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Error 5: Waiting Too Long to Register Your Works

By far the biggest mistake I see photographers making is failing to register their works with the U.S. Copyright Office in a timely manner. Your work is copyrighted from the moment it’s created (in many cases, that means the moment you release the shutter on your camera), but to maximize your rights under the law, you need to register those copyrights. You must register your work before you can sue for infringement. If you file your registration application in a timely manner (I’ll discuss what that means in a moment), a court may award you statutory damages of up to $150,000 per work infringed, as well as attorney’s fees and court costs. If the work isn’t timely registered, you’ll have to pay your own costs; more importantly, you’ll have to prove how much value you lost (or how much the defendant gained) as a result of the infringement, which can be difficult to do—in fact, so difficult that many lawyers won’t even take cases unless the work has been registered in advance.

What do I mean by “register in a timely manner”? Doing it within three months after your images are “published” (in the copyright sense of the word) or before the work is infringed. Since you can’t predict when your work might be infringed, get into the habit of registering your work as soon as it comes off the camera, before you post photos online or deliver them to a client—really, before you do anything with them. It’s the first step in my workflow, and it should be the first step in yours, too.

Copyright registration is important from a public policy perspective as well, because it creates a public record of copyright ownership. Think of it this way: When you buy a house, you’re required to file documents with the registry of deeds, telling the world that you own the property. Copyright registration is the same kind of procedure for creative works.

The idea of filing a registration application can be a little daunting at first, and the first time you work through the process it will seem pretty foreign. Fortunately, a number of resources can help you to navigate the process:

  • My book Copyright Workflow for Photographers: Protecting, Managing, and Sharing Digital Images provides step-by-step guidance on how to use common software tools such as Adobe’s Photoshop, Photoshop Lightroom, and Acrobat to build workflows that include copyright registration practices.
  • You might also want to check out ASMP’s Registration Counts program.
  • John Harrington’s books Best Business Practices for Photographers, Second Edition (Cengage, 2009) and More Best Business Practices for Photographers (Cengage, 2014) provide helpful copyright registration information as well as general business background essential for any successful photography business.
  • Of course, the U. S. Copyright Office itself has a lot of useful information on copyright registration on its website.

Understanding copyright law might not be the most exciting part of being a professional photographer, but it’s becoming increasingly essential. Establishing a working knowledge of basic copyright concepts and incorporating sound copyright-related practices into your daily workflow will save time—and potential heartache—if copyright-related issues arise in the future.

Chris Reed is a lawyer and photographer based in Los Angeles. As a lawyer he specializes in copyright, antitrust, and communications law; photographically he focuses primarily on landscape and travel photography. He previously served as a senior advisor to the director of the U.S. Copyright Office and as a trial attorney at the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, where he principally worked on matters related to the entertainment and media industries.

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