This article was originally published on December 2, 2020
In many ways, image copyright laws are the simplest to understand. Yet, since the advent of digital technology and internet copyright on pictures has become largely ignored. To protect photos, their creators now need to perform regular photo tracking searches. They then have to follow up with legal proceedings when thieves infringe copyrights. In this article we cover everything you need to know about copyright on pictures.
The confusion of using published images found online has caused quite some confusion on both sides. We often receive inquiries approached from photographers, curious to learn how to protect their images. Also by publishers asking us, ‘are these photos copyrighted?’.
Some of the most frequent questions we receive are related to the fundamentals of copyright law. Below, we aim to tell you everything you need to know about copyright laws for images.
Copyright is intellectual property law.
Image copyright laws protect photographers by granting them exclusive rights to use and reproduce their photographs. It prevents anyone else from using a photographer’s images without their express permission.
As a form of intellectual property law, copyright exists to encourage the creation of intellectual goods. By preventing theft, this right allows creators (photographers, artists, musicians) to create a business.
A picture’s copyright not only protects it as a whole image or in its original form. When implemented on photos it also protects them from being used to create other artworks (known as derivative works). It even protects photographers from thieves who try to use just part of an image. So, if a photographer realizes that a blog owner has cropped and published a section of an image, they could sue.
Copyright law has been around in some form or other for centuries. In the early 1700s, stationers in Britain created The British Statute of Anne. Thought to be the first official copyright. Early copyright, like the Statute of Anne, only protected books from being copied. Later, it evolved to include it for maps, charts, inventions, music, and art.
The first such law in the United States was enacted in 1790. Initially, it only protected works for 14 years and only if the author remained alive. Over the years, the laws have broadened to have more extended copyright. In the past, copyright laws only protected the original work but allowed anyone to make and use copies. Several large legal cases disputed this and the law changed to protect works from being copied in any form.
Image Copyrights – How to get Them
Technically when a camera shutter is pressed, the image right is automatically granted to the creator. The exceptions to this are if you are working on behalf of an employer or you are contracted to create images. In these two instances, the copyright belongs to the employer or client.
In some regions, it is also possible to register your copyright. However, it is very rarely a requirement.
Do I Always own the Rights to an Image I create?
No. As well as the points above regarding employers and clients, there are also models to consider.
When you use models in your images, you must have their explicit permission to use their image. This includes their authorization for use in specific publications, creatives, etc. If a model decides that the use of their appearance is damaging, they can withhold permission to use it. This is why most photographers use a release form when working with models. A release form signed by the model(s) hands over the rights of use to the photographer.
Each country has slightly different procedures when it comes to registering for photo copyright. For the exact process in your country, contact your local Copyright Office.
There is no official register of protected works in the UK, Australia, Ireland, Japan, Poland, Russia, or China. In the United States, it is possible to register for picture copyright by submitting works online at copyright.gov/registration. In Canada, you can also register online at ic.gc.ca. To speed up the process of registration, we created a free guide on how to do it in 5 steps, available on our homepage.
There is also Poor Man’s Copyright. It is an unofficial method used by creatives and inventors to date intellectual property. The technique has been widely used over the years as an attempt to copyright a photo for free*. Poor Man’s Copyright is the use of a registered mailing service to post the item to one’s self. Therefore, retaining dated proof of creation and ownership. This is not a recognized method in the United States and will not definitely be accepted in a UK court of law either.
(*Though the right is automatic and therefore free.)
Is it Best to Register if I can?
In countries with an official register, it is often the case that it is beneficial to register your copyright. In the United States, you must have registered your copyright before you can claim that your rights have been infringed. This differs from region to region and country to country. Always check the details of the law in your area.
How Long Does Copyright Last?
Assuming that you created your photograph after 1978, the copyright lasts for 70 years after your death. The length is slightly different in some countries, for example, in China, where it is 50 years.
Once the copyright runs out, there is no restriction to use your images. There are sometimes exceptions to this rule—a piece of work that is of particular public interest, for example. For creations of which the photographer or creator is unknown, copyright can last between 90 and 120 years from its first date of publication.
How Much Does Copyright Cost?
To obtain copyright on your own work there is no cost as it is given automatically. Tio register your copyright in countries like Canada and the United States; fees can start around $50 -$65 dollars per registration.
There are some businesses and private registers that will list and certify your work for a fee. This differs from service to service.
To license copyright materials to another person, the fee is set by the photographer or image library. Purchasing a license for use in this way could cost anything from $0.50c to $8 – $9.
How To Display Copyright
You can include the copyright symbol ‘©’ on your published works if you choose. Though it is not necessary as you retain copyright anyway. Having the mark and your name with each image can act as a deterrent for thieves.
If you decide to display the copyright, the standard layout is as follows:
Alternatively, you could include a copyright notice on your website. This should explain that all images are copyright and give contact details. This encourages people to request permission to use your photos.
Are Copyrighted Images Really Protected?
Yes, copyright protects photos as they are your intellectual property. When your pictures are used without your consent, it is a copyright law that backs your claim.
If you are in a country with a copyright register then this is the first place to check. Note that an absence from a register does not mean there is no copyright restriction. You could also try reverse picture tracking online. This method uses free online search tools to rack images. If an image is uniques enough and has been published online, this method should suffice. A reverse image search should lead you to the site of the copyright owner.
Other options for copyright image searches include libraries, galleries, publishers, or even lawyers.
What to do When my Right is Infringed?
When your picture is used without your consent you have several options. You could ask the perpetrator to remove the image. Alternatively, you could insist they pay a license fee for its use. You can also partner with us.
We recommend that photographers do not allow their rights to be infringed by photo theft. Allowing thieves to use your images and potentially profit from them is damaging to your brand and business. Before you make a decision about how to proceed with the infringement of your rights, we want you to know that we have been there before as well. Our experience shows that claiming your rights on your own can require a lot of time and effort. Yet still remain ineffective. AtPhotoClaim, we handle copyright picture disputes on your behalf. We work with lawyers and do our best to get back the money you deserve. Have a look what other photographers say about the results of cooperation.
How Much is a Fine for Unlawful Usage of a Photo?
Photographers can sue for anything from hundreds of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
One particular famous copyright case in the 1980s saw photographer Art Rogers sue artist Jeff Koons. Koons had based sculptures on a photo taken by Rogers. The artist profited greatly from the sale of the sculptures but had no permission to create the derivative. The court ruled in favour of the photographer Rogers who received a sizeable settlement from Koons.
How do I Avoid Using Copyrighted Photos Online?
To avoid using protected photos, it is best to assume that all images are copyrighted. A copyrighted image does not have to be marked as such to retain its right. You are obligated to check for it before use.
There are many sources online where photos can be sourced for free or for a reasonable fee. Be sure to read the terms and conditions regarding how, when, and where these images can be used. Even if you use a paid service.
How to Use Someone Else’s Pictures?
There is often a mistaken belief that pictures can be used if you include a link to the photographer’s website. This is simply not true. The legal way to use and display copyright pictures is after obtaining the explicit written consent of the owner. It is also not acceptable to:
It is considered ‘fair use’ and therefore acceptable to use copyrighted pictures for:
The most common symbols you might come across are ™, ®, ©, or (CC). These mean:
I Bought a Framed Photograph – do I own the Rights too?
No. Ownership of an object does not automatically grant copyright ownership.
When you upload an image to Facebook or any other social media site, you do not transfer the copyright to their ownership. Here’s what they say:
Facebook does, however, reserve the right to use your image in any way it wants. With one caveat. They can only use it in the way your privacy settings depict. Therefore, if your privacy settings are set at ‘share with friends or friends’ then Facebook can only share it with those people. For example, Facebook might use it in an advertisement targeted at that audience (doubtful they would, but they can).
Rules like this are always in the terms and conditions of any social media site. If you have any doubts, read through the T&Cs for full details before uploading your photographs.