March 13, 2018

A beginner's guide to copyright for images

Photo: Carl Cerstrand

If you’re an artist or creator, copyright provides an important way to protect your work from being used, copied, or distributed without your permission. It also helps you earn a fair income, by allowing you to license your work for a fee -- and opening a legal pathway to claim money back if your copyright is contravened.

If you want to know how you can copyright your image online, the good news is that you don’t have much to do. Your work has copyright protection from the second it is created but if you wish, there are some additional safety measures you can take.

What is copyright?

When you create an original work, you are automatically granted copyright of that work, which means you can decide how it is used and distributed. Copyright is a legal right, defined by FindLaw as "a person's exclusive right to reproduce, publish, or sell his or her original work of authorship (as a photograph, literary, musical, dramatic, artistic, or architectural work)."As copyright owner, you have the exclusive right to undertake or authorize these actions:

  • Reproduce the work in question in copies or phonorecords
  • Create derivative works
  • Sell or distribute copies of the work to the public
  • Perform the copyrighted work publicly (in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works)
  • Display the copyrighted work publicly (in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works)

A form of intellectual property, copyright does not protect ideas per se, but rather the original expression of ideas. Here’s a good example of how this concept plays out in the real world:

“In the American case of Dyer v. Napier [2006 WL 2730747], a wildlife photographer clicked a picture of a mountain lion with her baby in her mouth at the edge of a cliff. Napier, a sculptor, then made a very similar sculpture of a mountain lion with a cub in her mouth. He had seen the photographs earlier, so he did have prior access to it. Therefore, the issue to be decided was whether the sculpture was substantially similar in both idea and expression. The Court held that the image of a mother mountain lion perched on a rock with a cub in her mouth is an idea “first expressed by nature.” As a result, there was no infringement of copyright.”

For this reason, copyrighted works must be fixed in a unique, tangible form, such as a photograph, in order to receive copyright protection.

When and how is copyright established?

As noted above, copyright is established at the moment of a work’s creation, by the person who created it. So, if you’re a photographer, as soon as you click the shutter,  you own the copyright to the captured image. Copyright is a private right that can be transferred between individuals or corporations in the form of an assignment or so-called “work for hire”. A copyrighted work can also be licensed for limited use.

As a copyright holder, you can register work with a government copyright office, such as the United States Copyright Office (USCO) to "officially" copyright your image. It’s not a requirement, but we recommend you register your work at the USCO, as it can offer additional legal protections and you may be eligible for statutory damages valued at $750 - $150,000. It is also impossible to file a lawsuit in the US if the image is not registered.

Licensing copyrighted work

Licensing lets another party use your copyrighted work under a set of predefined terms, while allowing you as the copyright holder to retain ownership.

Licensing is the most common way to make your images available for use -- and earn some money in the process. In a typical license agreement, the licensor (that’s you) grants the licensee (the person or company who wants to use your work) the right to copy your work. The terms of that usage are laid out in what’s called a licensing agreement. In most cases, the use of your work is on a non-exclusive basis, meaning you can license it to more than one licensee at a time.  

What are the benefits of owning copyright?

  • Your work is protected by law.
  • You can choose how and where to license your work, and to whom.
  • You can claim compensation  if your work is used, copied, or distributed without permission.

What constitutes copyright infringement?

Simply put, copyright infringement happens when a person or company uses, copies or distributes copyrighted work without the permission of the copyright holder. Doing so infringes your exclusive rights as the copyright holder to reproduce, distribute, display, make derivatives of and earn fair compensation for your work.

Where did copyright come from?

Copyright is not a new idea. The first copyright act was signed in 1709 in the UK, and the concept of recognizing and protecting the work of creators has been important ever since. The Berne Convention of 1886 was the first international agreement on the global management of copyright. Today, the basic concept remains internationally recognized, though the degree of enforcement might differ between jurisdictions.

How does copyright apply online?

Since its advent, copyright protection has been a challenge for artists and image creators. In the digital age, the challenges have both changed and intensified. Despite its many advantages, the internet makes it easier than ever for people to download and reuse copyrighted works, from social media platforms, blogs and numerous other types of websites. In the wake of this, various guidelines, laws, and organizations have been founded to regulate and control the use of copyrighted images and other media.

Fair Use guidelines, for example, initially came into being with the rise of television broadcasting. The concept of Fair Use makes an exception to the rules of the Berne Convention, by permitting limited use of copyrighted material for purposes of research, teaching, news reporting and even satire -- anything deemed to be in the public interest. In a digital setting, the guidelines are similar, and commonly applied to cases such as product reviews, thumbnail images or previews, search engine results, reportage, and scholarship.

Safe Harbor is another key copyright concept born in the digital age. It posits that internet service providers (ISPs) and server hosts cannot be held responsible for the actions of the people using their services. Safe Harbor is only granted when ISPs and hosts adhere to requirements to remove the offending material promptly once they are notified about the infringement.  The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) provides guidelines around this, and other jurisdictions also have takedown requirements. Find out more in our article on DMCA takedowns. Finally, Creative Commons is a modern method of licensing online images, and allows you as the image creator to choose and clearly communicate how your work may (and may not) be used. We cover the Creative Commons topic in detail here.

If I upload my work to social media, do I still own the copyright?

As a copyright holder, it is very important to read the terms and conditions of a social media platform before uploading your work to it. Posting an image to a social media site such as Facebook or Twitter grants those platforms some license to use it. Fortunately, however, images on social media do retain the same copyright terms as anywhere else, so, for example, if a company re-uses an image from your Facebook page without permission, the chances are it still counts as infringement.

How can I protect my copyright online?

Although there are many initiatives out there working to regulate and prohibit distribution of copyrighted image online, there is, as yet, no surefire way to stop it from happening. And while we can’t prevent it entirely, we can work to limit it by educating content creators and the general public about copyright, and providing legal support to copyright owners: That’s exactly what we do here at Pixsy.



  • Copyright protects your work from being used, copied, or distributed without permission.
  • Copyright is established at the moment of a work’s creation, by the person who created it.
  • Copyright infringement happens when a person or company uses, copies or distributes copyrighted work without the permission of the copyright holder.
  • Registering work at an official copyright office may allow you to claim statutory damages in the event of its unauthorized use. Make registering your work a habit.
  • Copyright has evolved for the digital age and includes new concepts like Safe Harbour and Creative Commons.
  • Fair Use guidelines make an exception to certain copyright rules when serving the public interest.
  • Read the terms and conditions of social media platforms before uploading your work.
  • Use an active image protection method or service to make sure your licenses are being adhered to correctly.

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