DPP Home Business Pro Tips: Getting Copyright Right

Monday, April 28, 2008

Pro Tips: Getting Copyright Right

Protect your images online and off with digital solutions

When it's created, it's copyrighted. This rule of thumb has protected artists and photographers (not to mention software designers, musicians and authors) since the current era of copyright law was established in 1978. Although the phrase is technically true, it's only part of the story.

The instant copyright means that the photographer owns the rights to his or her images, and anyone who wishes to use (publish, print, sell, etc.) those images must license that privilege from the photographer. The catch is that without an official copyright registration, it's impossible to sue for damages from infringement. So the first step to protecting your photographs—be they business assets or simply personal photographs—is to register the copyright with the Library of Congress. Though the process was more elaborate in the off-line era, an impending online registration process will reduce the cost ($35 for a cohesive body of published work) and headache of registering copyright.

Just because you've legally copyrighted your work, and even though you make sure to display that copyright with every reproduction, that doesn't stop people from infringing on your rights. In the Internet era, photographs are easily distributed and reproduced, making it prohibitively difficult to keep track of who has his or her hands on your photos. So it's important to take further action to help notify others of your copyright.

Embed your image metadata with pertinent copyright and contact information. In Photoshop, this process is relatively painless and can be automated for every image file. Before you begin, open the Actions palette and create a new action. Press Record, and each step you take will be catalogued for automatic playback in the future. You can even assign a function key for one-click embedding of your copyright information into photos.

Under the File menu, select File Info. Enter your name, address and phone number in the description field. Then enter your copyright notice (Option-G creates the © symbol) and even your website URL—add anything that will help to identify and locate you. All of this information not only serves to notify potential thieves that the photograph is copyrighted, but also offers well-intentioned viewers an avenue to contact you for print sales or licensing, or even to hire you for more work.

For further protection, invest in watermarking software that embeds information in the metadata and in the actual pixels of your photographs, and follows them worldwide. Programs like Digimarc's ImageBridge and MyPictureMarc embed information in digital image files and then track those image files around the Internet, providing a detailed report of where and how the images are being used and proving ownership of those images beyond a shadow of a doubt. The technology is used by stock agencies, whose businesses depend on both easy availability of images online as well as the integrity of those images' copyrights.

No matter what you do to protect your photographs, they may still be illegally reproduced. So what should you do when you discover an infringement? If the use is online, first find out who is using the photograph. A Whois search can provide the name of the site owner as well as the company the site is registered through and the servers hosting the image. Also be sure to catalog the infringement with tear sheets or copies for printed uses, screenshots and saved pages for online offenses.

Don't hesitate to turn to professional photography organizations like the ASMP, APA and PPA for support on copyright issues. Many professional photographers have had to deal with illegal use, and they can be a valuable resource for guidance if you find yourself faced with no choice but a lawsuit.

Ultimately it's up to photographers to diligently protect their copyrights so their work is not devalued. And don't forget about good karma and, even better, ethics: Do unto others. If you don't want others to steal your work, don't steal theirs. Buy your music legitimately, buy your books legitimately and buy your software legitimately. If you don't respect the copyrights of others, why should anyone else respect yours?

Less Effective Attempts At Image Protection
1. Making web portfolio images unclickable. Use of flash or other programming on websites can stop the process of “right-click, save to disk” that makes it so simple to steal. But it's a shoddy protection—screen captures can record whatever's on the screen, even if it's a copyrighted image.

2. Watermarking photos with obstructive copyright, name or company information. A watermark makes it quite clear to any viewer that the photograph is protected, but it also means you're not showing your work unmodified as it was originally intended. It's like presenting a printed portfolio with sticky notes on each print. Sure it's effective, but it also makes it hard to see, and appreciate, your photos.


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