Why and How to Register Your Copyright

At our recent stock photography workshop in Delray Beach, Florida, we received a lot of questions about photo copyright.

While photo copyright isn’t fun or glamorous, it’s an important thing to consider as you start earning more and more money from your photos.

Professional photographer, and former lawyer, Efraín Padró gives you all the details in today’s issue: What a photo copyright is, who needs it, how you get it, and more…


Lori Allen
Director, Great Escape Publishing

November 21, 2010
The Right Way to Travel

by Efraín M. Padró in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Most photographers have heard about copyright but few have a clear understanding of exactly what it is, how it is created, how you register it, and how you can use it to protect your images and make money.

Here are a few basic pointers to help you understand copyright.

*What is a Copyright?

Copyright law basically says that you, the photographer can do anything you want with your pictures as long as it is not illegal. This means, for example, that you can license your work to a magazine for, say, use as a cover shot for a particular issue; make prints and sell them; make a book featuring a collection of your pictures; and even sell your copyright outright to somebody else if you want to.

Your right is good for your lifetime plus 70 years, so make sure to include your image collection in your will.

*How Do You Get a Copyright?

This is the easy part. Photographers acquire the copyright to their pictures the moment they press the shutter.  It’s automatically yours.  You own the image.

*Should You Register Your Copyright?

Owning the rights to your images is like having the right to vote. The moment you turn 18 you have a right to vote.  But that doesn’t mean you can stop by your local voting booth on Election Day and cast a vote. You have to register first.

Having a registered photo means protection.  If someone steals your image, you have registered proof that it belongs to you.

It also means:

1. You have the right to sue: That’s right. If you do not register an image and someone uses it without permission (we call those people “infringers” or worse), you DO NOT have a right to take them to court. (Note:  I strongly believe that lawsuits (like heart surgery) should be used as a last resort.  When negotiating with an infringer, however, you will be in a stronger position if one of your options is filing a lawsuit (“Do you feel lucky, punk?”)).

2. You have the right to statutory damages: If you register your work after an infringement has occurred, you will be allowed to file a lawsuit but, if successful, your award will be limited to real damages. For example, if an infringer uses your picture for a cover of a magazine without permission, and the usual rate for that type of use is $400, you win that amount in court. Are you going to file a lawsuit in federal court for $400? No. Statutory damages, on the other hand, are set by statute, and depending on the type of infringement can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now we’re talking.

3. You have the right to attorney fees: If you win in court you are also entitled to attorney fees, which in federal court can amount to tens of thousands of dollars. Again, this assumes you registered your work before an infringement occurred.

4. You gain the benefit of creating a public record: Registration establishes a public record of your copyright. This public record is searchable, which can come in handy if someone is looking for you and cannot otherwise find you.

5. It makes it easier to prove you are a professional: Although you will not find this listed as an advantage in most articles about the benefits of registration, I believe registering your work will help prove you are a professional photographer (and therefore entitled to certain business deductions) if you are ever audited.

So, How Do You Register?

To register your work, you send a copy of your pictures to the Copyright Office in Washington, DC (they call it making a “deposit”) with a form and payment. The fee is $35 if you file your registration application electronically, and $50 if you submit your application via regular mail.

Unpublished pictures can be filed as a group and there is no limit to the number of images you can register at one time. (Registering published images is a little different and more complicated, and is not discussed here). Therefore, you can save a lot of time and money by filing a submission as a large collection of images.

It can take many months (or longer) to receive your Certificate of Registration from the federales, but the date on it will be retroactive to when the Copyright Office received the application.

There are three ways to register:

1. Online Registration: In theory this is the quickest, most convenient and inexpensive way to register your work, as it allows you to handle everything electronically, from downloading copies of your pictures to payment. However, as of this writing the system is a little buggy and it can time out in the middle of your download. I would not recommend this option yet.

2.Registration with Fill-In Form: This is the method I use. You fill out a bar-coded form online (it’s long but not that hard once you get the hang of it), print it, then mail it with a check for $50 plus a CD with low res versions of all the images you want to register. I ship the CD in a box (not an envelope) because the Copyright Office “inspects” its mail aggressively and has been known to crush unprotected CDs in the process.

3. Registration with Paper Forms: This is similar to No. 2, but you print the form first, then fill it out by hand or typewriter (remember those?).

For more information about copyright and registration, visit the Copyright Office’s website at www.copyright.gov. The website is full of helpful information and it is surprisingly user-friendly (even for non-lawyers).

[Editor’s Note: Learn more about how you can turn your pictures into cash in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.  Sign up here today and we’ll send you a new report, Selling Photos for Cash: A Quick-Start Guide, completely FREE.]