Photographs are among the range of creative works protected by copyright, whether taken by a professional or an amateur. As with other creative works, photos are legally copyrighted when committed to a "tangible form." This includes digital forms that require the use of a machine -- like a computer -- to view them. While registration with the U.S. Copyright Office, or USCO, is not required, it provides the only true protection against copyright infringement.
Photography copyrights provide photographers the exclusive right to make copies of their work, prepare other works based on a copyrighted photograph, sell or distribute copies of the work or display the work publicly. Photographers with copyright protection can safely display their work in art galleries, for example, without the threat of someone copying the photograph. Photographers with copyrights can sell their copyrights along with their works to publications, other photographers or virtually any legal entity, transferring these rights to the buyer.
Civil Infringement Remedies
Photographers whose copyrighted works have been used in violation of the law can sue copyright violators in federal court for an injunction and financial restitution. In this context, an injunction is a legal order to desist from a using a copyrighted photograph or collection of copyrighted photographs. Failure to comply with a legal injunction can result in criminal charges for contempt of court. Financial restitution can include repayment for all income earned using copyrighted material, payments for lost revenue to the copyright holder and payment of the plaintiff's legal fees.
Criminal Infringement Penalties
Photographers can file criminal charges against copyright violators for illegally using their copyrighted works. Although criminal proceedings for copyright infringement do not result in restitution for the victim, aside from reimbursing legal fees, copyright violators can be required to pay up to $250,000 in fines to the court. In addition, violators of photo copyrights can face up to five years in prison, or up to ten years for each repeat offense.
Photo Copyright Registration
The U.S. Copyright Office provides an online copyright registration tool for photos, allowing you to quickly register your work and submit the application fee online. Log on to copyright.gov/eco to access the Electronic Copyright Office. Create an account online and use the step-by-step online filing process to submit your application. The end of the application will require you to upload a copy of your work in PDF format.
Poor Man's Copyrights
All photographic works must be registered to enjoy true legal protection. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, a "poor man's copyright" -- the act of mailing a printed photo to yourself and using the post office date stamp as evidence of original authorship -- does not provide legal copyright protections. Consequently, photos taken and posted online by someone other than the photographer, for example, on social media sites, are technically copyrighted, but without officially having registered the photos with the USCO, it would be impossible to sue for copyright infringement
There is often confusion about who owns the photographs of a professional hired to photograph an event, such as a wedding. Prior to 1978 many courts ruled that a hired "author" of a photograph was an employee and thus the person who hired the photographer and paid for her services owned the images. In 1979 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that individuals hired under those circumstances did not meet the requirements to qualify as an employee. Consequently, the photographer owns the copyright to the images and can set restrictions on how they are used.