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Did you know that if you’re a photographer and you’ve ever taken a photo before then you are already a copyright owner? Under the US Copyright Law you are the legal holder of the copyright on every single image that you’ve ever taken unless you’ve actively relinquished the copyright on them.
As a photographer in the modern digital world it’s more important than ever to have a good grasp of copyright law. Images are constantly being shared online and so you need to understand how copyright law works and how it protects you and impacts your work.
Copyright is a part of the intellectual property law and can refer to any artistic creation, including novels, poems and, of course, photography, which is officially registered as a ‘visual art work’.
Copyright Automatically Applies To Your Photos.
One of the first things you need to know about copyright is that after you’ve taken a photograph you automatically own it. Legally speaking, you don’t have to file any complicated documents, pay a lawyer or publish your work to ensure that you own the full copyright to it.
There are exceptions to his general rule though; for instance, if you have taken photos as part of a ‘made for hire’ contract then you do not own the copyright. This means that if you are working, in the context of a job or as a freelancer, for a client or company, as a photographer then you do not own the copyright to photos you take. If you are working for an employer then they will own the copyright to the images and you should get their explicit permission to use those images in any context.
Do You Have To Use the Copyright Symbol If You Are Publishing Your Photos?
When you are publishing your work, especially on the internet, it’s usually a good idea to use the copyright symbol to remind the viewers that you do in fact own it! You can use a copyright symbol and your name as a watermark on the image so that if someone ‘copies and pastes’ it then it will be clear that they do not own it.
However, there is no legal requirement for you to use a copyright symbol when you are publishing your work because under US law it is clearly stated that you don’t need to do this.
So, to sum up, it can be a smart idea to use a copyright symbol when publishing your work online although regardless of whether you do or not you still retain the full rights to your photos.
What If Someone Infringes On Your Copyright?
If you find out that somebody has taken your photos and has been using them for purposes which you did not give permission for then you may want to file an official infringement lawsuit against them.
In order to file an infringement lawsuit you first have to register your image and the copyright claim with the US Copyright Office. The law states that you must register the copyright before you can follow up on the infringement but luckily it’s not a requirement to have registered the image before the infringement occurred.
There are reasons why you might want to register your copyrights before any infringement takes place because it will give you more rights and better protections. Remember though, that it does take time and will cost you money to register your copyright so unless you believe your photo is worth a significant amount of money it might not always be worth doing so in advance.
Get Extra Protection By Registering Your Work With The US Copyright Office.
To get the best protection for your original photos you can register their copyrights in advance of any infringement taking place. If you register for an official copyright before an infringement takes place, or within 3 months of the image’s publication, then you should be eligible for increased levels of legal protection in the case of a future lawsuit.
When you register your copyright after an infringement takes place you will normally be limited in any lawsuit to only claiming actual damages caused to you as opposed to statutory damages. This means that you will only get the amount of damages that you can prove took place – which can be very difficult. It’s usually better for you to be able to claim statutory damages which are based on the type of infringement that took place but you can only do this if you have registered the copyright in advance of an infringement (or within 3 months of it being published).
Essentially, you are more likely to be able to make a larger claim for damages if you have registered your photo before any copyright infringement takes place.
Can You Give Someone Permission To Use Your Photos Without Losing the Copyright?
There is a major difference between a copyright and a license. You can license an image to someone else to use without losing the copyright (ownership) of the image. When you license a photo to another party you are giving them the legal permission to use it without affecting your own copyright status.
You can license an image in many different ways. You can create a license which states the exact way that the image can be used, how many times it can be reproduced, how long it can be used for, where it can be used and how much the user must pay you for the license.
Licensing agreements are very flexible and with a little bit of research, or with the help of a lawyer, you can put together a license for a third party which will suit your requirements and earn you money without losing the ownership of the photo. It’s vital that when you create a licensing agreement that the user understands exactly what rights you are granting to them and also that they know you still own the copyright.
Copyright Means That You Own The Image But There Are Limits To What This Means.
Of course, after you’ve taken a photo it’s only right that you own it! However, there are still other legal restrictions that you need to be aware of.
Take the example of a car. If you own a car you can drive it wherever you want to but you do still need to follow the rules of the road or the car may be taken away from you and impounded!
Similarly, although you may own the copyright to a photo there are still some legalities that you need to be aware of which limit the way you can use the image. If you have taken photos of a model, for instance, you will need the model to sign a ‘model release’ form, while a photograph of a privately owned property may require a ‘property release’ form to be signed by its owner before you can publish it. In other situations, you might have created a licensing agreement which limits your own use of the photo for a certain period of time even though you still officially own the image.
It’s Not Always A Copyright Infringement If Someone Else Uses Your Work!
While it’s essential to know what rights you have under copyright law you also need to be aware of the exceptions to the rules and when people can use your images without asking first.
Copyright law gives the owner of the photography the exclusive rights to the distribution, reproduction and display of the work however there are other instances when a third party can use your work in a legal way.
For instance, if somebody shares your work or uses it for the purposes of reporting, commentary or other ‘fair use’ reasons then they have not violated your rights. Someone can use your image for educational purposes or as part of a photography review as long as they credit you as the owner of the image. So if you’ve had a photography exhibition in a gallery and the local press writes a review of your work, including images of your photos, then this would be considered fair use and you could not file a lawsuit against them for infringement.
Copyright Law Exists To Protect Your Intellectual Property.
As a photographer your most valuable asset is the intellectual property that you create. Your photos belong to you from the moment you snap the shot and unless they were taken on a ‘made for hire’ basis then you always retain those rights.
When considering the scope of the ways you can use your photos don’t forget to get all the relevant release forms signed by models or property owners and if you are worried about potential infringements then you should file your work with the US Copyright Office as soon as possible.
It’s crucial for photographers to have a basic grasp of the way that copyright law impacts their practise but even so there are some pretty fine nuances in the law that are important too. If you find yourself in a complicated dispute it is usually worth contacting an intellectual property lawyer to get some professional advice. For more information about Registering Your Photography with the US Copyright Office : https://www.copyright.gov/registration/photographs/
Have anyone ever infringed on your photos?