Today on PERSPECTIVES, the Center  makes recommendations for protecting your work online and answers frequent questions about image copyright law. The aim of this post is to allow you to understand the basics surrounding image copyright while keeping the explanations brief and easy to follow.

For the most useful, up-to-date and publicly available information on this subject, the Center recommends checking out the Copyright Tutorial provided by the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP).

(Photo Credit: Exits and Entrances by Eileen Kennedy)

At what point does copyright law protect an image?

Your work is lawfully protected upon inception. As the creator of intellectual property (in this case, photography), you possess full ownership rights over your work. Officially registering your photographs at a copyright office is highly recommended; though, it is not required. However, before you make your work available to others, ASMP suggests, “The best method is to register your work prior to any distribution or other use.” In other words, it is advised that you register your work before posting it on your website or introducing it to any other public forum.

Is image copyright really that simple?

Unfortunately, no. There are many exceptions to image copyright. For instance, when you sign a work-made-for-hire agreement or complete a transfer of copyright. In these cases, it means that you are no longer the sole proprietor of your work, but rather, ownership and use rights are stipulated in the signed contract. Other recent copyright issues have also been caused by appropriation and image use over the Internet.

What are the advantages of officially registering for copyright?

Should your work be infringed upon, it is easier to take litigation when an image has already been legally filed and processed as your own. Also, as ASMP states, “You have added protection against anyone claiming your work is an ‘orphaned’ work.”

What is an “orphaned” work?

Wikipedia states, “An orphan work is a copyright work where it is difficult or impossible to contact the copyright holder.” This essentially means that your work could be used in any context, even commercially, if there was no method to identify you as its sole creator. As of now, no official legislation has been filed that would require photographers to register every one of their photographs for copyright protection. However, several Orphan Works Bills have been proposed by past congresses, which suggest that another proposition could emerge in the near future. If passed, all photographs would have to be registered for infringement protection, and this would require a fee for every photograph submitted into the registry.  Read more about “Orphan” works HERE and HERE.

What can I do to protect my work against unapproved online usage? And, is it safe to post my images on social media websites?

Due to the broad nature of image use on the Internet, this could be answered in several ways. For one, popular social media websites and image sharing services should be taken seriously by all photographers. While it may seem intuitive, always make sure that you read the Terms of Service (TOS). ASMP discusses this on their feature about Social Media Terms of Service. If you upload images onto Photobucket, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and Flickr, it can be unclear about how your images could potentially be used by each website. Ultimately, it is up to you—the photographer—to decide how to best utilize these networking sites if you wish to promote and display your work on them. The real lesson here is to know your rights before you decide to upload. Read more about ASMP’s take on Social Media TOS by clicking HERE.

Want to find out more and/or weigh in on the current state of image copyright in person?

ASMP will be presenting a symposium on copyright trends next month. The event will be held at the Times Center in New York City on April 21, 2010. For more information on the ASMP Registration ©ounts initiative, click HERE.

Or for those of you in Colorado, ASMP Colorado will be hosting a lecture entitled “Leverage Your Copyrights!” by photographer Jackie Shumaker. It will be held in Denver on the night of April 20, 2010. Find out more HERE.