Yes, you own the actual copyright to your work when you create it, but you do not have the full protection of the law unless you register it. That one little [online form] from the copyright office will change your life.
This is how the longtime director and photographer Michael Grecco sums up the process that ensures your photographs are protected. The first step is, of course, creating the imagery itself. But what’s also important is registering that work with the U.S. government’s copyright office to prevent outside parties from unjustly using your imagery. Your ability to defend yourself against an infringement depends on your timely registration of your copyright. Most photographers don’t realize that, while they own the copyright to their photos the instant they’re made, it’s only by registering the copyright that they’re truly protected from infringement.
As with just about anything related to our government, the process by which you register your copyright is, to use Michael’s words, “deceptively complicated.” Across three detailed videos, Michael breaks down and simplifies the step-by-step guide to protecting your work, covering the “why” as well as the “how” regarding this vital action. Let’s take some time to highlight the key points of each video, all of which can be found below.
Part one: background information on copyright registration
As a primer of sorts for this rather involved topic, Michael takes the time to explain the definition and importance of copyright registration. Here are some of the big takeaways to keep in mind:
- Why the difference between having and not having your work copyrighted could add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue.
- Why you can earn up to $150,000 — plus legal fees — per image if you register your copyright before someone tries to steal it.
- Why published and unpublished work needs to be registered separately and differently — and why every image registered at one time needs to come from the same year.
- The number of images you can copyright per registration, and how much time you have between publication and registration to receive full protection for your published work.
- How to determine if your work can be considered “published.”
Part two: registering your unpublished work online
In the second of his three videos, Michael sits down and goes through the actual process of registering your property on the U.S. Copyright Office’s website. This is where we get into the nitty-gritty of ensuring your work is protected by the law. The biggest thing to note here, other than how to navigate the online form, is that organized archiving is key. Make sure that all your files are grouped logically and labeled consistently — after all, you may very well be uploading hundreds of images at once, so it’s imperative you know where they are and why they go together.
Part three: registering your published work online
While the process for registering your published work is quite similar to what you’d do for unpublished imagery, there are a few extra steps you need to take. Whereas unpublished work can be dated by the time it was created, published images must be labeled by when they were, well, published. If you did a shoot for a magazine in, say, July of 2019 but the issue featuring your work didn’t run until October 2019, you need to date your images with the latter month and year (the day of publication is irrelevant). Take a look at the video above to see the other differences between registering unpublished and published work; Michael’s also got some tips on how to best keep track of the images you upload to the copyright office’s website.
And that about covers one of the most important and necessary aspects of protecting your intellectual property. You busted your butt to not only create images, but also to earn a living from them, so complete this process regularly to ensure you get fully compensated for your work. Hopefully this task becomes a little less scary once you hear from Michael!
For more information on the subject, check out Honore Brown’s how-to guide and chat with photographers on the subject.
About the Author
Varun Raghupathi is a Philadelphia-based sports broadcaster and writer. He is currently a broadcaster and reporter for the Penn Quakers and Villanova Wildcats. For more of Varun’s work, you can check out his website and follow him on Twitter.
Varun is also a member of Wonderful Machine, an art production agency with a network of 600 photographers in 44 countries. If you have any questions, or if you need help with your social media presence, you can reach out to Wonderful Machine via email. This article was also published here and shared with permission.
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