Why Registering Your Copyrights is More Essential Than You Think

January 11, 2017

By Aaron M. Arce Stark

With the viral reach and ease of sharing images in the digital age, it has become much easier for a would-be infringer to illegally access, use and profit from a photographer’s images. Now more than ever, professional photographers must learn how to promote their work while also protecting it from infringement.        

Copyright Basics: Watermarking is Not Enough
Photographers legally own an image the moment they click the shutter button and take a picture. That ownership is called a copyright. Among other rights, the Copyright Act grants copyright owners the right to stop the unauthorized reproduction, display or sale of their work. These copyrights are only enforceable in a court of law if the image is registered with the United States Copyright Office. 

This is not to say that successful copyright enforcement requires the filing of a lawsuit. But if the possibility of a lawsuit and the benefits that come with early registration are unavailable, then an infringer has less incentive to immediately comply with a photographer’s “cease and desist” and compensation demands.   

While watermarking an image with the photographer’s name and a copyright symbol “©” may deter a would-be infringer, and can be helpful in the enforcement process in some ways, watermarking alone does not offer any of the time-saving and financial legal benefits that come with registering an image with the U.S. Copyright Office before infringement occurs.  

Registering Early And Often
Securing your legal rights well before infringement has occurred, rather than scrambling to secure them after, is beneficial to you in many ways. Not only are you immediately prepared to enforce your rights, both in negotiation discussions and—if necessary—in court, but the law grants certain financial benefits should you sue and win.

These benefits include: payment of an award in a sum no less than $200 to $30,000 per infringement; payment of all attorney’s fees; and, where there is proof that an infringer knew that the copyright was registered at the time of infringement (for example, the photographer placed a watermark on the image), you are entitled to enhanced damages for “willful infringement” of up to $150,000. 

For all these reasons, early registration means an infringer is more likely to settle a dispute quickly, without the need of a lawsuit. But all of these advantages and rights are simply lost if you register the image after the date of infringement. Waiting for infringement to register, therefore, not only compromises the leverage you would otherwise have against an infringer, but also means that the time, expense and difficulty of filing a lawsuit to enforce your rights may not be financially worthwhile. 

The Time is Now
Registering photographs with the U.S. Copyright Office should become a regular part of a photographer’s business practice. When you finalize your images, and before sharing them with your clients or the public, register them with the U.S. Copyright Office. For a minimal fee, the U.S. Copyright Office allows batch registration of up to 750 published images per copyright application, and an unlimited number of unpublished images. You can register your images online at copyright.gov by setting up an account with the U.S. Copyright Office, filing the online application and submitting your images. Information about the process can be found on their website. 

In business, watching someone profit from your work, without permission, is both frustrating and infuriating. It is time photographers empower themselves against infringement, and prompt copyright registration can be one useful tool to that end.  

Aaron M. Arce Stark is a lawyer for artists and entrepreneurs. Learn more about his law firm at arcestarklaw.com. He is sharing his legal knowledge to Rangefinder monthly—let us know what issues or topics you want covered by sending your questions on photo- and law-related topics that you want Aaron to answer to rangefinder@emeraldexpo.com.

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