Question: So….You have to get a copyright on each photo, not a group of them, right? Is it a hassle? I’ve thought of doing it from time to time.
Originally posted Dec. 19, 2013, Updated Dec. 13, 2016.
Answer: First of all you own the copyright to all of your own photos the moment you click the shutter. The exception is when you are working for someone else and sign a “work for hire contract”, which gives the copyright to your employer. Although you own the copyright to your photos, you can’t take effective legal action against someone who uses your photo without your permission unless you have registered the copyright for your photos before they are used by someone else.
You can register the copyright for a group of photos (paintings, drawings, etc) so long as none of them have been “published”. I usually copyright a batch of 100-300 photos at a time. The registration fee is $55 whether you are registering one photo or 300.
Published photos have to be registered separately (with a separate fee for each photo) unless they appear in the same publication like a single issue of a magazine or in one book. Then you can register together all of the photos that appeared in the single magazine issue or book, and you have to send in three copies of the original magazine or book. It is a pain and it is expensive to do it that way. It is much cheaper to register a batch of unpublished works. If a photo is going to be published, it is best to register the copyright for that particular photo in a batch with a bunch of other photos before the photo is actually published.
You can’t copyright published and unpublished photos together. And you can’t mix different kinds of visual arts in one registration (photographs, paintings, illustrations).
A work of visual art is not considered published simply because it appears on the internet. From the U.S. Copyright Office (emphasis my own):
“Published or Unpublished? Under copyright law, publication is the distribution of copies of a work—in this case, a photograph—to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership or by rental, lease, or lending. Offering to distribute copies to a group of people for purposes of further distribution or public display also constitutes publication. However, a public display of a photograph does not in itself constitute publication.”
Before you register your photos (or as the copyright office calls them, “works of visual art”), think about the address and phone number you want to use since some of the info you report in the registration process will become public information. A lot of photographers/artists create a business address (like a PO Box, or an address at the UPS store or FedEx store), and create a Google Voice phone number. That way your home address and telephone number aren’t part of the public record. Google Voice is free and forwards calls to the phone number of your choice.
If you have printed out a good tutorial to guide you through the registration steps, the registration process is a “minor hassle”. It is a nightmare to go through the process without a printed tutorial.
You get started by using this information at the ASMP web site.
As they suggest, you create 600×600 pixel versions (or 600×417 or 600×536 or whatever) of each work to be registered and put them all in a folder and “zip” the folder for uploading.
Print this ASMP tutorial to the registration process.
and print this pdf tutorial to the process from the Copyright Office.
Now go through both tutorials side by side to acquaint yourself with the online registration process.
After you have looked at both tutorials, and with your folder of zipped files ready to go, it is time to go to the eCO Online System (eCO = Electronic Copyright Office) and click on the Login text to create an account.
Have one or both of your printed tutorials sitting next to your computer. It would be a nightmare to try to register online and also try to follow along with one (or both) of these online tutorials at the same time. A printed copy is best. I would suggest having both tutorials, but if you only use one, I happen to prefer the ASMP tutorial.
With your handy printed tutorial/s and sitting next to your computer (each of them stapled to keep the pages in order), work your way through the registration process. Don’t be surprised if it takes you 1 1/2 to 2 to hours to go through the somewhat bizarre process the first time since it will all be new to you, and the language choices in the online forms aren’t always intuitive. Take your time and don’t rush, you don’t want to make a mistake. Follow your printed tutorial/s screen by screen, as you go through the screen by screen online process.
Once you’ve worked your way through the many online registration screens, you will pay the $35 registration fee and then upload your zipped folder.
I still have my printed tutorial/s next to me every time I go through the registration process. It still takes me about 45 minutes, but it is less puzzling than the first time. I don’t rush and I compare my printed tutorial/s with the online screens at copyright.gov so I don’t miss something important.
There is always a delay of several months between doing the online registration and getting the certificate in the mail. The copyright registration is effective as of the date you registered online.
I batch registered a group of photos on July 10, 2013, which happened to be during the government shutdown, but the site still worked. I received the registration certificate yesterday (December 18). That’s what prompted a good friend to ask the above questions.
This article was revised August 31, 2016.