How to Copyright Your Photos

Here’s a look at how to copyright your photos, why you should, and what steps you should take to protect those images better.

Sharing images with family, friends, and colleagues has never been easier. When this happens, however, there’s always a risk someone will take a photograph and call it their own. Luckily, U.S. copyright law protects images from the moment it gets snapped by the photographer. Better still, this protection happens even without actually registering the copyright.

Here’s a look at how to copyright your photos, why you should, and what steps you should take to protect those images better.

What is Copyright?

In the United States, image copyright comes into being as soon as the shutter of a camera gets released. You automatically own the copyright unless it was taken for commercial purposes where a company or organization requested the work. In those cases, you probably signed a release before or after the image taking.


The U.S. Copyright Act defines images as “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works,” which include:

two-dimensional and three-dimensional works of fine, graphic, and applied art, photographs, prints and art reproductions, maps, globes, charts, diagrams, models, and technical drawings, including architectural plans.

As a copyright owner, you can:

  • Reproduce or republish the image
  • Prepare new images and other works based on the original image
  • Distribute copies of the image to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending
  • Display the image in the public

Automatic or Registration?

Because you already own the copyright on an image once it’s taken, you don’t have to register it with the U.S. government. However, without this registration, when an infringement does occur, you’re only entitled to actual damages. With registration, you can also go after statutory damages, which is often much more than actual damages. In general terms, professionals should register copyrighted materials while amateurs have less of a reason to do so.

“Poor Man’s Copyright”

In some countries, you might want to consider establishing a “poor man’s copyright.” In the U.S., however, there is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.

With a “poor man’s copyright,” you would notarize your work or send it to someone (even yourself) via an email or another method. In doing so, you would better establish possession at a point in time.


Another option short of registration is to add a watermark to your photo before distribution. By adding a watermark, someone can’t play stupid and claim ignorance. At the same time, it’s challenging to remove a watermark from an image without performing a significant edit. Both points could be enough for the person to rethink copying the work.

Adding a Watermark

Correctly formatted, a copyright watermark should include the year it was created and the name of the author. Here’s an example:

© 2020 | GroovyPost

Use image-editing software to add a watermark to your image. Ideally, the copyright watermark should be big enough to see and take up as much space as possible. Think a big, bold font right in the middle of the image like the examples below:

GroovyPost copyright example

Here is another example:

GroovyPost copyright example

Adding a watermark isn’t necessary if you’re simply sending your friends a picture of your new pet. However, it is useful in professional situations where there could be wandering eyes.

Registering a Copyright

To begin the process of registering for image copyright, follow these directions:

  1. Visit through a web browser.
  2. Click Register a Copyright.
  3. Choose the Photographs section.
  4. Select Register a Photograph.

Before getting started, you should create a free account with the Electronic Copyright Office (eCO). To register, you’ll be asked for your name, email, user ID, password, and more. From there, the U.S. Copyright Office includes different choices for registration. For photos, for example, you can fill out a standard application or register a group of photographs.

Once you get through the application, you’ll need to pay the registration fee. These fees vary on your submission and begin at $45.

Copyright Enforcement

If you believe one of your photos was published without your permission, there are a few avenues you can take.

Seeing your image online or elsewhere might be something you appreciate. In this case, contact the site owner or the person in charge of where you saw the picture. Let them know the image is yours and that you would appreciate attribution moving forward.

By contrast, if you want the image removed, tell them this verbally then send a DMCA takedown notice. You can find sample takedown notices online.

Finally, if you believe you’re owed compensation, consider filing a copyright infringement lawsuit. For this, you should see a lawyer.

Protect Yourself

It has never been easier to send images to anyone around the world. Before doing so, you should ask yourself whether the picture is worth protecting using registered copyright. Another solution might to simply add a copyright watermark to the image prior to the sending of the image. Whatever you do, happy snapping!

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