Copyright FAQs

Find answers to some frequently asked questions about photography copyright below.

General Copyright FAQs

A copyright is the exclusive legal right of creators, or assigned copyright owners, to reproduce, distribute, publicly display, or create derivative works from an original work. A copyright also gives its owner the exclusive right to license those usage rights to others.

No. While you own the copyright to your work, your clients and subjects also have rights, such as rights to privacy and publicity. Based on that, PPA recommends that you always have your subjects sign a model release before using their images for advertising or other promotional purposes and before licensing or selling copies of the images to a third party. If you photograph private property, another person’s property rights are also involved, so it is best to have the property owner sign a property release before you use those photographs.

Simply put – your copyright gives you the right to control the use of your images. Others should not use them without your permission. Copyright does not, however, give you the right to do anything you want with photographs you create.

Copyright protects original works of authorship. The same law that protects photography also protects other types of creative literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works such as songs, motion pictures, poetry, novels, choreographies, sculptures and more.

No. While copyright protects your photographs, it does not protect your business name. Business names are eligible for trademark protections, not copyright. Although both are forms of intellectual property, their protection and registration processes are different. For information on how to trademark your business and/or logo, contact the appropriate agency within your state or the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office at USPTO.gov.

No. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation. Copyright becomes valid the moment a work is created and fixed in a tangible form.

Your images are copyrighted to you from the moment you create them. While this copyright exists, federal registration is necessary in order to legally enforce those rights. Getting "full" copyright protection involves registering your work with the U.S. Copyright Office at www.copyright.gov.

In most cases, you do as the photographer, unless of course you have assigned the copyright to someone else through a written agreement. If you are an employee or independent contractor, your employer may own the copyright (See the works-made-for-hire section for more info).

The current copyright term is the life of the creator plus 70 years - or, for works "created" by a corporation, 95 years.

The United States has copyright relations with most countries throughout the world, and as a result of these agreements, we honor each other's citizens' copyrights. However, the United States does not have such copyright relationships with every country.

No. You own the rights to your work, paid or not, unless of course you transfer them to a client in writing. The key here is to proactively educate your clients to ensure they understand this! Make sure your clients understand that they are purchasing copies of your images, not the rights to the image (unless of course they have purchased usage rights – in which case make sure they understand exactly which uses are allowed).

You should provide a licensing agreement to your client that explains exactly what uses of the images are allowed. Whether you want to give your clients unlimited usage of an image or you just want to grant them one specific use, you can still retain the copyright. The key is to make sure this is all spelled out very clearly in a written agreement. See PPA's Sample Licensing Agreements.

In order to be considered valid, a copyright transfer must be made in writing between yourself and the person, or firm, requesting your copyrights. See PPA's Sample Copyright Transfer.

Not necessarily. As a copyright owner you have a "moral right to attribution". This gives you the right to be given attribution any time your image is used, but it's not automatically required by law. Instead, your moral right to attribution allows you to include a requirement for photo credit in your licensing agreements. When creating licensing agreements, you should include instructions for your client(s) to give you photo credit (if desired), and it's usually best to spell out exactly how you would like to be attributed. If someone used your work without permission, you are likely dealing with a copyright infringement whether or not you were given credit.

A copyright infringement occurs when someone else exercises one or more of the exclusive rights of the copyright owner without his or her permission. Keep in mind that when it comes to photography, your clients are permitted to publicly display the copies of your images that they have purchased. Additionally, there is one, very limited scenario in which an unauthorized use of a copyrighted work is not an infringement - when the specific use qualifies as a "fair use" of the creation. See this information on fair use provided by the U.S. Copyright Office for a detailed explanation of fair use.

Works-made-for-hire FAQs

Section 101 of the Copyright Act defines a "work made for hire" in two parts: (1) a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment; or (2) a work specially ordered or commissioned for specific uses if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire.

If you are an employee (rather than an independent contractor) of a studio, the studio owns the copyright of any images you create within the scope of your employment. You are the copyright owner of any photographs you create outside of the scope of your employment.

It depends. If you signed an independent contractor agreement with a works-made-for-hire clause, which assigns the copyright of images created on the job to the studio, the studio owns the copyright of those images. If not, you probably own the copyright. Keep in mind, however, that any model releases signed by clients probably only grant permission for the studio to use the images and not for you to use them to promote your own business. It is best to get a clear understanding of the copyright arrangement from the studio who hired you– come up with an agreement acceptable to both parties ahead of time in order to avoid disputes later.

The works your employees create within the scope of their employees fall under works-made-for-hire, and therefore your studio owns the copyright. When hiring independent contractors, you must have them sign an independent contractor agreement with a works-made-for-hire clause assigning your studio copyright ownership of works created on the job. See PPA's sample independent contractor agreement.

Copyright Registration FAQs

To have a valid federal copyright registration, you must register your images with the United States Copyright Office (www.copyright.gov). PPA recommends using the online registration system which can be accessed at copyright.gov/eco/. You can also register by paper method using Form VA.

Your copyright does exist from the moment of creation. However, before an infringement suit may be filed in court, registration is necessary for works of U. S. origin. If registration is made within three months after publication of the work or prior to an infringement of the work, statutory damages and attorney's fees will be available to the copyright owner in court actions. Otherwise, only an award of actual damages and profits is available to the copyright owner.

Timely registration means that the images were registered either within three months after publication or before an infringement occurs.

Copyright law defines "publication" as the distribution of copies of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership or by rental, lease, or lending. Offering to distribute copies to a group of people for purposes of further distribution or public display also constitutes publication. A public display does not in itself constitute publication.

Yes. A single registration can be made for a group of published images if the same photographer created all of the photographs, all of the photographs were first published in the same calendar year, and all of the photographs have the same copyright claimant. A group of unpublished images can be registered as a collection if the elements of the collection are assembled in an orderly form, the combined elements bear a single title identifying the collection as a whole, the copyright claimant for each element in the collection is the same, and all elements of the collection were created by the same author or at least one author has contributed copyrightable authorship to each element.

The Copyright Office recommends registering your images as unpublished collections before distributing copies or publicly displaying the images (especially online).

To register through the online system, it cost $35 for the single application (which is for only one work) and $55 for the standard application (which can include multiple works).

The practice of mailing a copy of your own work to yourself is sometimes called a "poor man's copyright." There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.

Marking Your Work FAQs

At the very least, you should include the copyright symbol, the year the photo was created, and your name or your studio’s name. This traditional copyright notice is recognized in the U.S. Copyright Law and also the Berne Convention and International Treaty:

© YEAR. STUDIO NAME
Some creators also like to include a line about their exclusive rights:

© YEAR. STUDIO NAME
All Rights Reserved or Illegal to copy without written permission

To ensure you can be contacted by a prospective user, add your location or contact information:

© YEAR. STUDIO NAME
All Rights Reserved or Illegal to copy without written permission
My town, USA 123-456-7899

No. Because you own copyright from the moment your photographs are created, you can mark them as such immediately.

PPA recommends including a written copyright notice on images that will be used online. There is a public misconception that photographs online are only copyrighted if they say so. Including a written copyright notice can go a long way toward preventing inadvertent infringements by misinformed members of the public.

No. Since you are the copyright owner of your images, you can choose to mark them as you wish. However, if you plan to distribute watermarked files or prints to your client, it is important that it states in your contract that the products will have a watermark.

For more information on how to protect your copyright, download your free PPA Copyright Kit.  

For more Copyright FAQs, visit the Frequently Asked Question section on Copyright.gov