How to Copyright Your Photography

photography schoolsCopyright laws exist to protect your creative work, which is important if you run a business and earn money from your photography, or you want to build a portfolio to enter a college or get a contract. Most colleges for photography will counsel you to protect your work by copyrighting each photo. Don’t assume your work won’t get stolen because the general copyright laws protect you; take the time now to ensure your work is protected.

The Importance of Copyright

Intellectual property, which includes photography, is generally automatically protected under law; however, without proper precautions, it’s much easier for a photo thief to copy your image and post it in a publication or somewhere on the Internet, especially if you can’t prove you were the originator of the image. That could certainly prove a problem if you’re putting together a portfolio; someone may see your work online and assume you copied it. Additionally, if you run a photography business, your clients might take your photos and get cheaper prints elsewhere. With your copyright assured, other printers will know not to print the photos, forcing the client to go back to you for more prints.

What Can Be Copyrighted?

Your photographs are your intellectual property; however, the subjects in your photos aren’t yours to copyright, with few exceptions. For example, if you take a photo of a street scene and someone else takes a photo of the same area, they’re not stealing your work. Only if another person actually copies the photo you took would he or she be guilty of copyright infringement.

Send Your Work for Deposit

The U.S. Copyright Office branch of the Library of Congress accepts submissions, or deposits, of your creative work. To register a photograph, send a copy of your photos on paper or disk along with the Short Form VA, available on the official website, to the copyright office. There are fees involved with depositing your work with the Copyright Office, so be sure to check for the latest pricing.

You can send an entire sheet or disk full of photos; you don’t need to put one photo on each page or disk. Once they’ve received a dated record of your submission, they can access their records in the event of litigation to prove you were the originator. It may be safest to send two copies of each photo when you send deposits, especially if one of your copies is on a disk. Alternatively, you can deposit your work online via the official U.S. Copyright Office website. This is the most affordable, fastest way to protect your work. The Copyright Office will provide you with a registration number for each of your photos; refer to this number if you ever need to prove copyright of your creations.

Published Work

Once your photos are published, either in a publication or in an art gallery, copyright laws exist to protect your work even without you doing anything further; however, there’s still the possibility you might run into legal trouble if someone steps forward to claim you stole his work. One way to circumvent this is to deposit your work with the U.S. Copyright Office as soon as you take the photo, even before it’s published.

Watermark and Signature

Put a watermark on all sample images. The watermark itself won’t necessarily protect you from photo thieves, but people are less likely to want to steal and re-use your images if the watermark appears; in fact, if you find your watermarked image in a publication or on a website, you may have legal recourse to get it taken down, particularly if you filed the copyright.

Protect your creative property, and you won’t see your work stolen and posted on other websites. With copyright protection, your clients won’t be able to take your photos and go elsewhere for more prints. If you have any questions, you can contact the U.S. Copyright Office at 202-707-3000. It may be worth the investment to hire an intellectual property lawyer, too, particularly if you run a business.

Image from Flickr’s Creative Commons

About the Author: Calvin Castagna is a contributing writer, professional photographer and associate professor of art. His work has appeared in publications across the Web and in photography journals.

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