Not Your Everyday Banana

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What exactly, if anything, do I need to do in order to copyright my photographs?

I have done some research into this topic and find a wide range of answers. Some articles on the web are stating that no action is needed while others detail a lengthy process in order to copyright images.

Another resources (I don't have the link) stated that I can include a "© 2007 yournamehere" as it tells everyone that "yourname" hereby declares copyright ownership of this photo since 2007.

I am not sure what to make of it all at this point.

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Those two links seem to cover all the bases. But there is one piece of advice missing: If the issue is important to you, consult a lawyer. –  labnut Jan 13 '11 at 20:02
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Note also that, although there are international copyright treaties, this varies significantly from country to country. –  mattdm Jan 13 '11 at 23:01
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It seems to me that this question would benefit from specifying which country(ies) the asker is asking about, because of the point that @mattdm raises. It might then get asked almost identically for other countries, and garner different answers. –  lindes Jan 14 '11 at 18:01
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7 Answers 7

up vote 30 down vote accepted

Simply put you don't have to do anything to "copyright" your photographs, as the creator the image is yours, you automatically own the copyright, which is short for the right to copy.

You can optionally register your copyright (via the lengthy process in your link, varies from country to country). All this does is make it easier to claim damages if your copyright is breached.

Adding (c) yourname year is not strictly necessary but it

  • Identifies you as the author.
  • Provides someone a means to contact you (or at least look you up) if they wish to license the image.
  • At least reminds people viewing the image that it is subject to copyright.
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A copyright lawyer I worked with decades ago was very specific about a required legal copyright label: Copyright © 2011 My Name For linear typing systems (c) might be acceptable instead of ©. This has four elements: 1) the word Copyright, 2) the copyright symbol, 3) year of publication, 4) the owner. If any element is missing, the copyright might be successfully challenged. I haven't checked if DCMA, or other recent legislation, affects this. –  wallyk Jan 14 '11 at 5:20
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Your lawyer was probably insisting on the label requirement to make his job easier ;) copyright is an opt-out system, but I agree it is certainly very good practice to include the copyright notice –  Matt Grum Jan 14 '11 at 10:38
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@wallyk: “decages ago” is the whole point. I’m no expert in copyright law but as far as I know the copyright law has changed fundamentally in the last few decades. I particular, copyright notices are no longer (since 1989, to be specific) required in the US. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright_notice –  Konrad Rudolph Jan 14 '11 at 16:55
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Also, @wallyk, the not-officially-legal-advice that I've heard from multiple sources is that you need either the word Copyright, or the © ("Circle-C", it's often called) symbol, and they are exactly equivalent, so using both is redundant. –  lindes Jan 14 '11 at 17:57
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There is one very important distinction to be made: Do you want to seek penalty damages for copyright infringement?

By US copyright law, any original content (and special derivative works of copyrighted material) are automatically copyrighted by the creator. There are specific instances in which even if you are the creator, the copyright is owned by someone else. For example taking photos of the lightshow on the Eiffel Tower, or taking photographs under contract in which the copyrights are assigned to someone else.

If this is the route you go, the law limits the amount of penalty damages you may seek for copyright infringement, while additionally making it harder (though not impossible) to prove that you are the original copyright owner.

If you do register your images with the US Copyright offices (using the lengthy steps outlined in your question), you have the ability to seek much higher penalty damages for copyright infringement, regardless of their intent if it is determined that they infringed on your work.

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Others have covered the difference between having a copyright and registering it. One advantage of registration is that it is considered prima facie evidence that you are the owner. That means in court, you are considered the owner and the person bringing the claim against you must prove that you are not. Without registration, suing someone for infringing your copyright requires that you show that it is in fact your copyright.

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As some of the answers have indicated, a key issue in copyright is proving creation date and ownership of the original. This problem is especially acute with digital images.

There is a simple cost free solution.
1. Create a Google account like copyright.your_email_name@gmail.com
2. For every batch of images that you wish to protect, send an email to this address containing
2.1 a small jpeg version of the original containing the exif data.
2.2 the MD5 checksum of the RAW original.

Since Google Mail is a trustworthy repository
1. the date of the email is proof of the registration date
2. the record of the MD5 checksum is proof that you own the original, since the MD5 will only match the RAW original in your possession and only you know the password to the email account. (including the RAW original might quickly exhaust your storage allotment in Google Mail)

There are commercial entities that supply digital repositories intended to solve this problem. They all suffer from one acute problem - you have no assurance that they will still be in existence in say, 10 years time. If their business model fails your copyright proof evaporates. Currently, outside of national archive bodies, Google is probably our best bet.

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Hmmm, interesting. Were this to go to court, you'd probably have to subpoena someone from Google to testify as to the accuracy of the timestamp. That probably would not make you any friends at Google. :) –  mattdm Jan 14 '11 at 18:03
    
@mattdm: remember that commercial law cases are about balance of probability, not absolute proof. You need only have better evidence than your opponent. You could, for example, call on an expert witness to testify to the standing, reliability and probity of Google. Given Google's immensely good reputation your opponent would have an extraordinarily difficult time showing that your evidence is bad. –  labnut Jan 14 '11 at 18:24
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I dunno. I think the other side might just need to get some opposing expert to talk about the unreliability of e-mail as a transport, the ease of forgery of digital information, the possibility of a misconfigured clock at one of Google's millions of servers, and for good measure say that MD5 has been broken. Suddenly it's all confusing to a non-technical jury. –  mattdm Jan 14 '11 at 18:45
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@mattdm: email have routinely been used in a great number of law cases (including some that have greatly embarrassed Microsoft) so there is a high degree of acceptance for them in the legal system. It is no longer necessary to prove the basics. In our case an affidavit from one's lawyer giving copies of the email and stating that he had accessed the account using my password, would be sufficient. –  labnut Jan 14 '11 at 19:22
    
Well, score one for common sense. :) –  mattdm Jan 14 '11 at 20:31
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Which of the following is more important to you?

  1. An "all rights reserved" copyright: People need your permission to use your photos for any purpose, such as including it on blogs. This provides you with maximum control.

  2. A "some rights reserved" copyright: People can use your photos as long as they give you credit and they are not selling your work. This creates a culture where your creative work encourages creative work by other people. When they use your photos on blogs or in YouTube videos, they increase the audience for your work. You also get valuable feedback about which of your photos people admire and reuse.

If you want "some rights reserved", look into the Creative Commons licenses. They are easy to understand and easy to configure to your specific needs.

"All rights reserved" is the default state of copyright, but that doesn't mean it always serves you best as an artist. For an eye-opening discussion, I highly recommend the book "Free Culture" by Lawrence Lessig.

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Worth noting that all content on this site (including this question and answer) are licensed under a Creative Commons license. –  mattdm Jan 3 '13 at 4:21
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I wanted to tack this as a comment, but I don't have enough reputation.

You don't have to register with another party to get reasonable evidence for copyright - simply put all your images you want to protect into an envelope and post it to yourself. The postage frank date on the sealed envelope is normally sufficient to evidence priority. This is a trick I picked up from authors.

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I'm not a lawyer, but one told me once that this oft-given advice doesn't actually hold up in court. You could easily post yourself an unsealed empty envelope, and add your evidence at any time later. –  mattdm Jan 14 '11 at 4:12
    
funny - because my brother-in-law is a lawyer, and he feels this valid when i've discussed it before... i guess the problem is law is interpretive and not black and white –  HorusKol Jan 14 '11 at 5:08
    
I too have heard that the "mail yourself your photos" is kind of a legal urban myth, but I'm not a lawyer either. –  gerikson Jan 14 '11 at 6:33
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I would have thought possession of the raw files would be a fairly good way to prove ownership, especially if the images have been cropped. Don't know if this has ever been attempted in court however. –  Matt Grum Jan 14 '11 at 10:40
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@labnut but if the JPEG was lower resolution it would be very difficult to create a convincing raw file. Even better, if the images were cropped the perpetrator would have to extend the image by drawing extra background in! They would be taking a huge gamble of adding perjury to the charge list and going to prison instead of paying a fine! –  Matt Grum Jan 14 '11 at 18:07
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HOW do you put the copyright image onto the photo that you are emailing to someone for review? Or possibly is there a way to put a light watermark on each photo which may say "proof". The point is that they are not able to make copies or enlargements, which have to be ordered through me.

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Ask such a thing in a different question. This is a question and answer style site, not a forum. –  rfusca Jan 18 '11 at 2:25
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