What is Copyright?: Understanding Your Rights
Copyright is a photographer’s best friend. It’s there to protect us and allow us to exercise our rights to a photograph. However, there is a lot of misunderstanding about copyright and what you should do when an infringement occurs. This article will address this and help you to understand your rights. Laws around copyright do vary slightly between countries, and I’m going to be writing from the point of view of a UK photographer with UK laws, although I will refer to those in the USA where possible.
What is copyright?
Copyright is a legal right which protects your work, stopping others from using it without permission.
Copyright prevents people from doing the following (as stated on the UK Gov website):
- copying your work
- distributing copies of it, whether free of charge or for sale
- renting or lending copies of your work
- performing, showing or playing your work in public
- making an adaptation of your work
- putting it on the internet
How do I obtain copyright for my photos?
Copyright is an automatic right in the UK. There is no necessary registration or fee to be paid for it to apply.
The same goes for those in the USA, although they also have the ability for copyright to be registered. Pursuing a case without registering becomes difficult, and registration also allows you to benefit from the full amount of damages if a lawsuit were to arise. It isn’t only those originating in the USA who can register, however, and even people creating works in foreign countries can register their copyright in the USA. You can find more information about copyright in the USA on the SLR Lounge website.
You can assign copyright to someone else through the means of a contract. This may be appropriate if you are hired to work for someone else and have agreed to this beforehand. If someone wishes to obtain copyright of your photo, then the cost to them is usually greatly increased. This is different to issuing an exclusive license to a photo. You can also issue non-exclusive licenses – you don’t have to give up copyright to allow others to use your work.
Do I have to watermark my photos to be protected?
No. Copyright is automatic and you don’t need to state that the work is copyrighted to be protected. It is up to everyone else to determine its status themselves, and ignorance is not a valid excuse. This is true for those in both the UK and the USA.
Does posting photos online release them into the public domain?
I occasionally come across discussions about copyright online where people claim that photos posted on the internet are in the public domain and free to be used by anyone. This is simply not true. Granted, it makes it easier for copyright infringement to occur, but it is still breaking regulations and you are free to pursue infringements. A photo being in the public domain means it is freely available, and this only happens when it is purposely released there or the copyright has expired (copyright usually lasts a lifetime, plus a number of years).
You may have heard the term Creative Commons License before. This is essentially a uniform way for photographers to distribute licenses to their work publicly. The extent to which someone can use a photo, and what conditions they must adhere to, is predetermined this way. Photos you see on Wikipedia are perfect examples of images under a CC License.
Whilst you shouldn’t just roll over and accept infringements that come as a result of posting photos online, you should be aware that the risks are much greater. Whatever kind of protection you may put on a website, such as stopping downloads or right-clicking an image, it is still possible for someone to retrieve the image file. All they need to do is screenshot the page or dive into the website’s code to find it. Watermarking your photos and uploading low resolution files is a great way to deter would-be infringers.
What counts as copyright infringement?
As described at the beginning of this article, there are a variety of things that copyright prevents people from doing with your work. Violation of these terms is copyright infringement. It is not ‘theft’ of a photo, even though that term is casually thrown around.
You may come across paintings or drawings of your photo. This is a derivative work, and artists need to be very careful about using photos as reference images. There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by a photo, but directly copying a photo will land them in hot water. It is down to the courts to decide what work is derivative, and it does become harder if you pursue an infringement like this, but by law you have rights over such an occurrence.
There are also regulations that skirt around copyright protection, and this is known as the fair use policy. Whilst it may sound unfair that there are any situations where your photo could be used legally without permission, this policy is very restrictive itself and what actually is fair use is later determined in court (it is usually educational use, for example). For this reason, I have yet to come across a situation myself where a photo has been used under this regulation.
How do you pursue an infringement?
This is where it gets a little complicated. The best way to pursue an infringement is to contact the person or entity using the work and settle the matter yourself. You can ask for them to cease using your work, to pay for its use, or both.
Further Reading: “How to Find Websites That Are Using Your Photos“
Unfortunately, you’ll probably be ignored – even by companies – as they’ll try to call your bluff. Often, simply making contact scares the infringer into removing the image completely. But if you want them to pay up for the use, you’ll probably find yourself chasing them again and again for payment. Persistence does pay off, though, and I’ve settled many cases this way.
Should it come to it, you have the option of going to an Intellectual Property Enterprise Court (IPEC) to settle the dispute. This can get costly, although recent changes to procedure have made it a much more viable process for individuals. If you are looking for information about how to take someone to an IPEC, read more on the UK Government website.
The most important thing to remember is never to go into a discussion ‘all guns blazing’. If you are aggressive in your communication, you are much less likely to be successful in resolving the issue. Keep things professional, state your rights and show that you are serious, but insults and aggressive tones never result in a good outcome.