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Five Common Copyright Mistakes That Photographers Make

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Take some free advice from a photographer who's also a lawyer. Chris Reed, author of Copyright Workflow for Photographers: Protecting, Managing, and Sharing Digital Images, shares knowledge gained from other professional photographers as well as time spent working with the U.S. Copyright Office. If you're not avoiding these five common copyright errors, your work and your business could be at risk.
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Copyright law probably isn’t the most exciting part of the professional photography business, but it’s increasingly becoming essential. The fast-paced nature of today’s networked economy has led to all sorts of new opportunities for photographers and other artists, but also to widespread unauthorized use of images—and sometimes outright theft. As a result, knowing a little something about copyright law has become almost as fundamental to photography as knowing how to expose an image properly, especially for those who monetize their work.

Taking the time to establish a working knowledge of basic copyright concepts and to incorporate sound copyright-related practices into your daily workflow can ultimately save you time and potential heartache. This article describes five key copyright-related mistakes that photographers often make, with suggestions on how to avoid or fix these errors.

Let me start with a quick cautionary note: Although I’m a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer, and you shouldn’t consider this article to be legal advice. I’ve provided general background on copyright issues of interest to photographers, but this article isn’t a substitute for getting your own lawyer who can help guide you through the law as it relates to your particular circumstances.

Why You Need to Know About Copyrights

If you’re like most photographers, you’re generally familiar with the concept of copyright, but you probably haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about how it might affect your craft or business. Traditionally, most photographers have never needed to worry about copyrights. Even though copyright has applied to photography for decades, only when the Internet became the dominant distribution mechanism for images did copyright issues start to become an increasingly prominent part of the world of photography.

Despite the importance of copyright law, I’ve found over the years that many photographers don’t have a good understanding of what copyright is, how it works, and its various limitations and exceptions. And who could blame them? Learning about the law—which I concede, even as a lawyer, can be pretty dry sometimes—is not nearly as exciting as playing with a new piece of gear or editing an image. But given how important copyright concepts have become today, you should think about how these issues might affect you.

To help you focus on these issues, the following sections describe five key mistakes that I’ve seen photographers make with regard to copyright law and what you can do to avoid repeating them.

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