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"What does published even mean?" - PPA Today

"What does published even mean?"

"What does published even mean?" Modernizing the Copyright Office to Simplify the Process for Independent Creators

By Sarah Howes and Leo Lichtman
Originally posted on

Mary Fisk-Taylor runs Real Life photography studio, and her thoughts on copyright law are very much that: a real life perspective. She is the kind of photographer that many Americans are familiar with; she takes photos of soccer games, newborn babies, and weddings, like tens of thousands of professional photographers across the country. On any given assignment, she will capture thousands of images, but does not register a single one with the U.S. Copyright Office. 

Fisk-Taylor was one of five photographer and illustrator panelists at Visual Artists in America: The Untold Story of Copyright, along with Denis Reggie, John Schmelzer, Lisa Shaftel, and Michael Grecco, whose works have been featured everywhere from magazines and newspapers to film and architectural installations.  The event was put on by the Creative Rights Caucus in partnership with several visual arts groups, including Copyright Alliance members Professional Photographers of America, Graphic Artists Guild, American Society of Media Photographers, and the National Press Photographers Association.

One of the major topics discussed was how the current registration process works--or is not working--for visual artists. The current registration system is impractical for visual artist's business needs. For many photographers, graphic designers, and illustrators, the cost and time required to register the voluminous collections they create outweighs the benefits. This in turn gives them little to no leverage in being able to enforce their rights, creating an online culture of take first and ask forgiveness later, rather than a culture that respects the legitimate markets that visual artists depend on to make their livings.

Presently, copyright registration requires separate applications for published and unpublished works. A single registration costs between $35-$85, depending on a number of factors. If works are unpublished, creators have more flexibility to register works within a single application for one fee. Whereas, if works are published, then they are typically restricted to only registering works as a collection if the images themselves are published as a collection. 

Photographers are provided a special exception: published photographs taken within the same calendar year can be registered in one application, regardless of whether the images were published together as a collection. There is no such exception for illustrators or other visual artists unless their work is published in a periodical (like a newspaper).  

"What does published even mean?" wondered Fisk-Taylor. Does publication require printing the images in a bound book? Is posting an image to a website publication? Freelance photographers take thousands of images a day, and few, if any, of those images will ever be published in a traditional book. Even with the photograph group exception, photographers must still register their published and unpublished works separately. 

Yet, even if a visual artist can register her work, there is often no way of effectively enforcing the rights in her work, because the costs of bringing a federal lawsuit quite often outweigh any potential recovery for infringement. While creators of works with high individual value can sometimes afford to bring lawsuits, a vast majority of visual artists--one of the largest groups of creators--are essentially priced out of the legal system. Several on the panel supported a small claims process for copyright enforcement. For many in the visual arts community, this is one of the most important improvements to be made so that visual artists can receive equal treatment under the law.

Like many other independent creators, the five visual artists on the panel support Register Maria A. Pallante's call for a modernization of the Copyright Office. Better registration technologies and clearer registration guidelines will empower visual artists, big and small, to enforce their rights. Though the Copyright Office works with visual artists to address their challenges, it lacks the resources and authority necessary to effectively administer the law, panelists noted.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Professional Photographers of America (PPA) published on November 9, 2015 4:17 PM.

Welcome to Atlanta for Imaging USA 2016! was the previous entry in this blog.

CEO David Trust to be a Panelist at Copyright Review Listening Session is the next entry in this blog.

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