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By Carolyn E. Wright |

How to Copyright Your Photos

Eye of the Wolf

It’s easier than ever for someone to steal your photographs in this digital age. So it’s wise to consider your copyright options.

By law, the copyrights for your photographs are created when you click the shutter. Even if the photograph is never registered, the copyright exists and is protected by copyright law.

But the best way to protect your photographs is to register them with the US Copyright Office. Here’s how.

Advantages to Registering Your Photos

When the copyright to your photo is registered before an infringement begins (or within three months of your first publication of the photo), you’re eligible for statutory damages of up to $150,000 for any willful infringement. You also may be able to recover your legal fees and costs from the infringer. There are other benefits to registering your photos with the US Copyright Office before or within five years of your first publication of the photograph. For one, a court presumes that your registration is valid and accurate. Additionally, US citizens need to have received a registration certificate to file a copyright infringement lawsuit in most jurisdictions.

Which Photos Can Be Registered?

Any photo that’s protected by US copyright law can be registered with the US Copyright Office. You are not required to be a US citizen. All unpublished photos, regardless of the photographer’s nationality, are protected by copyright in the United States. If your photos are first published in the US or in a country with which the US has a copyright treaty, they also are protected by copyright. And if you’re a citizen of or reside in a country that has a copyright treaty with the US, then you can register your photos with the US Copyright Office. See Circular 38a International Copyright Relations of the United States for the status of specific countries.

Determining Whether Your Photos Are Published

When registering your photographs, you must determine whether they have been “published.” But the Copyright Act doesn’t give any guidance as to how this definition applies to works on the Internet. While the law isn’t clear on this issue, if you offer your photograph for sale or licensing or allow others to make copies or downloaded from a website, then you likely should consider your images to be published. If your photos are on your webpage for display only, then they probably are not published.

How to Register Your Copyrights

The process to register your entire library of photographs can seem overwhelming. You first must separate your registrations by groups of published and unpublished photos. You can register your unpublished shots that were taken over a period of several years in one registration—but you must separate the registrations of your published images by calendar year published (not taken). This chart may help you visualize how to group them:


You also may break your photographs into smaller, more manageable groups, from these larger ones. You still may register your copyrights using paper forms. Form VA is for registering visual arts, including photographs. The current fee for this form is $85 payable by check or money order. To make the registration process even easier, you now may register your copyrights online. Using the electronic copyright office system (“eCO”), you can register your photographs quickly and with less work 24 hours a day. The advantages include a lower online filing fee, a faster processing time, online status tracking, payment by credit or debit card, and the ability to directly upload copies of your photos online. The Copyright Office provides instructions to help you through the registration process: eCO Acceptable File Types, eCO Tips, eCO FAQs, eCO Tutorial (PowerPoint), and the eCO Tutorial (PDF). For recently added features, see eCO Updates. Also check these good resources for more information on how to copyright your photos:

You will find the registration process easier each time you do it. The most important thing is to get started.

For more tips, watch my Photography and the Law courses at lynda.com: Understanding Copyright and  Photographers’ Rights and Releases.


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