What Photographers Should Know about Copyright

If you’re a photographer, there are a few key things to know about copyright law and the protections available to you.

First, copyright protects original works of authorship, including original photographs. A work is original if it is independently created and is sufficiently creative. Creativity in photography can be found in a variety of ways and reflect the photographer’s artistic choices like the angle and position of subject(s) in the photograph, lighting, and timing. As a copyright owner, you have the right to make, sell or otherwise distribute copies, adapt the work, and publicly display your work.

Second, you should know that copyright protection exists from the moment an original work is “fixed” in a tangible medium. For photographers, for example, fixation occurs when you take a picture. You don’t need to do anything else at all for your work to be protected by copyright.

Registering Your Work

Although your work is protected by copyright from the moment it is fixed, the U.S. Copyright Office recommends registering it with us to make a public record of your ownership, as well as for additional legal benefits like the ability to bring an infringement claim for U.S. works and to seek certain types of monetary remedies. Applying for registration with the U.S. Copyright Office requires an application, a filing fee, and a copy of the work (which the Office calls a “deposit”).

Depending on whether your work has been published, there are several different online application options. For copyright purposes, a photograph is published when copies of that photograph are distributed to the public by selling, renting, leasing, lending or otherwise transferring ownership of the copies. A photograph is also published when copies of that photograph are offered to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution or public display. The public display of a photograph, in and of itself, does not constitute publication.

To register one photograph, published or unpublished, use the Standard Application.

Other options for unpublished works:

Other options for published works:

You can reach out to our help team for assistance determining the best option for you.

A Note on Works Made for Hire

Generally, the author and initial copyright owner of a photograph is the person who “shoots” or “takes” the photo. One limited exception to this rule is when a photograph is created as a “work made for hire.” A work made for hire occurs when a photographer creates works as part of their scope of employment (like at a publication), or when there is an express agreement between a photographer and commissioning party to create a work for a specific, statute-identified purpose. For more information, see Works Made for Hire (Circular 30). If the photographs were created as “works made for hire,” the employer or commissioning party is considered the author and owns the copyright to the images rather than the photographer. The images may still be registered as a group as long as all of the photographs were created for the same employer, the employer is named as the author of each photograph, and the photographs are identified in the application as “works made for hire.”

If Your Work Is Used Unlawfully

It is your right to pursue legal action if your work is used unlawfully, without your permission and not under a statutory exception or limitation like fair use. However, if your work is a United States work you do need to register your work with the Copyright Office before bringing an infringement lawsuit. Also, if you take someone to court for using your work without your permission, and you want to try to have your attorneys’ fees covered or pursue certain other types of compensation (called statutory damages), the timing of your registration matters. More on that here.

Generally, copyright lawsuits are decided in federal court. The Copyright Office is currently establishing the Copyright Claims Board, which, when operational, will provide a new forum to resolve copyright disputes over damages totaling less than $30,000. It is intended to be a cost-effective and streamlined alternative to federal court. You can read more about the CCB here.

Engage Your Creativity

Copyright protection exists from the moment you take a picture.

Although your work is protected by copyright from the moment it is fixed, you can register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office for additional benefits, including access to federal courts in the case of infringement.

If your work is used unlawfully, without your permission and not under a statutory limitation, it is your right to pursue legal action.

Additional Resources

Ready to learn more? Check out these resources to get started!