Digital Focus: Your Photos, Your Rights, and the Law

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Based on the e-mail that I get, I can only assume that many of you are hoping for some sort of career in photography. Hardly a week goes by that I don't get questions about copyright, your rights as a photographer, and what the law says about taking pictures of people in public places. So this week, let's take a look at those issues. After all, some of them might apply to you even if you're just planning to post pictures on a Web site.

But first, let me be clear about the fact that I am not a lawyer. I've never even played one on television (though I have played the role of a secret agent on the radio). My answers to your questions come from my time applying these legal issues to my own photos and selling my work as a professional photographer.

What Is a Copyright?

Let's start at the beginning. Copyright is the method used to protect your rights as an artist. Violation of copyright law--such as by publishing a work without the artist's permission--is punishable by law, including civil suits with punitive damages.

What Is not Protected by Copyright?

This is a good question, since it can help explain the extent of copyright law. While copyright covers your photos, it does not protect the ideas behind the photos. So a copyright doesn't protect facts, concepts, or techniques. For example, you may come up with a really clever special effect for your digital photography, but sorry--you can't copyright it.

How Long Does Copyright Last?

Ironically, the answer to this simple question is not so simple anymore. But for almost any digital photo you take today, you can count on the copyright lasting for 70 years.

What Is Creative Commons All About?

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that has pioneered a new way to share creative works. The group offers a number of licenses with names like Attribution, NoDerivs, NonCommercial, and ShareAlike.

If you choose to share your photos with a Creative Commons license, you're telling the world that you're offering to let other people use your photos in ways that are traditionally not supported by standard copyright law. Using an Attribution license, for example, is like releasing your photo in the public domain, though it requires anyone using your photo to give you credit. Attribution-NonCommercial is similar, but specifically prohibits people from using your photo for commercial use.

While using a Creative Commons license is a nice idea, and you'll find a lot of people using them on sites like, keep in mind that Creative Commons has no legal teeth. Only copyright law has that.

How Do I Copyright My Photos?

There are three ways to copyright a photo (or any other creative work).

Here's the easy way: Any work you create is automatically copyrighted. In other words, you don't need to do anything at all to receive some protection under copyright law.

However, there are copyrights--and then there are copyrights. While technically you never have to take action to copyright a creative work, simply putting a copyright notice on your work strengthens your copyright protection. To assert your claim to a digital photo, for example, just place a copyright notice somewhere on the picture. Commonly, photographers use the text tool in a photo editing program to do this in the lower-right corner.

The most aggressive copyright action you can take is to register your photo with the Registrar of Copyrights in Washington, DC. There is a form to fill out and a $30 fee to pay, but this approach provides you with the highest level of protection available. For more info go to the U.S. Copyright Office's Web site.

How Long Can I Wait to Register an Image?

You can register a photo with the U.S. Copyright Office at any time, even years after publication. In general, the only reason I can think of that you'd want to do that is if you were preparing to take legal action against a copyright infringement, such as a Web site owner who has posted one of your photos from and refuses to take it down.

What Does "Public Domain" Mean?

Public domain describes any work that isn't protected by copyright.

Your photos are copyrighted unless you explicitly give up your copyright by failing to protect your ownership in the face of repeated infringement. Here's how that can happen: Suppose you take a great photo and post it on a Web site. You notice that people have grabbed your photo and it's in widespread circulation on many Web sites. If you don't make an effort to stop this, you've let the photo slide into public domain.

Believe it or not, we've just scratched the surface of copyright issues. Next week, let's wrap up this discussion with questions about copyright infringement and--something everyone always seems to want to understand better--taking and using pictures of other people.

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