Copyright: The most important $45 you can spend

The article last week about using the Olympus 21/3.5 on the 5D generated an amazing amount of traffic to my humble little blog. Today I want to talk about something exponentially more important than wide angle lens performance. I want to talk about the most important $45 you can spend this month.

Disclaimer: Before we proceed, remember I’m a photographer, not a lawyer. This isn’t legal advice – I’m just trying to help other photographers understand this important issue.

OK. Here’s some background reading for this important assignment:

Unless you have signed a contract that says otherwise, your work is copyrighted the moment you press the button on your camera. But unless you are registering your work with the US Copyright Office, you don’t have much protection.

Photographer A: shoots some images of an event and posts them online. A magazine grabs an image and publishes it without contacting the photographer. Photographer A’s friends scream: “Get a lawyer!” But if the image is not registered, Photographer A can only sue for actual damages (i.e., the fee the magazine would have paid for the usage). The cost of the lawsuit will most likely be way more than the amount of actual damages. With what magazines are paying these days, one hour of a lawyer’s time might be more than the actual damages.

Photographer B: registers their images with the US Copyright Office. If an infringement occurs, Photographer B can sue for actual damages, statutory damages, and legal fees. Photographer B has a much bigger stick to fight infringements because the image is registered.

Well that sounds great, you say. I want to be like Photographer B and protect my images. But this whole registration thing seems complicated.

Once you’ve done it the first time it’s easy. Here is some motivation:

  • Copyright registration only costs $45
  • Register a CD/DVD of web sized jpegs of all your unpublished images from 2006 all at once, for $45
  • The form is easy to fill out, it’s 2 short pages — see a example PDFs on Peter Krogh’s site
  • Tip: Use a trackable shipping method like Fedex to send in your registration

Depending on the volume of images you shoot in a year and what you do with your images, you may want to register monthly, quarterly, or twice a year. Even if an image has already been published, you can register published images within 90 days of publication and the copyright is retroactive to the published date. Again, the links above to Michael Grecco’s primer and Peter Krogh’s how-to pages are a huge help.

I’ll discuss the process of creating web sized jpegs for copyright registration in the next few days. Stay tuned.

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