Protect & Respect: Why It’s Important to Register Images

Friday April 09, 2010 by Susan Carr, Carr Cialdella Photography

Posted in: Legal Affairs

When I first started registering my photographs with the Copyright Office, I cherry picked images or projects based on my own assessment of their value.

It turns out that I am not the best judge of what the market will like or use. For example, I photographed a project 10 years ago for an architect. The license clearly states no third-party use. Fast-forward: I recently discovered these same images on various sub-contractors' websites.

These businesses did not have a license to use the work, making this clearly a copyright infringement. However, I did not register these images-rendering my recourse very limited.

I can ask for the images to be removed by the Internet service provider via a Digital Millennium Copyright Act take down notice, or I can send invoices to the sub-contractors. Neither of these actions is likely to generate a positive response or any money. No lawyer will be interested in my case and the amount I can collect if I pursue it on my own makes it an exercise in futility. Without registering the work prior to the infringement, I simply do not have the big stick to bring to the table.

In the United States, registering your work with the Copyright Office prior to an infringement or within the three-month window after publication, is necessary to have the full benefit of the law on your side. Attorney fees and statutory damages can only be collected if your work has been properly registered prior to an infringement

The Power of Paperwork

More practically for all of us, registration gives us leverage. Since my paperwork clearly states that the license is not valid until payment has been received, a registration certificate included with a past due invoice can facilitate getting paid by delinquent clients. The certificate lets them know they have infringed my copyrights by using the work without paying me and my invoice quickly rises to the top of their priority list.

Registration signals that you care for and respect your photographs. I frequently hear photographers complain about disrespectful clients and consumers misusing their images. Well, guess what? If you are not registering your work with the Copyright Office, you are not respecting your work either. Registering your copyrights is the professional thing to do.

On top of registration, you should embed copyright and contact information into the metadata of all your digital files and, whenever possible, label your work. You are an independent working artist and you want to be found. Take the steps to do whatever is necessary to facilitate the association of your name to your images. Not only is this good for your business marketing and sales, but it protects you in this new digital economy where electronic distribution is easy and abundant.

Orphan Works and You

Orphan Works Legislation is a pending change to the copyright law. "Orphan Works" are works whose authors cannot be located.

Under the current copyright law, if the author cannot be located and the copyright status of the work is unknown, the work cannot be used for any purpose. This creates a cultural loss when museums and libraries holding archives of historic works are not using these items for fear of lawsuits over infringement.

Legislation that allows for these types of "orphaned work" uses has the potential, however, to negatively impact the contemporary working artist. The specifics are unknown until the bill is written and enacted, but the intent of the change is to make unidentified work easier to use by lessening the recourse of the copyright holders.

As a creator, you need to be prepared by ramping up your professional practices of registration and attribution.

Photographers own the copyrights to their work at the moment of creation, as soon as the original idea is fixed in a tangible form. But if you are a professional, your work does not end here. You should register your work with the Copyright Office, embed contact and copyright information into every file and, wherever possible, seek attribution adjacent to your images.

Treat your work with the professional respect you want to be given.

Tip #1: Copyright Tutorial for Photographers

This American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) resource gives you best practice recommendations and a step-by-step guide to registering your work.

Tip #2: Many social media sites strip metadata from digital files in the compression process used for uploading images.

For uses like Facebook, consider adding a credit line on the image so that your name and copyright notice are intact and visible. And, be aware of the terms of service on social media sites. An analysis of these terms is available at

NOTE: ASMP is holding a one-day copyright symposium, "Copyright and the New Economy," on April 21, in New York City. Click here for more information.

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