With the advent of the internet came a means for photographers to get exposure for their art in ways that were never before possible. Unfortunately, pretty much immediately after that came about people began stealing photographs and not paying or crediting the owners for their usage.
This can understandably put a major damper on any photographer’s celebrations to learn that potentially thousands of people have seen their work, but those viewers may have no idea that they are the artist. While the whole experience can make you feel pretty helpless, there are some steps you can take to protect your intellectual property, and in this article, we’ll show you how.
How do copyrights work for photos?
Step one to protecting your works is knowing how copyrights work for photographs. Knowledge is power, and knowing your rights under the law can help you to better fight for what is owed to you. The law states that an artist’s work is protected as soon as it is created. You will own this copyright for your entire life, and then 25 years after that as well.
Anyone who wants to reproduce, display, sell, distribute or create their own work using your photograph must have your permission to do so. The only time where you would not own the copyright to your photos is if you were engaged in a work for hire deal. In this case, the person who hired you would own the photographs.
Should you formally register your photos with the copyright office?
While you don’t technically have to do this, it’s a good idea to do it anyway. If you don’t register, then you would have the right to sue only for your normal licensing fee. If you register a copyright though and a company with deep pockets tries to rip you off, then you could end up getting a lot more in legal damages. It also provides solid proof that the photograph is really yours, and this peace of mind is worth the nominal cost of registering your photos with the copyright office.
For $55 you can register up to 750 photos, and you can avoid getting taken for a ride not just by thieves, but also by those who are partnering with you. Richard Reinsdorf learned this the hard way when he tried to sue Sketchers for using his work outside of their agreement, but was denied his claimed damages of $250 million dollars, because he failed to register his works with the copyright office.
What can you do if your photo is stolen?
Okay, so your photo has been stolen. This is unfortunate, but in most cases, if you know who’s distributing it without your permission you can easily rectify the situation. Here are a few methods that you can use to get yourself some justice as a content creator.
Try emailing the site
If you’ve found a website that is using your works in a way that you don’t agree with, then the first step should be to send them an email. You can request that the image is taken down, you are credited or that they pay for a licensing fee. In some cases, the webmaster might not even know the photo is stolen. It’s entirely possible that they purchased it from someone else claiming to be you!
If this is the case, then you’ll also find out some valuable information about who’s actually distributing your work and stealing your money! Give the website owner at least a few days to respond, and if you can’t work things out, then it’s time to move on to step number two in our photographer copyrights protection plan.
However, if you really want them to know you’re serious, then you could spend some money to get your lawyer to send a formal cease and desist letter. Getting a letter from a lawyer is scary, and it will likely spur them into action a lot quicker. While this may not be worth the cost if they are simply using one of your photos in an article, it could be worth it if they are actually trying to sell stuff using your photos. The cost for this will be somewhere in the ballpark of $100-$300.
If you don’t really have a problem with how the content is being used, then simply asking to be credited and that they add a link to your website will likely be far more valuable to you. This could lead to traffic, sales and even higher search engine rankings for your website. Most webmasters will be happy to comply with this request.
File a DMCA takedown notice
If you’ve given the webmaster ample time to respond and they have not made any attempts to rectify the situation, then the next step is filing a DMCA takedown notice. Every website has a web hosting company, and those companies do not want illegal material on their servers. This includes music, videos, images or other works which are used without permission. So, if the webmaster has ignored you, then you’re likely to get what you want by contacting their host. Here’s how to do it.
Get proof of the infringement
Step one is to get proof of the infringement. All you’ll really need here is a screenshot of where the person in question is using your work. Keep copies of this in case you need to pursue further action later.
Find the website’s host
You need to send the DMCA notice to the website’s host. That means that you need to actually find out who the host is first. You can use a tool like this one to do it, but that doesn’t always work. Many websites are actually using services like Cloudflare for DDos protection now, and that hides who their true host is. However, you can also submit an abuse notice to Cloudflare, and they will attempt to notify the website owner or the host. Web hosts that are not in the United States don’t technically have to comply with DMCA takedowns, but many of them do it anyway.
Find the copyright agent
Once you know the web host, you need to also find the copyright agent. This is the person who is in charge of managing infringement cases for the host. This can be a pain to find sometimes, and while you can often find it by searching around their legal or terms and conditions pages, the easiest way is probably to use the copyright.gov agents directory.
Create your formal takedown notice
Most websites should have a form that you can fill out for claims, but if they don’t you’ll need to create a letter to the agent to submit your claim. The letter needs to contain the following information to be a legitimate takedown notice in the eyes of the law.
- Provide your signature to identify you as the copyright owner
- Identify the work you believe is being infringed upon
- Provide the screenshot, the webpage and anything else relevant to the infringement
- Include your contact information where the agent can reach you
- Provide a “good faith” statement that the infringer does not have a legal right to the work
- Include a statement that the information you’ve submitted is accurate
- State that under penalty of perjury that you’re authorized to speak for the copyright owner
When should you sue over your copyrights?
The final step to protecting your works is seeking legal action. This is the last step because it’s expensive, and you need to ask yourself if it will be worth the trouble and cost to pursue legal action. If the site in question is an amateur blog, then the answer is likely no.
However, if a large website steals your work, then it’s possible that it could be worthwhile to sue. Daniel Morel was one of the first photographers to capture images of 2010’s devastating earthquake in Haiti. AFP made the mistake of thinking they had the right to syndicate these images just because they were on Twitter, and Morel was awarded 1.2 million in statutory damages by the court.
In order to seek statutory damages you’ll need to have registered your copyright, gather evidence of the infringement, prove that the infringer had access to your work, note the date of the infringement, document the income that you’ve lost due to the infringement, and then hire a copyright attorney to evaluate your case. The more information that you can bring to your lawyer, the better chance you have of a good outcome and your lawyer will be realistic with you about your odds of winning the lawsuit.
How can you prevent thefts from happening in the first place?
If you’d like to prevent unauthorized usage in the first place, then a watermark is a good way to go. Most would be photograph thieves won’t want an image with a large watermark, and they’ll be forced to pay for the full image if they want to use it for their own purposes. It’s a cost-effective strategy that should be a part of every photographer’s tool bag when seeking to protect their intellectual property.
Water Marquee is an online photo watermarking tool. We hope you'll give it a try.