10 things every Photographer needs to know about Copyright

This article is a short introduction to copyright for photographers.


Stealing photography on the Internet is as easy as right-clicking and saving. It is all too easy for anyone to use your images on their website or blog without paying you and giving you the proper credit you deserve. For this reason, a basic understanding of copyright law is essential for both beginners and more established photographers.

Keep reading for the information every photographer needs to know about copyright.

As a form of intellectual property law, copyright is designed to encourage the creation of intellectual goods. By giving creators special property rights in their work, copyright law is the foundation of building a business on intangible goods such as photography, music and art.

From this article you will learn:

1. What is copyright, and how to obtain It?

2. Does copyright have an "expiry date"?

3. Does permitting someone to use your image mean giving up your copyright?

4. Does it mean you can use your photos without limits?

5. Is it compulsory to use the copyright symbol when publishing your photos to maintain your copyright on them?

6. What are the other ways to demonstrate your ownership rights on the picture?

7. Is it required to register your images in official registers?

8. How can you prove that you are a legitimate copyright holder?

9. What are Creative Commons?

10. What happens to copyright after publishing your image on social media?

1. What is copyright, and how to obtain It?

Copyright is an exclusive right to reproduce, publish, or sell someone's original work of authorship that is automatically assigned to the creators at the time of the creation of the work. For the photographer, this means that the copyright of the image is assigned to you as soon as you capture the photo.

However, it should be considered that there is an exception to this rule in some countries. For example in the USA, if you have a special legal agreement to take photos for someone else under a work-for-hire arrangement. This, however, must be established in advance, or a legally binding document must be signed that transfers the copyright from the photographer to the client immediately after taking the photos.

2. Does copyright have an "expiry date"?

The expiry of a creator's copyright varies from country to country. In the USA, for example, if you created your photo after 1978, the copyright lasts during your whole lifetime and 70 years after. In some countries, the duration is slightly different; for instance, it is only 50 years in China.

Once the copyright expires, there are no restrictions on the use of your images. Sometimes, there are exceptions to this rule, for example, for works that are of special public interest.

See this Wikipedia Article for a summary of the situation in countries around the world.

3. Does permitting someone to use your image mean giving up your copyright?

It is essential to understand the difference between licensing and copyright. As the copyright owner, you have the right to license your image to another party. Licensing is a way to give someone permission to use your image without affecting the copyright (i.e., the "ownership") of that image.

Licensing agreements can differ in the extent to which you want to grant others rights on your images; you can give them the right to use your image for a specific purpose and period, or you can grant them broad usage rights. Regardless of how you choose to license an image, you can allow others to use it without giving up your ownership rights. If someone wants to use one of your images, be clear about exactly what rights you're giving them.

4. Does it mean you can use your photos without limits?

Having an ownership right of an image is a bit like owning a car. If you possess a car, you can do whatever you want with it, but you still have some restrictions on using it. As the owner, you still have to follow the traffic laws.

Similarly, copyright law dictates that you own an image, but again, there may be certain restrictions on how you can use the picture. For example, in some situations, a model release or product release has to take place before publishing an image, and copyright law does not override these requirements.

Furthermore, you may have entered an agreement with a third party that restricts your usage of your own photograph, even though you remain the copyright owner.

5. Is it compulsory to use the copyright symbol when publishing your photos to maintain your copyright on them?

Including a copyright notice is no longer required to declare who owns the copyright of a photograph in most countries. US Copyright law, for example, is clear that using the copyright symbol or notice of copyright is not a requirement to protect your work. Your images belong to you regardless of whether you label them when publishing them or not.

However, there are some definite advantages to doing it. It’s a great reminder to the viewer that your image is copyrighted. Because some people mistakenly believe that images which don’t have a copyright symbol are available for free use, it’s a smart first step in protecting your work online.

In addition, having the notice may entitle you to extended damages if the infringer removes the copyright notice to cover up his misdeed. Finally, the presence of a copyright notice means that the infringer can't claim he didn't know what he was doing. These things can help you if your case ever goes to the courts.

If you decide to display the copyright, the standard layout is as follows:

  • The copyright symbol © (the word “Copyright,” or its abbreviation, “Copr.” is also acceptable)
  • The year of creation
  • The name of the author or copyright holder

The final form looks like this: © 2016 Your Name.

For good measure, you may even want to include the phrase "All Rights Reserved" after the copyright notice for some added protection in the international arena.

6. What are the other ways to demonstrate your ownership rights on the picture?

There are many methods photographers can use to protect their work from being published online without obtaining a license on them before. Still, none of these methods offer a guarantee that your work will be protected from theft.

However, using a combination of image protection techniques can significantly reduce the risk of misuse. Common practices include:

  • Using watermarks
  • Embedding copyright metadata in your EXIF file
  • Placing clear copyright notices around your work
  • Using digital signatures or hidden foreground layers

Again, your work is already copyright protected as soon as it is made, and these protection methods might act as a reminder to people not to steal your photographs because of your ownership of a photo.

7. Is it required to register your images in official registers?

In some countries such as the USA and Canada, you may register your photos to get additional protection for your works. There are several countries, where there is no such official register, for example, Germany, the UK, Australia, Ireland, Japan, Poland, Russia, or China.

Typically copyright registration is not necessary and is generally seen as a formality to make your photography part of the public record. However, registration may come in handy and can offer additional protection, especially if you end up in litigation.

It is often beneficial to register your copyright in countries with an official register. For instance, in the United States, you must register your copyright before claiming damages in court. If your photography is not registered with the US Copyright Office prior to an infringement, a photographer may only recover “actual damages” instead of “statutory damages.” Meaning, the photographer is only entitled to the “fair market value” of their work instead of what could be up to a $150,000 award, plus legal fees. In the United States, it is possible to register for picture copyright by submitting works online at the Registration Portal of the US Copyright Office 

It may be beneficial for foreigners to register their images in those countries that require registration as such registration may give them access to legal  procedures and damages for infringements in those countries.

8. How can you prove that you are a legitimate copyright holder?

It is vital for a photographer to provide as much information as possible to prove that they are the person who captured the picture.

The original file (if possible in RAW format) and the date the image was taken and published is usually sufficient proof of copyright.

It is also recommended that photographers include copyright information in the EXIF metadata. This procedure makes it very easy for potential clients to contact you and gives you the confidence that it will be possible to trace unauthorized copies of your work that are distributed online back to you as the original copyright owner.

9. What are Creative Commons?

If you use online platforms, such as Flickr, you may have noticed that you have the option to publish your image under the "Creative Commons" license. That means that you grant others the right to use your photos with few restrictions and without compensation.

With Creative Commons licensing, you have some flexibility, including the right to specify that your images can only be used for editorial purposes (as opposed to commercial use, such as advertising) and the right to appropriate attribution wherever the work is used. Many photographers use Creative Commons as a form of self-promotion. Others see it as a way to contribute to the artistic community and promote free expression and creativity. Others still consider themselves amateur photographers and see no problem in providing free access to their work.

10. What happens to copyright after publishing your image on social media?

When you’re using Social Media, it is very important to consider its terms and conditions. Most people are surprised to learn that publishing an image to a Social Media website such as Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter gives those platforms the right to use them for their own purposes.

For instance, Facebook reserves the right to use your image in any way it sees fit. With one caveat. They can only use it as specified in your privacy settings. So if your privacy settings are set to "Share with friends," Facebook can only share the image with those people. So Facebook could use it in an ad targeted at that audience, for example (which is unlikely, but possible).

While these Terms of Use might give the host site a certain set of permissions, images on social media are subject to the same copyright as other images – and these permissions do not apply to third parties. For instance, a business can't take a picture from an individual's Facebook account and claim that the photographer has granted them a license to use the content by posting it on Facebook.

In any case, posting an image on social media, on a website, or in print may constitute copyright infringement unless the copyright holder has provided a license to use the image.


We recommend our article "An overview of Copyright Tracking Solutions for Photographers"  to learn about the ways to pursue copyright infringements on the web.

Disclaimer: The above does not constitute legal advice and PIXRAY cannot be held liable for any information in the above article. Talk to a lawyer specialized in copyright in your specific jurisdiction to receive qualified guidance.

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