How to Copyright Photographs on the Web

by Victoria McGrath
Protect the photographs you place on the web from unauthorized use.

Protect the photographs you place on the web from unauthorized use.

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Photographs on the web qualify for basic copyrights and federal copyright protection. A photographer automatically secures basic copyrights in his photographs the instant he captures the image in a physical form, such as traditional film stock or in a digital format. Copyright protection applies to "original works of authorship" fixed in a tangible form. All photographs are original because each photographer brings a unique perspective to his work and how he frames an image. Every photograph appears in a tangible form, including film prints, film negatives, film slides, digital camera images and Internet images. Photographs on the Internet, also known as the web, qualify for federal trademark registration, as either published or unpublished photographs.

Published and Unpublished Photographs

Published and unpublished photographs qualify for copyright protection, as visual arts work, under the pictorial, graphic and sculptural classification of copyrightable works. Published photographs refer to images that have been made available to the public without any restrictions on access. Unpublished photographs have not been made available to the public or are available with limited public access. For example, a photographic image available under Google images qualifies as a published photograph, with unlimited public access. A private photograph sent in a personal email to a family member qualifies as an unpublished work, due to the private restrictions.

Basic Copyright Protection

Published and unpublished photographs on the web automatically qualify for basic copyright protection, as original works captured in a tangible form. Basic copyright protection provides the photographers of the original photographs exclusive rights to copy, use and distribute the images. The exclusive right to copy the images also applies to any digital formatting. These copyrights also include the exclusive right to profit from or sell the images. Both published and unpublished photographs may be used by others under the fair use doctrine or because they are within the public domain. Fair use applies to copyrighted photographs that are used solely for non-profit, educational purposes. Public domain refers to photographs available to the public, due to expired copyrights or photographs published before 1923, in the United States. Basic copyright protect requires no type of registration. Federal copyright registration is optional.

Federal Copyright Registration

Optional federal copyright registration of photographs provides additional benefits. Federal copyright registration guarantees a legal presumption of ownership and a public record of the registered work. These two benefits prove critical during a dispute over legal ownership. If two individuals both claim legal ownership over the same photographs on the web, the legal presumption of ownership will go to the registered owner. If the dispute ends up in court, the judge can use the registration information found in the public registration as evidence of legal ownership. Federal copyright registration gives the registered owner the right to sue in federal court. It is particularly important to register photographs used on the web because of the rapid reproduction and distribution of digital images.

Copyright Registration Process

A photographer can potentially register all of his published and unpublished photographs used on the web as visual arts works. Individual registration of photographs can be quite cumbersome, time-consuming and expensive. Group registration of photographs, as collections, simplifies the process. The United States Copyright Office offers online registration through the electronic Copyright Office, known as eCO, or with traditional mail-in paper applications. Paper applications for visual arts work include form VA and short form VA. Each copyright registration application must include a completed application, filing fees and a deposit of the material to be copyrighted. All copyright registration applications require a signed application by the copyright owner to certify legal ownership.

Deposit Requirements

The copyright registration process requires a copy of all copyright material to be deposited with the Library of Congress through the United States Copyright Office. Internet photographs follow the deposit requirements for visual arts work. The deposit guidelines require the best edition available of published photographs or a complete copy of all unpublished photographs. The best edition refers to high-quality images, in a large rather than small format. For example, photographs uploaded as digital images, through the online registration process, should be high-resolution. Photographs submitted as prints should be on archival-quality paper, preferably as 8-by-10 prints. The photos must be titled individually, and as a collection if applicable. The title and dimension of each photograph must appear on the front, back or mount.