Protect Your Photos With Copyright Law


You work hard on getting that perfect photograph and want to ensure that no one uses it without your permission. Did you know this is a right set out in the U.S. Copyright Act?

Your copyright protection begins the moment you take the photo with your smartphone, iPad or SLR camera. Once that image is saved, whether on your phone, a memory card or otherwise, it’s automatically protected by copyright. This means that you don’t have to do anything specific to obtain copyright protection. You don’t need to place the copyright symbol © on the image or register the photo with the U.S. Copyright Office. However, you can do both of these things and more to ensure maximum copyright protection, easier enforcement of your rights, and greater remedies for unauthorized uses under the U.S. Copyright Act.

If you’re printing or emailing your photos to share with your aunt or a friend, you likely don’t need to register the photos or place the copyright symbol on them. If you’re planning to sell your photos or placing them online, and you would like to enforce your rights against any unauthorized uses, then you should consider taking steps to better protect your images.

Keep in mind that when it comes to copyright protection, there are no fail-safe methods of ensuring that only those who have your permission will reproduce your images. However, there are proactive steps you can take, whether you are a professional or amateur photographer, to protect your images, monitor inappropriate uses, and take action against unauthorized uses of your images.

Use the Copyright Symbol

One of the simplest — and free — ways to protect your photos is to place a copyright symbol and notice on them. There’s no downside to placing a copyright notice on your images, even if you’re just sharing them with family members. It’s even more important if you’re sharing your photos online in public forums, whether on your own website or blog, a site where you sell your photographs or photography services, or posting images on social media such as Facebook or Flickr. In fact, you may want to go further and use a watermark on your images such as the one found in Adobe products.

Many people mistakenly think that anything found online and in social media is free for the taking — the copyright symbol gently lets your social media pals and followers know this isn’t true. The copyright notice reminds people that copyright exists in your images and states the copyright owner’s name (you!). Also, always include a copyright link or dedicated page on your blog where you discuss copyright protection of your images, and provide your email address with a clickable link so readers have a quick and easy way to contact you for permission before using your images.

There are three elements in a copyright notice.  First, the “c” in a circle, ©, or the abbreviation “Copr.” or the word “Copyright” should be present. Second, the name of the copyright owner should be included in the notice.  Third, the year of first publication should be set out. These elements need not necessarily appear in this sequence. An example is: 

© Mary Clark  2016

-- OR --

Copyright  © Mary Clark  2016

Register Your Images With the U.S. Copyright Office

Although registering your images with the U.S. Copyright Office (USCO) isn’t required for copyright protection, there are several advantages to doing so.  Registration within five years of publication of the image provides prima facie evidence of your copyright claim. It’s also required before you can file any copyright infringement action in court for works of U.S. origin.

If you register your images prior to an infringement action or within three months after publication of the work, as copyright owner you have the ability to seek special statutory damages and lawyers’ fees.  Without registration, only an award of actual damages and loss of profits is available and these may be difficult to prove. 

You can also record the registration with U.S. Customs and Border Protection for protection against the importation of infringing copies of your images.

Registration may be made at any time following creation of your photographs, even years later. The sooner the better, though, so you have proof of the earliest date possible as a record in the USCO for the presumption of copyright in those images in your name.

Be Proactive — Monitor for Use of Your Images

How do you know if someone is using your images without your permission? You may come across one on a website, or a friend may mention they saw your photograph in a publication. But it’s best to be more proactive.

Conduct Google (or other search engine) searches for your images on a regular basis, so you can monitor for inappropriate use. You can search by using the image’s URL or the image itself.

If you find any sites using your images without your permission, email them and let them know that their use is unauthorized. Ask for the remedy you wish to occur, such as taking down the photo, giving you credit and a link back to your blog, or payment for past and future use. Follow up with a lawyer if need be.

Take the Time to Understand Copyright

Whether you are a beginner or expert photographer, amateur or professional, your photographs are automatically protected by copyright. Take the extra time and effort to use a copyright symbol, and perhaps register your images with the USCO. Upon creation of these images you automatically own the copyright in them. Learn how to gain the most from that legal protection, how to enforce your rights against unauthorized uses, and possibly to monetize your exclusive copyright rights. You take the time to learn how to use your camera, take the best images possible and understand complicated imaging software — now add copyright to your list!


Headshot by Stephanie Sisle Photography

Lesley’s company offers online eTutorials on copyright and licensing with practical applications. Register now for Protecting Your Copyrights in the U.S., available for the first time this fall! This eTutorial will help you make sure you get maximum protection for the awesome content you create by understanding your legal rights and how to enforce them. See all of’s eTutorials.


Leslie Harris

Leslie Harris