You work hard to create images that are compelling. You work even harder to make sure that your business is successful so you can pay your employees, provide top-notch service to your clients, and support yourself and your family with as comfortable a lifestyle as possible.
Something that poses a danger to all that, however, is someone using your images without your permission. In today’s online world, taking someone else’s photos is easier than ever before. Thieves can download your images or even screenshot them, then pass them off as their own. Perhaps more common is when people use your images without understanding that not seeking your permission is both illegal and might hurt your bottom line.
In this installment of our series on copyrighting your images, we take a look at a few ways that you can protect your work and by extension, protect the investment you’ve made in your business.
When It Makes Sense to Register Your Images
Registering your images with the government is one way to try to protect your work. The process is not especially straightforward and involves a lot of paperwork for the image to be filed with the U.S. Copyright Office (or similar agency if you don’t live in the United States). Although registering your images isn’t required to retain the copyrights, it does provide you with legal recourse should one of your images be used without your permission.
Because it’s a complex process, you really should only register your images when you need to take serious legal action. The problem with image registration is that it’s not cost-effective or time-effective to register every single image you take. Registration must be made for each individual photo, and to guarantee that you have access to all legal channels, you have to register them prior to the infringement or within three months of the date the image is first published. If registration does not occur within those constraints, you might only be able to recover “actual damages,” which often equates to your licensing fees, instead of “statutory damages,” which, in the United States, could amount up to $150,000. Legal fees and associated costs might also be recovered from the infringing party as part of statutory damages as well.
As a result, some attorneys typically don’t recommend that you register your work unless you anticipate going to court. Otherwise, the process can be laborious and expensive for you, not to mention the fact that some attorneys will not take infringement cases unless statutory damages are on the table.
Adding a Copyright Notice to Your Work
Some people wrongly assume that an image without a copyright notice is fair game to use for whatever purposes they desire. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The moment you press the shutter button and create an image, that image is copyrighted and you are the owner of the copyright. You don’t need to include a copyright notice for that to be true.
However, in some cases, adding a copyright notice to your work might deter theft. On the one hand, placing the copyright notice next to the image might be a reminder to the person that the work is protected and cannot be legally used without your permission. On the other hand, if the person is dead set on using the image, the copyright notice might deter them if it is placed on the photo itself in a watermark. Either way, with the infringement notice posted, the person using the image cannot claim that they didn’t know the image was copyrighted. That’s advantageous should you file suit because willful infringement can garner you much more in damages in court.
Determining When You Need to Contact the Publisher
The fact of the matter is that the majority of the people that might use one of your images will do so without malicious intent. Some might not understand copyright law. Others might be genuinely interested in promoting your work, like a fan that posts one of your images to their social media account. When it comes down to it, the manner in which most people use your images without permission might end up being not a bad deal for you. After all, if you’ve created an image that speaks to people, and then they share it, you’re getting tons of free publicity.
This concept is at the heart of determining when you need to contact the publisher. In some cases, you might elect not to contact the publisher at all, such as when they’ve shared one of your images but have given you credit as the photographer. Perhaps they’ve even linked to your website or social media profiles as well. In instances in which the publisher has used your image but has not credited you, perhaps all you need to do is contact them and ask that you be given due credit. On still other occasions, you might find that someone has published your image and you want to make contact with them to discuss licensing the image. Doing so means they can use your photo legally and you get the money you deserve for the work you put into the image.
Regardless of the reasoning, when contacting people that have used your work without contacting you first, doing so in a calm, cool, and positive way will often get you a lot further than if you call or email them angrily demanding that they cease and desist.