5 Major Things Every Photographer Should Know About Copyright

The idea of copyright protection on art is so ubiquitous that most people feel familiar with it to some extent. It’s not until we need to protect our own work, like when we start a photography business, that we realize how nuanced it is and how important the details are.

As you build your business, advice from those who have gone through it all before will be invaluable, and this is no exception. That’s why we’re going to answer five major questions about copyright to help you learn how to protect your work.


What is copyright?

The history of copyright law in the United States goes back a long way, but the basic idea has always been to give creators exclusive rights to reproduce their work. This will, in theory, encourage people to create more, which is beneficial for society as a whole.

When the first copyright law was enacted in 1790, it applied only to maps, charts, and literary writing. Over time, US copyright law has extended to cover many, many other types of creative works. Photographs have been protected by copyright since 1865. 

This means that, as a modern-day photographer, you have the exclusive legal rights to your work. Only you can reproduce, sell, distribute, display, or create derivatives of the photographs you take. 


What is copyright infringement?

Even though the idea is pretty straightforward, determining copyright infringement can get complicated. First, let’s talk about what’s not copyright infringement.

Photos that you take and edit belong to you by default. However, you can “rent out” the rights to use your photos (aka licensing them). This is what makes it possible for you to, for example, allow a buyer to print your photos in their magazine or use them in social media ads. 

If someone were to do those things without your permission, that would be clear copyright infringement. It’s less clear what happens when someone makes an effort to take photos that are very similar to your work. 

It isn’t enough for the photo to have the same subject. If you take a photo of the Statue of Liberty and then someone else takes a different photo of the Statue of Liberty, that’s not copyright infringement. However, if someone recreates multiple unique elements from the composition, lighting, and editing of a photo you took, that could be infringement. When this happens, a court of law will compare the images to determine if one has infringed on the other’s creative rights.


How is published work different from unpublished work?

Under US copyright law, a photo is only published when it has been made available for distribution in some form (i.e. you’re selling copies of the photo). Simply displaying it in a public way, such as on social media, doesn’t constitute publication.

Both published and unpublished photos are protected under copyright law, but they are treated differently in a few ways. For instance, registering a collection of photos with the US Copyright Office is much easier when they are unpublished. 

It’s a good idea to register your photos before you publish them, since it can be hard, or even impossible, to register published collections. 


What happens when you post work on social media?

We know that social media can be great for allowing artists to network and make connections in the industry, but how does copyright work on these platforms?

The short answer is that it depends, and the only way to know is to read a given platform’s terms and conditions. 

The slightly longer answer is that many social media platforms give themselves something called a “royalty-free license” in their terms and conditions. This means that, by using the platform and posting your photos there, you are agreeing that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc can use your photo however they want without asking you, telling you, or paying you for it.


As scary as it sounds, this is pretty necessary for social media. Without a license to distribute your posts, it would be illegal for a platform to show your photos to your friends or followers, which is the whole reason you post them in the first place. 

You can delete your photos at any time, which revokes this license and stops the platform from using your work.

It’s a little more complicated when your work is taken from social media by another individual, rather than by the platform itself. Whether a repost of your work is considered copyright infringement depends on how it’s used. 

No one can use your work for profit, such as by selling it or using it in an ad, without your permission. But some uses of copyrighted photos are allowed under the idea of “fair use”. Generally, someone can use your work without permission if they are changing the meaning of the work and aren’t making money from it. 

If, for example, a photo you took became part of a meme and went viral, then people sharing that meme wouldn’t be infringing your copyright. When someone uses your work in a way you don’t like, it’s up to you whether it’s worth the money and effort to have an attorney look into your options, but be aware that there are cases where nothing can be done.


Do I need to register my work?

You don’t need to, but it’s a good idea.

Copyright protections apply to your images as soon as they exist, just by virtue of the fact that you took them. You have exclusive rights to your work even if you never register it with the US Copyright Office.

However, if you ever find yourself in a legal battle over unauthorized use of your work, your life will be easier if your work was already registered. You need to apply for registration before you can sue someone for infringing your copyright, even if the infringement happened while your work wasn’t registered.

Registration makes it pretty simple to prove that you are the copyright holder, which can be important in a copyright infringement case. It also makes it easier for buyers to find you and request to license your work, since there will be a public record of your copyright.


Final Thoughts

It’s pretty easy to understand copyright law as it applies to photography, once you’ve done a little research. As long as you’re familiar with the implications of posting, publishing, or licensing your work before you do it, you should be prepared to handle anything! If you’re looking for more guidance on running your photography business, you can check out these courses

Good luck, and don’t stress about it too much! You’ll get the hang of dealing with copyright issues in no time.



**The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content, and materials available on this site are for general informational purposes only. 

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