if whoever is 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:

© 2020 | Gavin Phillips

To create a copyright watermark, open up your photograph in your preferred image editing software. If you don’t have an image editor installed, check out these free online image editing tools instead 5 Free and Modern Online Image Editors to Replace Clunky Programs & Apps You don't need to download software like Photoshop for basic photo editing. Try these five free online image editors instead. Read More . 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.

add watermark copyright image 1

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.

add watermark rotate copyright image

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 (or the equivalent in your image editing program) and adjust its opacity until you are happy. You should end up with something that looks like this:

add watermark rotate opaque copyright image

The watermark isn’t too distracting but is still prominent.

Copyrighting Your Photos Is Worth It

If you are a professional photographer, you should absolutely create and implement copyright for your name or business. Once your images are online, there is a strong chance that someone will attempt to rip them off.

You might not always find recourse through the copyright, especially if someone in another country steals your work. However, there is a strong chance it will put some would-be pirates off, and it does give you a legal standing.

Are you on the lookout for copyright-free images? Check out the top sites where you can download copyright and royalty-free images The Top 15 Sites for Copyright and Royalty-Free Images Here are the best stock photography websites that will ensure you always have access to copyright and royalty-free images. Read More .

Image Credit: Jirsak/Depositphotos

Related topics: Copyright, Legal Issues, Photography.

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  1. S. D. Martino
    June 26, 2020 at 4:05 am

    I tile my watermark over the whole picture. Diagonal is also good.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    • Wolfie0827
      June 30, 2020 at 2:50 pm

      There is software out there that can place a watermark on multiple images,some are free some paid. Also there are services which will handle the registration of copyright with the proper agencies for a fee.