This article is a brief overview of the Copyright Act of 1976 as it applies to photographers today.

The purpose of this article is to educate photographers and the general public about the current issues of copyright law. Additional detailed material may be located from the ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers, inc).
The Copyright Act of 1976 made clear that photographers are the owners of their images except when the images were made as an employee. Copyright is a right granted to the photographer by federal law to protect and control the copying, reproduction, and use of their images. The copyright law allows the photographer to sue violators of their copyright.
These rights begin after the image is taken either by film or by digital means. Copyrights are automatically applied. No forms are required to file with the copyright office unless legal action is requested. There are some exceptions to the copyright law. A creator must create something original. If a image is copied or scanned exactly “as is” then the new image is not copyrighted. In fact the copied image is in violation of copyright law unless received with permission or the use of image falls under the “Fair Use” category.
Copyright law does allow someone to copy a photographer’s work without legal action under certain stipulations. To qualify the image must be used for education, news, or public interest purposes. In such situations the user is not required to pay royalties to the photographer under “Fair Use”. It may be difficult to prove unauthorized use of photographs when the defendant claims “fair use”.
Photographers can register their images with the Copyright Office in Washington DC. The government’s copyright website has all the forms and information to register photography works. The cost is about $30. If a copyright has been violated it is recommend to register the work as soon as possible with the Copyright Office before proceeding with legal action. Statutory damages up to $100,000 may be received in a copyright violation.
Though a copyright notice is not required on a image it is recommended before posting work on a website to add some stipulation of copyright. If a violator can plainly see your copyright notice then the photographer may deter a possible violator. The small © symbol can work or righting rights reserved on the image will also help.
Like most assets it is possible to sell or give away a copyright. Photographers are required by law to transfer the copyright to another party in writing. Photographers can also license the use or permission to use the image with certain limitations. It is recommended that photographers have a written agreement to such license. It is possible to offer exclusive or limited exclusive rights meaning the user can use the image only for a short period of time or in certain locations. Photographer should take care not to sign away rights when they sign a client contract. Good news though if the photographer sells the copyright for a bad deal they can regain the copyright after 35 years if you want to wait that long.
In a case where the photographer is hired as an employee or does “work for hire” then the photographer never owns the copyright. The copyright is owned by the company that hired the photographer. The company paid the photographer a fee for their services unless previously agreed, the company owns the images. Under work for hire all images taken while on assignment are owned by the client not just the ones used by the client.
We hope this article has helped you shed more light on copyright laws.
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