From time to time I find my photographs on other peoples' social media accounts without permission. I brought this up to a few of my fellow photographers and their opinions were mixed on what rights others have to use our photographs and conversely what rights we have. This led me to research the subject of photography and copyrights.
I decided to make this post in FAQ format so that it is easy to read and digest.
- Who owns the rights to my photos? The photographer! In general, copyright gives the author of the photos copyright for each picture from the time the photo is taken through the author's lifetime plus 50 years. The photographer can license, sell, and resell any photos as they see fit.
- Do I need to register my photos with the U.S. Copyright Office? No, you do not need to register each photo with the U.S. Copyright Office, but it does make your case stronger in case you need to pursue legal action.
- Do I need to register each photo with the U.S. Copyright Office? You can, but I would suggest doing a group-register. Currently you can register a maximum of five hundred previously published photos at a time. They need to have been published in the same year. You can register an unlimited number of unpublished photos at once. The fee for group-registration is currently $30.
- Is it necessary to place a copyright symbol© on my images? No, It may have been necessary to place a copyright © before March 1, 1989, but this is no longer required. Despite this, it is wise to place a copyright on your work to enforce the idea to those who may be on the fence about stealing your work.
- Does copyright cover the concept, idea, or techniques behind my photo? No, copyright only covers your work. If someone else photographs the same concepts or ideas with the same techniques and even if the photo looks very similar, there has been no copyright infringement. This also includes making substantial changes to your work creating a new artwork.
- How long can I wait to register my photos? You can register your photos at any time. If you register you photos within three months of publication allows more legal options.
- Are there any exceptions to copyright? Yes, under copyright law “fair use”doctrine, libraries, schools, and non-commercial broadcasters can sometimes use your pictures without permission. The stipulating is that the use is limited to educational and noncommercial activities which do not diminish the future market potential of the photograph.
- Can I take a picture of a copyrighted photograph? Yes you may take a picture of a copyrighted object under the “fair use” doctrine if it is for comment, criticism, research, or teaching purposes. However you may be infringing if you use it for commercial purposes.
- Can I place a copyright symbol on all my photos even if I don't register them with the Copyright Office? Yes, the symbol is official since you own the copyright of the work with or without the symbol on the artwork.
- If I'm hired to work for a company as an employee, do I own the copyright to the photos taken on the job? No, this is considered work for hire. The copyright belongs to the company.
- If I'm hired for a job as a contractor, do I own the copyright to the photos taken on the job? If you signed a work for hire agreement then no you do not own the copyright. If you were contacted to get a specific picture, then you may not own the copyright. If you were given an assignment from a magazine, you likely own the copyright to the images you produce. Since this is such a gray area, make sure to discuss with those hiring you and read all contracts you sign thoroughly.
- If someone infringes on my copyright, how much time do I have to take legal action against them? The statute of limitations on copyright infringement is three years. After that you have no recourse for damages.
Note that this post does not substitute for legal counsel. Also copyright law does change from time to time so do some research on your specific topics and for your local region.