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Registering Photos With The Copyright Office

Note: The process described here is for the United States. Depending on your country of residence, all, some or none of this may be relevant. Also, I am not a lawyer. I'm a photographer. I've collected information about registration from other photographers I consider reliable sources. As with anything having a legal aspect to it, do your own research and investigation and make your own decisions.

As your photographic journey has progressed, you have probably asked yourself if you should register your photos with the copyright office. Is it worth the trouble? Is the process a hassle? If you've been thinking about it, this is the article for you.

Why Should I Register?

The moment you click the shutter, you automatically own the copyright for your photograph. With or without registration, if someone uses your photo without proper licensing, you can take legal action. A copyright registration affords two benefits. One, a judge will more likely hear the case if the photo in question is registered. Two, you can seek statutory damages for registered work if you win an infringement case (in plain-speak: you may be rewarded more money).

For several years, I didn't bother registering my work because I didn't think my photos were "interesting enough" for someone to steal. I was wrong, and Pixsy helps me keep on track now.

When Do I Register?

All things being equal, it's best to register your work before you publish. When photos are time sensitive, such as photojournalism, it's probably best to register right away. I'm not a photojournalist and in the day and age of online photo sharing, I'd be challenged to register my images before sharing them (or have to have a very large budget to register photos in small batches). I register my photos in batches every quarter.

In the US, a published work still receives full legal protection if it's subsequently registered within three months of being published. Registering a batch of published photos every quarter is a perfect fit. One important note - this three month window applies to published work. Seems obvious (unpublished work can't be stolen, can it) but I'm stressing it because it's best to separate your registrations into bundles of unpublished work vs. published work. Don't intermingle them as it can convolute future legal proceedings.

How Do I Register?

Registering photos is actually quite easy using the eCO process at http://copyright.gov/eco. You'll need a login to the eCO system, which you can setup at any time. The eCO has a good set of tutorials on how to classify your work and how to submit. I also found the step by step tutorial on AMSP's website to be a great guide. PetaPixel's How To Officially Register Your Photographs with the US Copyright Office article gives a rundown of the process, too.

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The guidelines I use when registering my work:

  • Register bundles of either unpublished photos or published photos. Don't mix the two.
  • Limit each registration to a single calendar year. For published works, I use the year the photo was published. For unpublished works, I use the year the photo was taken.
  • Create a PDF contact sheet with reasonably sized thumbnails and upload with the registration form. Include the filename, extension and basic exposure information with each thumbnail.

From there, the process is reasonably straightforward. Use one of the links above or the tutorial slides on the eCO site itself. In a nutshell:

  1. Create a login with the eCO
  2. Register a new claim for a Work of the Visual Arts. I am typically registering a batch of photos and am the sole author and owner, so my answers to the first three questions are No (I'm registering more than one piece of work), Yes (I'm the only author and owner) and Yes (my claim contains only my work). I will use a description like "Scott Davenport's published photos for YYYY Q#" substituting the appropriate year and quarter.
  3. Walk through the various sections of the form providing the required information. The "Add Me" button is very handy to quickly add yourself as the author, claimant, etc.
  4. Pay the registration fee. Each submission costs US $55 (as of this writing). The good news is you can register as many photographs as you like in one claim. There is a restriction on upload size (see Step 5).
  5. Upload your work. I use a PDF contact sheet with a healthy sized thumbnail of each photo in the claim. As of this writing, the maximum upload size is 500MB. You can fit a lot of photos into a PDF contact sheet in that space.

Expect to spend 30 to 45 minutes for your first submission. There's always a learning curve with any new tool or system, and eCO is no exception. Once you have filed your first claim, subsequent claims take far less time, maybe 10-15 minutes. Also, take advantage of creating an eCO template from a claim. My quarterly filing is more or less cookie cutter and templates really speed things up.

How Do I Create A Contact Sheet?

I'm a Lightroom user and my process is as follows:

  • Create a collection with my to-be-registered photos.
  • Select the collection and jump to the Print module
  • Create a Single Image / Contact Sheet layout
  • Configure the right panel to my liking
  • Make sure each thumbnail is reasonably large (the photo needs to be easily recognizable) and the filename and basic exposure information captions each thumbnail

I expect any cataloging system behaves similarly. I know Aperture worked the same way. If your asset management system supports it, save your contact sheet settings as a template or preset.

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Update Your Metadata

After your claim is filed, eCO assigns a case number. At present, they are numeric and of the form #-##########. I tag all the photos in the case with this number. I happen to use the IPTC Job Identifier field because I'm not using that field for anything else. You can use a different field, a keyword, anything really. Whatever method you choose, I do recommend that you add metadata to embed case number into your digital file.

I also add the eCO case number to the name of my Lightroom collection. That's an easy visual indicator that the set of photos has been registered.

Parting Thoughts

For a small amount of time every three months, I think registering your work is well worth the effort. Your photos are more valuable than you may think. For a little over US $200 per year, you can fully protect your photos. We never want our work stolen (well... maybe we do if it's a big outfit like Nike, Apple or Exxon :). You can sleep a little easier knowing you'll have the full support of the legal system once they are registered. 

Lastly, it will take many months before the copyright office finishes processing your claim (close to a year at the time of this writing). However, your full legal protection is active the moment you submit the claim. 

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