In today’s world, where free flow of information is made possible by the Internet, it is not uncommon to see digitized materials such as photos being shared and downloaded. It is so easy that whenever people need stock images for their publication or presentation, they look online rather than creating the images themselves. Yet, with the convenience of Internet came the hike in the number of copyright infringement. As a photographer, you need to know your rights to your own works, and how to protect your rights against possible copyright theft.

What is Copyright and How is It Infringed?

Copyright is a legal concept that establishes the ownership of a piece of work. The Merrian-Webster Dictionary provides the following definition for copyright:

the exclusive legal right to reproduce, publish, sell, or distribute the matter and form of something (as a literary, musical, or artistic work)

When you press the shutter release that creates the photograph, you automatically become the copyright owner unless there exist other contractual arrangements. The word copyright can also be interpreted as the right to copy, meaning that you, as the creator of the photo, not only have the right to distribute it in any way you want, but also the right to prevent others from using if for any purpose. One thing to note is that copyright typically expires after a certain period, after which the photograph goes into public domain. In the old days when there was no Internet and the only way to distribute your photos is through publications, copyright expiration usually depends on when it is published. Today, copyright protection lasts for the duration of the creator’s life, so you do not have to worry about its expiration as long as you live.

Copyright infringement happens when someone uses your copyrighted images without your permission. Examples include, but not limited to, using your images in their own publications, disguising you image as their own works, or causing you financial damage by making your images available to others. Also, even if someone purchased a copy of your photo, he or she still do not own the copyright to it and cannot reproduce it in any way. In some jurisdictions, copyright infringement is a criminal offense and infringers may be prosecuted as such, but photographers rarely choose to file criminal complaints because 1) government often choose not to pursue what it considers minor infringement complaints and 2) any resulting fine goes to the government rather than the photographers.

What Can I Do to Prevent Copyright Infringement?

Unfortunately, there is no way to completely prevent infringement on your copyrighted works. However, there are things you can do to remind the viewers that these are copyrighted materials and shall not be used without your express permission.

  1. Watermark your photos – As a photographer, you should know how important it is to watermark your photos. Although you do not need a watermark to own the copyright, it helps persuade the would-be infringers to leave your photos alone. However, there are ways to remove the watermark from a photo, so the manner of which the watermarks are placed may also help prevent copyright theft.
  2. Declare copyrights in image tags – When you view the property of your image files, you’ll notice there is a section that contains the copyright information. While it is possible to modify the information on it, not many people outside of the photographer circles know about this tag, and using it will help you stake your claim when disputes arise.
  3. Use low resolution – By making your images available only in low resolution, you deny the infirngers the possibility of profiting from the infringement, and hopefully they will not be interested in your photos.
  4. Get technical – If you have your own website and have some technical skills, you may incorporate some mechanisms that make it hard for someone to download your photos. Options include disabling the right click, layering another transparent image on top of your photos, or building the website in a way that no source code is viewable.

What Should I Do If My Copyrights are Infringed?

Copyright infringements happen very often, but most of the time the infringers are genuinely not aware of the offense so before you initiate any legal actions, try to give them a chance to correct the mistakes and perhaps make it up to you. Here are some options before you take them to the court:

  1. Request photo credit – It may be mutually beneficial to allow the infringer to use your photos while crediting you for the work. This is often the case if the infringer is simply not aware of the infringement, and may be able to drive large amount of traffic to your website and give you more exposures.
  2. Ask the ISP to remove the infringed material – Per the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, the ISP that hosts the website where the infringement takes place has the responsibility to remove the infringing materials once requested. When drafting the request, make sure it is in writing, is signed and clearly identifies the infringed works.
  3. Prepare a Cease and Desist letter – Usually, simply notifying the infringer about the possible legal actions should he or she continues the infringement is enough to get them stopped. The letter should explain who you are, what the infringement is, where did it happen and by what deadline should the infringer respond to the letter.
  4. Do nothing – Sometimes it is just not worth the time and effort to pursue the infringement. This is especially true if the infringement happens in a foreign country where copyright enforcement is virtually non-existent.

There is a really good source of information on copyrights for photographer by Ken Kaminesky. In the article, Ken and copyright expert Carolyn Wright discuss in details the mechanism of copyright law, the relation between copyright and other rights, and exceptions to the copyright laws. If you would like to know more about copyright, I strongly encourage you to start with this article.