Guess what? If you’ve ever taken a photo, you’re a copyright owner!
Yes, if you shoot a photo personally or professionally, you achieve an automatic copyright. If you’re like most creatives, you probably don’t enjoy the legal aspects of the business. However, knowledge of copyrights is something you should be familiar with, at least on a basic level.
Is it really that simple?
Yes. Per US copyright law, you don’t need to register the copyright or use the copyright symbol when you publish your work. You will still be protected for your “original work of authorship.” Copyright applies the moment your work exists. In most creative work, ideas cannot be copyrighted. You have the exclusive rights to display, distribute and reproduce your work. You can also make a derivative work.
Are there exceptions?
Yes, one main exception is work for hire. If you are an employee with a job function to produce such work, copyright may be granted to the employer. Similarly, work specially commissioned for use as part of a compilation (such as a movie, collective work, textbook, etc.) could be subject to the same terms.
When you agree to freelance work, it is best to discuss these terms before signing any contracts. But in most cases, freelance photography does not qualify as work for hire unless it is explicitly stated in the agreement.
Should I use the copyright symbol?
While not required, I think it is good practice to use the copyright symbol. At the very least, seeing the symbol may prevent others from stealing the image for their own use. It also helps others realize that your work isn’t in the public domain. This is especially important if your content is going on an online site, where taking an image is easy.
What are the benefits of registering a copyright?
If you register your copyright with the Copyright Office, you gain extra protection against potential infringement. You cannot file a lawsuit unless your copyright is registered. If your work is ever contested, having a registration is extremely helpful in fighting the case. Furthermore, if you register your copyright before any infringement occurs, you may be able to make a case for statutory damages, but this has to be done within 90 days of first publication
These damages are valued by law and can possibly result in a more substantial settlement. If you register your copyright after infringement has occurred, you are limited to actual damages/money that the infringement cost you.
Keep in mind, there are some fair use cases where others may be able to use your work. You’ve probably heard of a provision for educational use, although that allowance is much more limited than people may think. Fair use may also include use in news reports.
What else can/can’t I do?
One major thing you can do is license your work, which grants others permission to use your image without affecting your copyright. In this instance, it is important to note licensing details in the contract. Some licensing agreements can restrict your own usage of the work.
Your copyright also can be passed down as personal property in your will. Copyrights survive the creator of a work for 70 years after the creator’s death.
However, copyrights do not supersede everything. For example, if you take a photograph of a model and they do not sign a release, you may be limited on what you can do with the photo … even though you have the copyright to the photo.
Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer or dispensing legal advice. Copyright law can vary in different jurisdictions and countries, so it is best to familiarize yourself with local laws.