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Error 1: Ignoring Copyright Law Until a Crisis Arises

As I’ve already admitted, learning about law can be pretty dull; for those who don’t have any background in law, it can also be pretty daunting. Fortunately, for all its complexity and nuance, the fundamental idea behind copyright law is pretty straightforward. Essentially, copyright law encourages creators such as photographers to create more works (enriching our culture), in exchange for having a limited period of time during which only the copyright owner (the creator, in most cases) can decide what to do with that work. Only the copyright owner can decide whether to charge for an image (and on what terms), make the work available for free, and so on.

Like most laws, copyright isn’t absolute. Certain exceptions and limitations constrain the “exclusive” nature of copyright in narrow, specific circumstances; the most common, “fair use,” allows people to make certain very restricted uses of copyrighted works without permission of—or payment to—the copyright owner. Congress has worked hard to ensure that these limitations are very narrow and apply only in very specific circumstances; the general rule is that copyright owners get to control and benefit from their work.

This article isn’t intended to teach you everything you need to know about copyright—the point is simply that you should know a little something about copyright before you really need that information. In situations where someone infringes on a photographer’s copyright, or accuses a photographer of infringement, temperatures can run hot and emotions take over. Having a solid understanding of what is and isn’t permissible under copyright law, as well as how copyright law treats certain types of conduct, can help you to navigate copyright-related situations more effectively (and calmly).

Dozens of free or low-cost reliable resources are available to help you learn the basics about copyright. For example, the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) has a number of resources on its website that are free to the public, and photo-hosting platform PhotoShelter offers “The Photographer’s Guide to Copyright” free to anyone. The Copyright Alliance, an advocacy group that promotes the rights of creators, also has some great introductory resources. Finally, the U.S. Copyright Office has a wealth of information on its website.

Of course, these resources (including this article) are intended to provide basic background information—when you have specific issues for which you need advice, talk to a lawyer with experience in copyright law.

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