Photography Copyright Law: What You Need to Know about Copyright Infringement

Image of City landscape black and white

Photography Copyright law can be the bane of many businesses. If you’re not careful, copyright infringement can cost your business thousands. To make matters worse, breaking copyright laws is remarkably easy.


Photographers publish thousands of images on dozens of platforms on a regular basis. Finding these images is often very easy. But finding an image on Google doesn’t mean you may freely use it. Sometimes, using photography that’s protected by copyright can cost you up to $250,000!

Smartphone on a tripod taking pictures of a sunset

Regardless of who the owner of the copyrighted photography is, the owner may pursue a copyright infringement case under some circumstances.

You don’t need to register your photography before an infringement of your copyright takes place to be able to pursue a lawsuit. But registering your copyright before anyone has the chance to infringe on it offers better protection.



What Is Copyright Infringement?

Have you ever taken a photo? If you have, congratulations! You are now a copyright owner. A photographer doesn’t need to file or publish anything to gain ownership of their work.

Copyright infringement is the unlawful use of any work protected under copyright law. The lawful use of copyrighted work takes place when permission for certain uses is granted.


How Copyright Protection Works

The photographer is automatically the legal owner of any work they create.

You don’t need to register for copyright to become the owner of an image. But there is one exception to this rule. If the image was captured under a

made for highe.
arrangement.

Made for hir.
means that if you’re a photographer for a company that produces images for commercial use, your employer is the owner of your images. But if you’re not taking photography for an employer, this rule doesn’t apply to you.


Image of a person holding a camera in a mirror with designs in the background

Regardless of who the owner of the copyrighted photography is, the owner may pursue a copyright infringement case under some circumstances.

You don’t need to register your photography before an infringement of your copyright takes place to be able to pursue a lawsuit. But registering your copyright before anyone has the chance to infringe on it offers better protection.


Are You Using Copyright Images without Permission? Remember a Few Things…

So, how do you know whether you’ve used copyrighted materials without permission before? It’s hard to tell if you weren’t paying attention. But there are a few things you should know if you’ve had to wonder whether you’ve recently infringed on photography protected by copyright.


Photography Copyright Is Automatic

As we’ve said, the owner of an image is the person or entity that created it. They don’t need to register anything to become its legal owner.


You Don’t Need to Use the Copyright Symbol to Protect Your Photography Portfolio

Using a copyright symbol or watermark isn’t necessary to maintain your copyright over your photography. But it’s a good idea to use copyright reminders. It reminds anyone viewing your intellectual property that it is protected under copyright law. But it doesn’t actually provide greater legal protections for that property.


Are You Using Copyright Images without Permission? Remember a Few Things…

So, how do you know whether you’ve used copyrighted materials without permission before? It’s hard to tell if you weren’t paying attention. But there are a few things you should know if you’ve had to wonder whether you’ve recently infringed on photography protected by copyright.


Photography Copyright Is Automatic

As we’ve said, the owner of an image is the person or entity that created it. They don’t need to register anything to become its legal owner.


You Don’t Need to Use the Copyright Symbol to Protect Your Photography Portfolio

Using a copyright symbol or watermark isn’t necessary to maintain your copyright over your photography. But it’s a good idea to use copyright reminders. It reminds anyone viewing your intellectual property that it is protected under copyright law. But it doesn’t actually provide greater legal protections for that property.


Registering Copyright Is What Allows You to File Infringement Lawsuits


If you already own photography you take, why register it?

In the US, if someone infringes on your property, you can file an infringement case against them. But you can only do so if you’ve registered your photography.


Image of a Silhouette of Man standing in front of a Sunset

It’s not required that you register your photography before it’s infringed upon. You can register after the fact and still pursue an infringement case. But it’s always better to be prepared and register early.


You Can Give Usage Permissions without Giving Up Copyright

Licensing allows you to conditionally allow others to use your copyrighted photography. As the copyright owner, you can permit others to use your property. It won't affect your legal ownership of your photography.


A large part of why copyright law exists is to enable you to be compensated for the use of your property. Licensing agreements allow others to use your photography for a specified amount of time, for specified purposes. You just need to make sure your agreement makes the usage rights of your photography very clear.


Credit

You can provide conditional permissions for use, such as free use so long as the user gives you credit for the image.


Copyright Is Ownership, but with Limits

Owning the copyright to photography gives you ownership over it. But that doesn’t mean you have unlimited power over your property.


You can own a house or a car, but you’re limited in how you can use them. Similarly, your copyright over your photography provides ownership, but you’re still limited in how you can use it. If you want to publish your photography for commercial purposes, you still must follow any applicable property release or other laws.


Image of two woman taking a picture with a smartphone

It’s also important to remember that not every unlicensed use of your photography is copyright infringement. As the copyright owner, you are granted the right to:


  • Display
  • Reproduce
  • Distribute


But there are several situations where someone can use your photography without permission. Reporting uses are the most common use of copyrighted material that is permitted without a license. Educational purposes for use are also permitted as “fair use”.


Gain Permission to Use Images and Protect Your Photography Portfolio

In general, if you’re unsure whether you should use someone else’s photography, it’s best to ask them. Of course, the same goes if someone is wondering whether they should use your photography.


If your livelihood is dependent on photography and your ownership of it, you should take action to protect it. That’s where copyright law can help.


How Copyright Is Created

Registering for copyright protection is easy, but tedious. In most jurisdictions, there are online resources that you can use to register. For example, in the US you simply go to copyright.gov and register your copyright. The site can also be used to search for copyright records.


Image of a man holding a camera

In many jurisdictions, there are no copyright registries in place. In these cases, your copyright is typically effective the moment you create original work. For example, in Ireland, copyright is free and automatic, as per the Copyright and Related Rights Act (2000). So, you must ask a photographer for permission to use their images if you want to do so legally. In most cases, copyright is in place for the photographer’s (or other owner’s) lifetime, plus 70 years. Otherwise, copyright is transferred once the photographer sells their work. It is also transferred if they provide alternative ownership arrangements.


Both inside and outside of the EU, 179 independent states have signed the Berne Convention. The convention, named after Berne, Switzerland, lays out an international framework for copyright law. Signatory countries provide a minimum of 25 years of copyright for photography from the moment it is created. The convention also provides arbitration terms in the case of a dispute.


Notice of Copyright

In the case of either the EU or the US, providing notice of copyright is advisable but unnecessary. Once your ownership is sealed, you hold copyright over your photography. However, displaying notice will often deter the display, reproduction, or distribution of your work without your permission.


Benefits of Registering Copyright Photography

Depending on where you live, registering your photography for copyright can have several benefits.


Public Record of Ownership

Registration places your copyright on a public directory.


Damages for Copyright Infringement

Registration will make it easier for you to seek damages should someone profit from your property without permission.


Protect Your Work Online

Intellectual property seems so freely available these days. This can often make it easy to forget that finding an image doesn’t mean you can simply use it as you please. Photography is easy to find, but you must ask for permission to purchase it, or attribute the image to the author.


Any image you find on Google images belongs to someone else. Often-times, they do not want it to be used.


Close Up Image of a Computer Keyboard

If you’re not careful, you too can accidentally engage in copyright infringement. Whether it’s on your website or your social media accounts, then you might fall foul of copyright infringement laws. You can get sued for thousands of dollars, which may end up in you losing more than just your website as a result. You could also lose a lot of money fighting a losing battle in court. (In some cases using an image without permission can cost you up to $250,000. For one image!).


Photography copyright laws are there for good reason. If a photographer puts their time, effort, and financial resources into taking that perfect picture, they should be able to control how the image they create is used.


Some photographers might never want their work to be published anywhere other than their own website. Some sell their images directly to businesses to use. Others make their images available for purchase en-masse on sites like Shutterstock. Some photographers allow their images to be used for free under Creative Commons licensing.


For even more details on this topic, you can read this blog post that will point you to some free stock photo websites.


Refer to this infographic for more information

Photography copyright infographic