January 2, 2023

Daniel Long

The A-Z of copyright basics that every photographer should know

Image by Paul Gaudriault

Are you mystified by the complicated terms of copyright law? Don’t panic. Here’s an A-Z guide of every copyright term photographers need to know about.

Photo by Natalia Yakovleva

From F-stop, to ISO, bokeh, and blue hour, when it comes to jargon and complex terminology, photographers speak the same language. However, if you’re new to the world of copyright law, there is a whole new dialect you need to start learning. Luckily, Pixsy can help.

We have nearly a decade of experience working with photographers and international copyright lawyers to recover license fees for stolen images. As a result, we’ve learned to speak the language of copyright law.

Are you ready to learn the essential copyright terms that every photographer needs to know? Let’s get started!

A is for Authorship

Photo by Mylene Tremoyet

Authorship is the first term on this list. It may be familiar, but how it relates to photography can be complex. In general, photographs are owned by their authors. In terms of copyright, this term can be misleading when applied to photos. For example, one person might direct another to take a picture, set up the scene, or do the lighting. In this case, according to Creation Records Ltd v News Group Newspapers Ltd, the photographer is the author, i.e., the one who presses the shutter release.

The only exception to this rule is the photographer’s apprentice, who sets up the scene to be photographed (the position and angle of the camera and all the necessary settings) and instructs the apprentice when to press the shutter release. In this example, the photographer would be considered the author, not the apprentice.

Photographers are considered the first owners of copyright in photographs since they are the authors. The concept of ownership of copyright is different from that of authorship. Authorship (or creation) remains with one person and cannot be transferred. Ownership can be transferred. If a photographer dies, for example, his estate will inherit the copyright to his photographs when he passes, by operation of law.

B is for The Berne Convention

The Berne Convention, also known as the Berne Convention, is an international copyright agreement adopted by an international conference held in Bern (Berne) in 1886 and has been amended several times since then. Those who have signed the convention form the Berne Copyright Union.

It remains internationally recognized today, though the degree to which it is enforced may differ from one jurisdiction to another. The Berne Convention has been ratified by over 170 countries worldwide, including the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia.

Berne Convention for Protection of Literary and Artistic Works | Notes | LL.B

C is for Copyright

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm

Generally, the copyright symbol ⓒ signifies that the work is protected by copyright. Basically, it identifies the copyright holder of the work. This helps people who want to use the work to locate the copyright owner and obtain permission to do so. It also shows the year the work was published.

The use of a copyright notice does not require the registration of a work or any specific permission. A copyright symbol doesn’t guarantee that the work will be found in your country’s copyright office (though it is a good place to start looking for a copyright owner).

Some people believe that a work isn’t protected by copyright law if it doesn’t bear a copyright symbol. This is not true. It is optional to use the copyright symbol in most cases.

However, the symbol © is universally used to identify a work protected by copyright. Therefore, according to the Berne Copyright Convention (to which 181 countries, including the United States and Canada, belong), the symbol is not required. In the Universal Copyright Convention, however, the copyright symbol remains a requirement.

D is for DMCA

DMCA stands for Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which was introduced in 1998. The DMCA changed the online landscape by giving copyright owners greater control over who could use their work and how in the early days of the internet.

The law limits the liability of internet service providers (ISPs) and online platforms hosting copyrighted content. DMCA prohibits web users from uploading content that does not belong to them. Photos, videos, and music cannot be used or shared online without the permission of the content owner.

A law passed by Congress in 2020 established the Copyright Claims Board (CCB) within the United States Copyright Office. CCB is an alternative forum to federal court for all types of creators and users of copyrighted material. Under section 512 of the DMCA, claims for misrepresentations in notices or counter-notices, as well as claims for copyright infringement and noninfringement, are eligible.

Want to send a DMCA takedown notice? Find out how here.

Understanding the DMCA: An Overview

E is for Exclusive Rights

In image licensing, the term exclusive rights means that a licensee with exclusive rights to images has the right to license those images to third parties. It is then illegal even for the author to use their own work unless another agreement has been reached. In your licensing agreement, you can also ensure that the user stays with the original author and does not extend to third parties.

F is for Fair Use

Photo by Freddy Kearney

According to the fair use doctrine, copyrighted material may be used in the public interest without a license. Different jurisdictions have different laws regarding fair use; in the US, for example, the rules differ significantly from those in Commonwealth countries (where it’s called fair dealing), which in turn have different interpretations and precedents.

However, fair use is generally restricted to a small number of specific use cases, such as news reporting, education, and satire. They aim to strike a balance between the exclusive rights of the copyright owner and limited uses that serve the public interest. Courts decide what constitutes fair use, but the term is often misused and incorrectly cited by copyright infringers and users of unauthorized images as justification for their actions.
Find out more about the different categories of fair use here.

G is for Group Registration

It makes more sense for you to copyright register your work in bulk than one image at a time as a photographer. Early in 2018, the United States Copyright Office significantly overhauled the process for group registration of photographs, making it easier than ever for you to register your creations. You can now upload up to 750 files in one go (a group registration). Groups can be up to 500 MB in size, and files can be compressed. You can pay by credit card or debit card for USD 55 per group.

For registering by group, there are two options: one is for unpublished works, and the other is for published works (both cannot be registered in the same group). However, even though you submit your images in bulk, each image is registered individually, so you can still make a claim on any individual image.

H is for Hotlinking

Photo by JJ Ying

Hotlinking is the act of linking to a file hosted on another site instead of downloading, hosting, and linking the file on your own server. The most common type of hotlink is an image, but other digital assets such as audio files, movies, flash animations, and more can also be hot-linked.

Using hotlinks is considered bad etiquette as it requires the hosting website to use its own bandwidth. Some go so far as to call it theft. The reason is that it consumes the bandwidth of the website you took it from without increasing its traffic. Therefore, you’re essentially making that website pay part of your hosting bill.

I is for Intellectual Property

Intangible creations of the human intellect fall into the intellectual property (IP) category. Intellectual property can take many forms, and some countries recognize it more than others. Copyrights, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets are some of the most well-known types. In the 17th and 18th centuries, England developed the modern concept of intellectual property. In the late 20th century, intellectual property became commonplace in most of the world’s legal systems after the term “intellectual property” became popular in the 19th century.

IP – history of Intellectual Property

A significant purpose of intellectual property law is to promote the creation of various intellectual goods. People and businesses are granted property rights to the information and intellectual goods they create under the law, usually for a limited period. In addition, individuals are able to benefit from the knowledge and intellectual goods they make, and they can protect their ideas and prevent copying. It is expected that economic incentives will stimulate innovation and contribute to the technological progress of countries, depending on the level of protection granted to innovators.

J is for Joint Work

Photo by Rizky Rahmat Hidayat

Two creative professionals often work together on a project, and this is referred to in copyright law as a joint work. It is a common practice among writers. One look at the credits of most movies shows that screenplays often have multiple authors.

In the United States, joint work is defined by as “Work prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions will be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole is considered a work of composition under the Copyright Act.”

Therefore, if you and your co-writers work on a project with the intention that each of your contributions will be merged into a single work, you have all created a joint effort. This is important because if the co-created work falls within this definition, then the copyright law relating to all joint works also applies, unless the parties have an agreement that says otherwise.

According to the Copyright Act, two creators who create a joint work are co-owners of its copyright. However, because each co-owner has the right to exercise their copyright over the work in whatever way they choose, without getting consent from the other co-owners, the situation can get complicated.

It gives the owner the right to license, transfer, or assign the work, as well as to bring infringement claims against the work.

The co-owner of a joint-work copyright can take any of these actions regardless of the preferences of the other co-owners, as long as they account for any profits made. Conflict can result among co-creators as a result of this.

K is for Knowingly

Someone who knowingly induces, causes, or materially contributes to copyright infringement may be held liable as a contributory infringer if he or she knew or should have known about the infringement. In order to determine whether a person or organization is vicariously liable, the court will look at whether the superior party (such as an employer) profited from the infringement of the direct infringer.

L is for License Agreement

Photo by Scott Graham

A photo licensing agreement is a contract between two parties, the licensor (the photographer who owns the copyright and licenses the image rights) and the licensee (the company or individual who wants to use the image).

A license agreement specifies the scope, conditions, and limitations under which the licensee can use the photograph and whether they can sublicense it. If the terms of the photo licensing agreement stipulate it, the licensee will also be required to pay a licensing fee to the licensor.

The key of a photo licensing agreement is that the photographer, by only licensing the image, will still hold copyright ownership of the visual work — with the exception of working for hire, which may automatically transfer the copyright to the hirer.

M is for Model Release

Photo by Ilya Pavlov

A model release is a document signed by the subject of a photograph, giving the photographer permission to use that image. The document is a legal contract between the subject and the owner (that is, you, the photographer), in which the subject grants permission for you to use the images for marketing purposes, websites, blogs, etc.

Using a model release prevents you from being sued for using images you take of another person. In addition to protecting the photographer, it also protects whoever is being photographed, since it stipulates how and where the images can be used.

N is for Non-exclusive rights

In a licensing agreement, non-exclusive rights of use give the licensee the right to use the work only in the manner the license allows. It is imperative to note that photo usage rights are not exclusively allocated. A non-exclusive usage right can be allocated to multiple people simultaneously by the author or rights owner.

O is for Online Public Record

This refers to the database on the US Copyright Office’s website contains registrations and documents recorded after 1978. It is also known as the Public Catalog.

P is for Public Domain

Photo by Prateek Katyal

The public domain, also known as the public sphere or the commons, is a category of creative works that are unprotected by intellectual property law. Because these works cannot be owned, anyone may use, adapt, reproduce, or distribute them for commercial or non-commercial purposes.

There are various reasons why creative work falls into the public domain. In the case of William Shakespeare’s plays, a work may have been created before any intellectual property laws existed. In the case of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a work’s copyright might expire after a certain time. In some cases, works are exempt from copyright protection altogether, having been born into the public domain (e.g., mathematical formulas).

What is Public Domain?

Q is for Quasi Contract

Quasi-contracts, also known as constructive contracts or implied-in-law contracts, are necessary when one party profits at the expense of another. To prevent unjust enrichment, the court creates a contract in these cases.

When one party profits unreasonably or at the expense of another, it is called unjust enrichment. One party should return the goods or pay for the services rendered since no benefit has been exchanged in return for those received. This idea can be enforced by a judge under a quasi-contract. Some modern legal systems still use the concept of a quasi-contract, which dates back to Roman law.

R is for Registered Copyright

Photo by Christian Wiediger

In the U.S. (and many other countries), registered copyright protects ‘original’ tangible works. Creative entrepreneurs usually produce articles, online courses, blog posts, pictures, or ebooks.

Copyright is automatic, and you have rights just by creating content, but registration is not. There is a presumption that this is your work without notice or registration, but you cannot sue for copyright infringement without registration.

There are several advantages to registering with the United States Copyright Office. Generally, you cannot sue for copyright infringement unless you have registered your work with the Copyright Office, since it establishes a public record. The registration process involves applying, a non-refundable filing fee ($35), and a copy of the work to be protected.

S is for Stock Photo Agency

A stock photo agency can be thought of as a giant library of images, photos, and other media, which they collect and curate from artists and sell to designers for use in their designs. The contributors benefit from this business format because they do not have to find their own clients, while buyers benefit from not having to search through hundreds of artist websites looking for that specific image. A stock photo agency brings all of these together under one digital roof. Stock Photo Agencies are the perfect place to discover images, and videos and showcase the work of contributors.

Remember, if you’re a stock photographer, it’s always important to check with your stock agencies for any prior licenses before starting a case with Pixsy.

T is for Transfer of Copyright Ownership

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor

Copyright owners can transfer their exclusive rights (in whole or in part) to another party, but it must be in writing and signed by them. The writing can also be signed by an authorized agent of the copyright owner (such as an attorney or business associate). A written agreement is not necessary if the owner is transferring nonexclusive rights.

U is for Unsplash

Photo by Alexander Shatov

Unsplash is a community of photographers who share their high-resolution photos for free online. Approximately 850,000 photos are available daily on the Unsplash website.

Additionally, Unsplash is home to images from major brands and institutions, such as the photo libraries of Microsoft Windows, the New York Public Library, and the Library of Congress, as well as Squarespace’s curated collections.

V is for VA

It is an abbreviation for the “Visual Arts Division” of the U.S. Copyright Office, and any photographic work that is registered with the USCO will be granted a copyright registration number starting with the letters “VA.”

W is for Watermarks

When it comes to photography, watermarks are a hotly debated topic. Some photographers swear by them to protect their image rights, and others avoid them at all costs and instead prefer to keep their images pristine and watermark-free.

A watermark is a logo, text, or signature superimposed on a photograph. Typically, watermarks are transparent, so viewers can still admire the image. The watermark usually identifies the photographer as well. Image watermarking can also protect the owner’s copyright, preventing others from using the image without permission.

Watermarking doesn’t prevent others from using your image online. Watermarks can be removed quite easily. Using image editing software, you can crop them out if they are in a corner. Nobody will have a problem finding a way to use your work – regardless of whether you watermark it or not.

X is for Pixsy vs. Netflix

Photo by Venti Views

When photographer Sean Heavey saw one of his images used in the Netflix show “Stranger Things” and Netflix’s original film “How It Ends”, he knew he had to fight for his rights.

Sean contacted Netflix for an explanation. In response to Sean’s accusation of copyright infringement, Netflix’s attorney Jarin Jackson said the Stranger Things concept art is “not virtually identical” to the original concept art. Jackson went on to say, “The only similarity between the artwork and Mr. Heavey’s photograph is the use of similar cloud formations in The Mothership (the ‘Photo’). Despite this, copyright law does not protect objects as they appear in nature.” Unhappy with this response, Sean went public after Netflix dismissed his claim.

Pixsy read his remarks on social media. Mr. Heavey was eager for help and agreed to work with them. Pixsy appointed Mr. Heavey a lawyer, David Deal, and together they found six more occasions where Netflix used The Mothership. Netflix settled the lawsuit in December 2018.

Do you want to learn more about image licensing and copyright? We’ve got you covered. Start with our ultimate guide to image licensing, and copyright litigation.

If you want to recover lost revenues from somebody using your images without permission or a license why not take Pixsy for a test run today?

Y is for Year

Despite the fact that it is not required by federal law, the U.S. Copyright Office reminds artists that stating the copyright year is important for establishing rights to the work. When a copyright includes a date, the reader can determine the restrictions on the work since protections last only for a limited time. In copyright registrations the year of registration can have many definitions such as:

1. Single Year

The first year of publication is shown in a work listing a single year. The date is usually accompanied by the name of the copyright owner. A copyright owner is legally protected from potential infringement by this statement.

2. Several Years

A work with more than one date indicates the date the copyright holder updated the work. Typically, the work lists the first date and then the revised date. The year of the original copyright and the date of transfer are also listed on transferred copyrighted materials.

3. Year Range

Copyrighted works sometimes list the date as a period, such as 2000 to 2013. During the period stated on the work, all updates or revisions are protected by copyright.

Z is for Zero fee

If you find somebody using your images online, whether you’ve conducted your own search or you’ve used our advanced reverse image search technology Pixsy is fully prepared to enforce your case. We offer everything from everything from post-licensing to settlement negotiation, and even litigation.

Pixsy operates on a no-win zero fee basis. This means that we only charge a fee when we successfully resolve your case and collect payment for the use of your work

Daniel Long

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