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As soon as a photograph is created, it automatically gets copyright protection.  However, the author of a photograph must register the copyright if s/he wants to file a copyright infringement lawsuit against someone who steals his/her pictures.  Since getting a copyright involves some work and expense, it is advisable to apply for registration of photographs that have the potential to be stolen or have been stolen.

If the author of a photograph gets a registered copyright for the work only after someone starts using the photograph without his/her permission, the author of the work may not be able to recover all the statutory damages and attorney’s fees in the lawsuit.  A person who has a photograph that s/he know will be a commercial success, should get a copyright before it is published.  Even though this may not always be practical, it is best to get the copyright as soon as possible.  It is therefore common for photographers to get copyrights on their pictures that have already been published.

The author can get copyright on a photograph only if it is original.  The law does not permit copyright of a copy.  A person cannot also copyright someone else’s work just because the other person has not obtained a copyright on it yet.  Also, as with other kinds of copyrightable work, copyright is available only for photographs that actually exist and not for an idea for a photograph.

Before getting actual copyright protection, the photograph can be preregistered for copyright protection too.  This is usually only done with advertising photographs where there is good reason to suspect that someone might steal the work before it is published and the work on the photographs though already in progress, is not yet complete.  However, even with preregistration, once the photograph is released it is best to register for copyright as well.

If the author of a photograph ever needs to file a lawsuit for copyright infringement, it will help his/her case if s/he has advertised about a registered copyright on the photograph.  It will therefore help if the universally accepted symbol of copyright- a small “c” with a circle around it is placed on all the copyrighted photographs along with the date of publication.  Some photographers just put the year, but a complete date is more accurate.  Also include the name of the author or the name of the photography business, the city or state where the business is based, and the phrase “All Rights Reserved” in the photograph.  The benefit of providing all these information is that this makes it harder for someone infringing on the copyright to claim that they did not realize that they were doing anything wrong.  This information can be added along the bottom of the photograph or as a watermark inside the body of the picture.

In the United States, copyrights on photographs are registered with the United States Copyright Office in Washington DC.  Registration is possible for a single photo or for a group of photographs. 

Copyright protection can be obtained for single published photographs and published units under one application and filing fee.  A unit or package of published photographs includes photos in a calendar, a set of baseball cards, or illustrations in a book.

In case of unpublished photographs, the author can apply to register a single unpublished photograph or an unpublished collection of photographs with one application and filing fee.  For collections of unpublished photographs:

  • the photographs must be neatly assembled;
  • a collection title must be provided;
  • the same party must be the copyright claimant for all the photos; and
  • one author must have either created or contributed to all the photos.

However both published and unpublished photographs cannot be registered on the same application.

Inside Photographs