Nobody wants to create great work and have it stolen. You deserve to be paid well for the photos you make, and the law thinks so too. That’s why your photos are automatically copyrighted the second you press the shutter release button on your camera. They have been ever since the Berne convention was adopted in 1988 (at least in the United States).
The Berne convention protects the right of the author without any need of a formal registration of copyright. Your photos are protected from being used in any nation that has adopted the convention, and any breach of that copyright is enforceable internationally. If you suddenly see your photos appearing in magazines without your prior consent, you have the right to sue for copyright infringement.
So Wait, I Don’t Have To Do Anything?
That’s basically what I’m saying. Here’s why. Big magazine and online content publishers know that they can’t use your work unless you sell them a commercial license. They usually won't break the law because it can carry a hefty penalty. Most of them have a fixed budget they pay for images, and if they want yours, they usually will contact you to get it.
Will you see your photos on amateur websites and publications? Maybe. If you do, you have to decide whether it’s worth pursuing. Most amateur websites and journals are too small to be profitable anyway. There isn’t much to be gained from going after them for copyright infringement because they probably don’t have that much money. The best you can do is send them a note. If you're happy for them to keep using the photo, ask for attribution and a link back to your website. If you want them to remove it, send them a short letter (like a DMCA takedown notice, or a cease and desist letter) and hope they will do the right thing.
Note that more and more recently, I have seen cases where photos from Facebook and Flickr have been used by magazines and newspapers without permission or attribution. While you have every right to sue the publication for the use of your work, the amount you can sue for usually don't make it worth your while (basically it's just what you would have received if they purchased the image from you).
If you find a big fish infringing on your copyrighted work. I recommend sending them an invoice for using your work. Make it a reasonable amount, and they should pay it. At the very least they'll remove your photo, or print a correction with attribution. This happened to a wedding photographer and it's worth reading the responses there for some great ideas of what to do if this happens to you.
However, for constant and large scale infringements, it might be worth suing.
When Should I Register My Photo’s Copyright?
You should register your photo’s copyright once you intend to sue for copyright infringement. Every country that adheres to the Berne convention has an office that keeps track of copyrights for legal purposes. Most of them require you to send the photo electronically, pay a few fees, and fill out a form.
I wouldn’t advise doing this until your attorney has decided it’s a good idea to sue for copyright infringement. It can be pretty easy to get angry about fair use and go overboard. Make sure you’re going to make money from the lawsuit before you start paying filing fees. Consult an attorney if you aren’t certain.
What About Watermarked Photos?
A lot of people use the copyright symbol, or the “all right reserved” trademark wherever their photos are listed. From a legal perspective, this isn’t really necessary. It is nice, however, if you want to get your name out there. Watermarks make it easier for publishers to contact you if an amateur has illegally copied your work and added it to his site.
Please have a look at my watermark tutorial. It will guide you through the process of creating a transparent watermark for your digital photos. These are nice to have because they prevent a lot of petty photography thievery. Watermarks force amateurs to take a few extra steps to copy you work. When faced with the choice of having to modify your work or just copying the work of another, most amateurs will copy someone else’s work.
Do I Need To Do Anything If I’m Publishing My Work Online?
A lot of photographers are confused about the online world. When you publish your photos to Flickr.com, Facebook, Panoramio, or other social media sites, the same copyrights still apply. None of your work will ever become public domain unless you make it so. However, the default permissions you upload your photos with on some of these sites DO allow use from commercial organizations without payment to you.
You can change your photographic license on Flickr under the “additional information” section for each photo. If you want to encourage people to share your work, you can select a non-commercial license that allows it to be shared via creative commons and other means. This can be a handy tool for getting your work noticed.
There’s no need to sweat copyrights if you’re a photographer. Just get out there, take some great photos, and share them with the world. When you’ve come up with something truly outstanding, publishers will be beating down your door to pay you for it. Aren’t international standards wonderful?
Note I'm not a lawyer, so don't take anything in this article as legal advice.
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