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Copyright for Photographers: What Do You Need To Know?

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Modern tech has made taking photos, editing them, and sharing them with friends and family easier than ever.

That's a wonderful thing for budding photographers... but it's also a bit of a double-edged sword, for photographers and their subjects.

Privacy and Copyright for Photographers: What You Need to Know

Education on privacy and copyright hasn't kept pace with the rapid progress of technology. There are a ton of misconceptions about the law regarding who owns photos, what kinds of photos are okay to take, and what you're allowed to do with photos. Privacy and copyright law is complicated and intricate, which gives rise to plenty of myths and misunderstandings.

But learning about the basics of laws concerning photography is more important than ever.

Whether you're a professional or a hobbyist, the laws apply to you. Inadvertently breaking the law by taking or sharing a photo that's not allowed, or using someone else's photo in an illegal way, can get you in a lot of trouble with the law — and cost you thousands of dollars in legal fees.

It's not just theoretical: Take the case of a blogger who had to pay $3,000 in copyright penalties (on top of lawyer fees) for using a photo without permission. Or the case of a photographer being sued for taking and selling a photo of a man walking down the street. Or the photographer who sued — and won — when his photos were used without his permission after he posted them on Twitter.

Before you snap your next photo or use an image you find online, make sure you're familiar with how privacy and copyright laws work.

If you end up violating the privacy rights of your photography subjects, or using another photographer's work without their permission, you could be facing your own expensive lawsuit. Even if the case is decided in your favor, the stress and legal fees aren't worth the risk.

And if your photos are used without your permission, there are processes you can use to try to take back your rights and protect your property.

Check out the graphic below to find out how it all works.

Privacy and Copyright for Photographers: What You Need to KnowI

The law provides special kinds of benefits to photographers in the form of copyright and free speech rights. But it also mandates certain responsibilities regarding the rights of others - such as their privacy. We've put together a primer with all the relevant information.

  • Copyright law varies in different countries
  • The following pertains to US copyright law, but is roughly the same in most countries
    • Photos are automatically copyrighted as you take them
    • Until transferring them, photographers maintain the exclusive right to
      • Copy and use photographs
      • Manage their use by others
    • Copyright lasts for the life of the creator plus 70 years for images created after January 1, 1978

Your Responsibilities

  • Privacy Issues
    • Photographers don't have absolute rights to publish anything they see through the lens. There are:
      • Privacy concerns
      • Copyright issues
    • If you are lawfully in a public space, you are allowed to photograph:
      • Buildings and other property
      • Public officials on duty
    • Generally, people's recognizable bodies are protected automatically
      • Privacy rights protect those photographed from having images of their bodies used for commercial reasons without their permission
      • People are protected in locations they would expect to be private, such as:
        • Private home
        • Public restroom
    • Releases are contracts between the model and the photographer
      • They release the photographer from lawsuit liability for claims such as:
        • Defamation of character
        • Invasion of privacy
      • They explain how photos may be used
    • You need a release for:
      • Commercial uses such as:
        • Advertising
        • Websites
        • Promotions and posters
        • Greeting cards
        • Catalogs
      • People
        • If subjects are recognizable
          • Faces
          • Tattoos
          • Involvement in distinctive activities
    • Releases can be short and should be simple to understand
      • The American Society of Media Photographers provides a sample
      • Depending on your needs, you may want to consult with an attorney
  • Copyright Issues
    • Objects you might photograph can be copyrighted:
      • Paintings
      • Sculpture
      • Other photographs
    • You will need to get a release to publish photos of such objects
    • Similarly, the objects' owners would have to get your permission to use your photos of their objects
  • Exceptions
    • Editorial uses, such as newspaper or magazine articles, do not require a model release
      • Editorial uses educate and inform, and are protected by the First Amendment
      • Editorial uses can include:
        • Newspaper stories
        • Magazine articles
        • Editorial blogs
        • If in doubt, get a release
  • Since a copyright is automatically applied to any photo, registration is only required:
    • Before you may sue someone for copyright infringement
    • If you want greater penalties available
      • Like payment of legal fees
  • There are various ways to register your photos with the Copyright Office
    • Register online with eCO (electronic copyright office) at www.copyright.gov/eco
      • Single application: $35
        • Single author, same claimant, one work, not for hire
      • Standard application: $55
    • Or download and print Form VA (Visual Arts) at copyright.gov/forms/formva.pdf
      • Registration on paper: $85
    • Collections
      • If published, they must be a single unit
        • Calendar
        • Book
        • So on
      • Unpublished collections need to be organized and titled
      • One party must claim copyright for all photos on the application
      • One person must have produced or contributed to every photo

How to Protect Your Work

  • Nothing will completely protect your work, but these techniques will deter others:
    • Watermarks
      • Standard way for photographers to "sign" their work
      • The copyright symbol © and the first year of publication is a formal notice of your copyright
      • A clear watermark makes it easier to prove the intent of the infringer
      • It is illegal to remove a watermark or crop it out of an image
    • Metadata
      • Metadata is text information embedded in a photo file
        • Programs like Photoshop and Illustrator can add metadata to your image automatically using templates
      • It is useful to all parties to add:
        • Copyright notice
        • Photographer's name
        • Contact information
    • Online Protection
      • Sharing only low resolution versions of your images makes copying, sharing, and printing your images less useful
      • You can change the mechanisms for online sharing, although many people frown on them:
        • Place a transparent image over the top of your copyrighted image using CSS
          • The copy+paste function will only capture the transparent image
        • JavaScript can disable the right-click function, which will make it more difficult for users to copy or download your photo
        • Software like ArtistScope, DigiMarc, and CopySafe keep control of images by disabling copy+paste, printing, and other forms of sharing and misuse
  • Make sure you own the copyright!
    • In 2011, David Slater was in Indonesia photographing macaque monkeys
    • One of them used the remote trigger and took a selfie
    • The US Copyright Office determined that the photograph could not be copyrighted since no human took the photo
      • Apparently, macaques cannot hold copyrights under US law

Other Tools and Resources

  • Use tools like Google and TinEye to do a reverse image search
    • You can find sites that are using your photos, and take appropriate action
    • You can search using an image file from your computer or an image URL
  • Creative Commons
    • Nonprofit organization that offers free copyright licenses
    • Photographers choose the conditions and allow the public to access and share their images
    • Creative Commons works alongside copyright but does not replace it
    • It allows photographers to easily change copyright terms based on their needs
  • If you find a case of infringement, there are several steps you might want to follow:
    • Document it using
      • Screen captures and printouts
      • Archived versions of the webpage from the Wayback Machine (archive.org)
    • Contact the infringer
      • People are often unaware that they are infringing others' copyrights
      • A simple email request is usually all that is required to get materials removed
        • Sometimes, a cease-and-desist letter from an attorney and the threat of legal action may be necessary
    • Legal action
      • Legal action can include many approaches:
      • Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) went into effect in 1998.
        • This U.S. law protects the rights of copyright holders whose work is infringed online
        • The DMCA allows you to send a DMCA takedown notice to the web host unlawfully using your copyrighted images
          • It requires them to disable access to the materials
        • You must provide full and accurate information that
          • You are the copyright owner
          • Offending site has no legal right to use the image
        • The service provider then contacts the site owner for a chance to remove the infringing image before disabling the site
        • DMCA provides for restitution of up to $25,000 for damages caused by the infringement
      • Court*
        • For an unregistered image, the copyright owner can pursue:
          • Injunctions - a court order to remove the infringing material
          • Monetary reimbursement for actual damage and lost profits
          • Impounding or disposition of the infringing articles
        • A registered image can also be awarded legal fees and statutory damages
  • International infringement
    • Copyright infringement lawsuits are dealt with in the country where the infringement took place
    • Track down the location and local copyright laws to file any claims

* This is not legal advice; the law varies by location; consult an attorney if you have questions As a photographer, you want to protect your interests as best you can. But just as important is to respect the privacy rights and copyrights of others. With a little care, all these legal details can be managed, freeing you up to pursue your art. Sources: improvephotography.com, ppa.com, creativecommons.org, photofocus.com, shutterbug.com, copyright.gov, popphoto.com, imageraider.com, technicalillustrators.org, computerhope.com, photonaturalist.net, aclu.org, apanational.com, kenkaminesky.com, danheller.com, digital-photography-school.com


KeriLynn Engel

About KeriLynn Engel

KeriLynn has worked as a freelance writer for various websites. She is an advocate for domestic abuse victims and has way too many hobbies.


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Paola De Giovanni

September 28, 2019

Many thanks for this comprehensive and very useful guide, this is exactly what I need as I am setting up my photography business.


Mark LaMontagne

November 15, 2019

I just published my book, Photo Repo: A Photographer’s DIY Guide to Getting Paid For Copyright Infringements. I’ve been enforcing my copyrights for three years now, so everything I know is in the book. Instead of turning your infringements over to services like Pixsy and Image Rights, any photographer can do exactly what they do and keep 100% of the settlement fee instead of splitting it 50-50. Everything you need to know is in the book. It also covers copyright law for photographers and has step-by-step instructions on how to register your photos with the Copyright Office. During the time it took me to write it, I settled 33 cases for around $15,000. The book is worth its weight in gold.