Everything You Need To Know About Image Copyright Laws

Copyright Protection Everything You Need To Know About Image Copyright Laws

Image Copyright Laws and How To Comply With Them

Have you ever been tempted to use a photo found on Google in your presentation or project? It may seem that everything on the internet is up for grabs, but that’s not the case with original creative content.

Too often, original works are subject to copyright infringement. Many people infringe on the author’s rights because they cannot see any copyright notices or don’t know about relevant copyright laws, especially the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)

Understanding concepts like what copyright claims are, what DMCA protection is, and how copyright works for photographs is crucial whether you’re creating and posting your photos or downloading someone else’s.


Photography Copyright Laws

The most important law that regulates copyright-related issues in the United States is the Copyright Act of 1976. 

Photography copyright represents the legal protection of the creator’s rights and marks original images as the intellectual property of the author. The exclusive rights that every photographer has include:

  • Free reproduction of their images
  • Public display of their work
  • Derivative creation resting on the original content
  • Free distribution of photographs by sale or another transfer form (rental, lending, or lease)

Since many photographers get hired by agencies, you should know that work-for-hire situations relinquish your rights. If you sign a contract that specifies your obligations as work-for-hire or you’re an employee whose job is to take photographs for an employer, you are giving away your exclusive authorship rights. 

Besides photography, copyright laws refer to other forms of creative expression, as long as they can be fixed in a tangible medium, including:

  1. Literary works
  2. Performing arts
  3. Visual arts
  4. Motion pictures
  5. Digital content 

How To Protect Your Work Under Existing Photo Copyright Laws

Once you take a photograph, the copyright kicks in immediately. All those rights mentioned above are automatic, but exercising them, especially in court, won’t be easy unless you learn how to copyright an image with the United States Copyright Office

Registering the copyright allows you to prove your ownership easily if infringement ends up in court. While it is not obligatory and costs money, copyright registrations make you eligible for statutory damages, costs of suit, and attorney fees. 

You can register your copyright online or via mail. The instructions below will help you understand how to copyright your photos electronically:

  1. Open the U.S. Copyright Office website and click on Register a Copyright
  2. Select the Photography category
  3. Hit the Register a Photograph option on the right side
  4. Set up your free account or log in 
  5. Choose Register a New Claim
  6. Go through the application form providing all the required information
  7. Pay the registration fee
  8. Submit a copy of your photograph

Copyright Registration Fees for Photographs

The table below gives you an overview of the most relevant charges when registering copyright for photography work:

Service Price
Online Registrations Single author, same claimant, one work, not for hire $45
All other filings $65
Paper Registrations (Forms PA, SR, TX, VA, SE) $125
Special Handling Fee for Expediting  $800
Group Registrations Published photographs or unpublished photographs $55
Group of updates for a photographic database $250

When Can You Legally Copyright a Vintage Photo?

The answer to this question will depend on how old the photo is. If you’re wondering how long copyright lasts for contemporary photos, the answer is clear—the lifetime of the author plus 70 years. 

Copyright protection for photos created before 1976 gets complicated, but the table below may help:

Date of Work Copyright Duration
Published before 1923 None (public domain)
Issued from 1923 to 1963 28 years (renewable for 67 years)
Published from 1964 to 1977 28 years + automatic extension of 67 years
Created before 1976 but not published Author’s life + 70 years or 12/31/2002 (whichever is longer)
Created before 1976 but published between 1976 and 2003 Author’s life + 70 years or 12/31/2047 (whichever is longer)

Publication has a specific meaning in this case. It is not enough to publicly display the work, but you also need to distribute copies by sale, rental, lease, or lending. 

How Does Image Copyright Work if I Edit the Picture?

Taking someone’s picture and editing it won’t save you from potential copyright infringement lawsuits. According to the U.S. Copyright Office clarifications, you cannot claim copyright on derivative work, regardless of how significant the change is, unless you obtain the author’s or the owner’s consent. 

The fair use doctrine allows the general public to use copyrighted material in certain cases, but determining the scope of this doctrine and the point when it turns into proper infringement is done on a case-by-case basis. 

If you claim fair use for an edited picture, the court will have to consider the following aspects:

  • Type of use (commercial or non-commercial)
  • Percentage of used work
  • Effect on the original photo’s market value
  • Nature of the original work

Much of fair use defense is open to interpretation, so you should approach editing copyrighted content with extra care and attempt to gain consent from the author. 

How To Use Pictures Without Copyright Infringement

Reading about the most famous copyright infringement cases can be fun, but if you don’t want to end up in a similar position, here’s what you can do:

  • Research fair use well before you decide to use someone else’s work and rely on this doctrine if infringement claims escalate
  • Create original images whenever possible, whether it means taking photos and editing them in appropriate software or using automated programs like Canva 
  • Use free stock photos from websites like Flickr or Pixabay
  • Buy stock photos from websites like Getty Images or iStock for more diverse content
  • Contact the author of the photo you want to use and ask for permission to use it—in many cases, a photographer won’t mind if you give proper credit

If you want to create original images in photo editing software, check out how to apply for Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop free trial without risking your payment info.

How To Use DoNotPay To Protect Your Photographs Online

Another important copyright law is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998. It helps you protect your content from being used online without permission, even if you haven’t registered the copyright. 

While you don’t need a lawyer to write a formal DMCA takedown notice, researching required legal elements and vocabulary can be confusing and time-consuming. DoNotPay has developed a feature that creates efficient and well-written notices in a matter of minutes. To get our help, follow these instructions:

  1. Sign up for DoNotPay in any web browser
  2. Log in and select DMCA Takedown from the homepage
  3. Answer a short questionnaire about your content and related infringement
  4. Provide us with your contact details
  5. Click on Sign and Submit

When our AI bots finish your notice, send it to the person who used your images without authorization, the platform where it appeared, or to the internet provider. With DoNotPay’s help, the odds are high that the infringer will honor your takedown request right away!

More Ways DoNotPay Can Help You

Protecting your creative content is just one of the tasks DoNotPay is passionate about. If you create your account in a web browser, you’ll be able to learn how to:


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