How to Copyright Photos: a Short & Comprehensive Guide

A professional photographer’s work is his or her signature. Before you distribute and share your photographs online, it is important to understand what copyright protection and image safety mean. In this short guide on how to copyright photos, we will try to answer the following ardent questions:

  • what is copyright?
  • what does a copyright infringement mean?
  • how can you protect your photos online?
  • how do I get a copyright for my photos?
  • how to watermark your photos.
  • how can you make photo copying more difficult for Internet users?
  • what is the difference between buying a print and purchasing the copyright?
  • how can you check where your photos are being used across the Web?
  • how to encourage people to share your photos and protect your rights at the same time.  
copyright stamp reading intellectual property
Copyright Stamp

Understanding Copyright: How to Protect Your Photos Online

What Is Copyright? To put it simple:

Copyright is a legal term that refers to the rights given to a creator for his or her artistic work. This can be literary (books), visual (photographs, paintings), audiovisual (films), sculptural, or performative (plays).

*Computer programs, maps, and drawings are also included.

Secondly, copyright is classified as an intellectual property (IP) right. IP is defined as a product of creativity, the creation of one’s mind. Besides copyright, intellectual properties include patents and trademarks.

What does a copyright infringement mean?

A copyright infringement is the use of a work protected by copyright without the author’s permission.

By “use”, we understand the distribution and reproduction of the work, as well as the production of derivative works. Examples of copyright infringement:

  • copying an image by using photo printers for commercial purposes;
  • publicly displaying an image online without crediting the author.

Naturally, a photographer is interested in spreading his work through diverse mediums of communication not only on social media. While it is difficult to control the printing and actual reproduction of your images, it is not only easier but also essential to protect them online.

Posting and promoting your images either on your website or on social media pages has the advantage of targeting a broader and more accessible audience. The disadvantage, though, is that it is much easier for people to “steal” your work. Smart sharing on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr and so on, should thus be accompanied by a copyright notice.

How to Copyright Photos?

#1. Register Your Photos with the U.S. Copyright Office (or a government body that deals with intellectual property rights and copyright infringement in your country) 

While most of your photos are automatically protected from the moment of their creation in the US, UK, and Canada thanks to the Berne Convention, you may want to register your high-value works with a government body. The advantage of such registration is that you can recover damages in case of unauthorized use of your photos.

Registering your copyright involves three steps:

  • an application for copyright registration that will include personal and non-personal information such as your name, address, title and year of your photographic work, date and country of publication.

Note: you can also register unpublished photos.

  • an applicable fee you can pay online – you will be required to make the payment before you get to the next step;
  • a deposit which implies sending one or more copies of your photos. You can either upload photos electronically or send hard copies by post to the Copyright Office.

Registrations of photographs (visual arts works) should be sent to the following email address:

Registrations for visual arts works should be addressed to:

Library of Congress
Copyright Office- VA
101 Independence Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20559-6000.

Official Source: Chapter 4 of the Copyright Law of the United States of America. Also, more eCo tips are available in a less difficult language (not so many legal terms and definitions as the actual law statement).

Pro tip: If you are about to sue someone for copyright infringement, and you haven’t registered yet, consult a lawyer first. If it’s a fair use, there is no point in paying the application fees. On the other hand, an illegal use of a copyrighted work is subject to fines starting at $2,500 and reaching $25,000.

Copyright symbol made from a collage of images

Copyright Sign – Conceptual Illustration

#2. Use the Copyright Symbol on All Your Photos – ©

The copyright symbol is part of the so-called copyright notice. There are three essential parts to it: the “©” (or its substitutes – “copyright” or “Copr.”), the year of publication, and the name of the copyright owner.

Although it is not legally required to use the © symbol on your work, it is a way to declare ownership and improve the visibility of your name.

#3. Watermark Your Photos

We have to admit that watermarking your photos may affect the aesthetic experience of your viewers. Yes, it is a free method of advertising your work and of building your personal brand as a photographer. If done improperly, though, it can actually have a negative effect on the overall aesthetics of your image.

On the other hand, the Internet is not a safe place. Almost any user can download your photographs posted on social media sites like Facebook or even Flickr. There are settings that allow you to control which images are free for download, but any Internet savvy can easily copy them.

Adding a watermark to your photos may be, then, one of the solutions to protect your photos online. We have a few tips of you:

  • make sure it is a subtle, unobtrusive watermark.
  • place your copyright notice at the bottom of the photo and never on the entire image.
  • use either your brand name or your website’s URL: e.g. David Hughes Photography or davidhughesphoto.com.
  • use a nice font.

How to watermark photos in Photoshop: 

If you are an Adobe Photoshop user, this process can be very easy. Just use the Type Tool and place the copyright notice in gray at the bottom of your photo.

You can also watermark your photos by creating a new layer, create the watermark text or design there, adjust transparency, and apply any effects you want (Outer Glow, Bevel and Emboss).

You can, of course, add a watermark to your work with the help of the software you commonly use to edit photos. A popular alternative to a watermark is creating a frame and placing your copyright notice within it.

How Can You Make Photo Copying Difficult for Netizens?

If you promote your photography business online and wish to protect your photos from copying, there are other two methods you can apply:

  • disabling the right-click option prevents users to quickly save the image on their computer. Instead of the “save as” option, they will get a notice stating that the photo is protected by copyright.
  • using a hidden foreground layer; place your photo on a blank foreground image and whenever someone right clicks to save it, they will download the blank image.
  • breaking the image into tiles – this is a time-consuming image protection method as it involves separating and uploading the image as a sequence of smaller tiles. If someone wants to download it, they will get only one tile. Although effective, this way of protecting your photos another disadvantage: it may result in slow loading time for your website.

Is There a Difference Between Buying a Photo and Purchasing the Copyright? 

What we want to highlight here is that when someone buys a work of art or simply pays for a print, it does not mean he or she becomes the copyright owner.

Consider, for instance, the selling photos websites across the web. These sites sell images that are in between the full restriction of “all rights reserved” and the public, free use. The principle is simple: you pay for a high-quality photo, but you do not become the creator of that visual product.

Copyright ownership can be transferred for a fee. Similarly, you can pay for a license to use a work protected by copyright by negotiating with the owner. Any copyright transfer or license needs to be recorded with the Copyright Office.

Can You Get or Display Legal Copies of Fellow Professionals? 

How can someone, then, copy, distribute, publicly display, or reproduce the work of a photographer without the risk of a copyright infringement? Photographers and authors of other types of artistic products are happy when their work gets recognized. Equally, most of them are happy to discuss options for reproducing their images.

What you should do is check the image you want to use for copyright information. The image may be subject to a Creative Commons license which allows you to distribute the copyrighted work freely.

In any case, you can also contact the author, and kindly ask for a photocopying permission.

Learn more about the six types of Creative Commons licenses and their agreement with the copyright law, on the CC official website.

How Can You Check Where Your Photos Are Being Used Online?

Checking where an image of yours is used across the web is not that difficult as you think. You can use TinEye, which is a free image search tool based on a 13.5 billion image index. All you need to do is upload your image or type your image URL and you will be provided with pages of results pointing to its online locations and uses.

How to Encourage People to Share Your Work and Protect It From Copyright Infringement

One of the non-restrictive image protection options you have in this case is using a Creative Commons license.  This will allow users to distribute your work for personal or noncommercial, editorial purposes.

Also, you can kindly ask your followers to share your images together with an attribution.

How to Copyright Photos: Essential Things to Remember

  • Your photographic work, published or unpublished, is protected from the moment of its creation in compliance with the Copyright Law of the United States of 1976.
  • Note that if you want to benefit from the recovery of legal fees and other damages in case of copyright infringement, you need to register with a government body such as the Copyright Office in the US.
  • Copyright is a legal right given for a fixed period of time. To be more precise, in America any work created after January 1978 is protected upon copyright registration during the life of the author and 70 years more after the death of the creator. If the copyright is expired that means that the work belongs to the public domain and it is free for use. 
  • A copyright infringement may result in civil and even criminal penalties.
  • It is important to control the reproduction of your photos as they can have a significant impact on your income. This is particularly important for professionals who rely on photography as their primary source of income.
  • Watermarking your photos should be subtle as not to affect the viewer’s experience.

We hope our guide on how to copyright photos will point you to the right direction. No matter what method you choose to protect the images you share online, total safety cannot be guaranteed.

That is why we recommend you to keep a close look-out over your online photos and take action in case of any violation of your rights. While only large scale copyright infringements are worth taking legal action, you can reach out to the people using your work and ask them to remove it or pay for it.

For any other questions or suggestions you may have in mind, do not hesitate to leave a message in the comment box below. Keep your photos safe! Cheers!

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About Dave Hughes

Computer Science graduate, Dave Hughes is the pragmatic guy of our team. No wonder he likes to call himself a ‘cool nerd’. His brightness and attention to detail are reflected into his new tech-inspired articles and reviews. He loves writing about new tools and useful resources designed to ease your effort.

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  • Effective guide here you have described very clearly . I have read the full post with carefully and understood that, its very useful .