A year ago, I did something very smart. I attended a seminar on copyright information for photographers, put on by California Lawyers for the Arts. Earlier this month, I did something just as wise - I attended the seminar for a second time, to make sure I had fully absorbed all the information correctly.
Speaker Amitai Schwartz was excellent. He is both an attorney and an outstanding photographer who understood his audience perfectly. While his presentation focused on copyright, and model and property releases, it also reinforced my awareness that there are many ways to protect our images - and we should be cognizant of all of them.
The topic is timely for me personally. Recently, a well-meaning friend shared a photo I had taken of her with a third person. That individual thought the image would be a good illustration for an article she had been assigned, and submitted it to the publication without my knowledge. The happy ending to that story is that the publication recognized my metadata in the photo, contacted me, and we negotiated a one-time use fee.
So our photos can circulate in many ways. There is no absolute means of ensuring that your photo will never be used without your knowledge or permission. But there are steps you can take to reduce that possibility, and to ensure you have the ability to seek redress if it does occur.
Here are five key tips.
1. Include your metadata on all images. Your processing software allows you to include as much information as you wish to share. At a minimum, include your copyright information and one or more means of contacting you, such as e-mail and phone numbers.
2. Share with care. We all enjoy sharing images on the web and in social media. Upload small files - nice to see online, but not much use for professional purposes. Set them for 72 dpi, which also limits other uses
3. Always include your watermark. The question here is one of scale. Do you make it big and obvious, which makes it hard to fully appreciate the image, or do you keep it more subtle. In my own case, I choose subtle. The photo can still be enjoyed, but the message is there - this image is my property
4. Document your images' permitted uses. We all shoot under many different scenarios, ranging from contract assignments, to paid photo sessions, time for pix and even practice sessions. If you'll be providing images to your subjects, be sure and document what uses are appropriate. This works both ways, of course - if the work is paid for hire, you may not be allowed to use it, although I always try to seek at least portfolio permission. If you're shooting a friend or model for practice, I make it clear that they may have unlimited personal or personal marketing use of the images, but no third party or commercial use is allowed without my express permission and involvement
5. Copyright your images. Finally, and most importantly, if you plan to use your photographs professionally, do go through the process of formally copyrighting your images. As I learned from Amitai's terrific presentation, under US law your images are technically copyrighted the moment you press the shutter. Unfortunately, that standard gives you little redress if your photos are used without your knowledge - you would have to actually prove exactly how much revenue you have lost because of the misuse.
Copyrighting your images with the US Copyright office gives you far higher levels of protection and redress. There are many myths about what it means to copyright your photos - that you can seal a disk in an envelope and mail it to yourself, for instance. In fact, the only actual way is to register your images with the Copyright office.
It isn't a difficult process, though it does take a bit of time. Simply go to the Copyright Office website, and follow the instructions for registering artwork with the Electronic Copyright Office (eCO). You'll fill out a form, establish an account, and pay a fee of $35 to upload and copyright an unlimited number of images. While the system is easy to use, it does require you to enter the name of each image individually - that is the time-consuming part. I typically copyright about 300 to 400 images each time, uploading small files that are 500K or smaller.
It takes the Copyright Office some weeks or even months to mail you an actual certificate of copyright, but in the meantime your submission is assigned a file number, so you are protected in case any issues arise in the interim
Depending on the volume of work you produce, in may be reasonable to go through this process once a month, once a quarter, or a couple of times a year. Certainly the peace of mind, and protection you gain make it well worth the effort and modest cost.