How To Register Photographs with the U.S. Copyright Office
I'm excited about the potential interest in an image I created recently, a photograph called Man. I intend to promote it heavily, uploading it to a variety of social media websites, including Facebook, Google+, Instagram, and of course on my own website. But before doing that I wondered whether I should protect the image by registering it for copyright. I've seen a lot of conflicting information lately about the scope of U.S. copyright laws, so, I decided to go to the source, the U.S. Copyright Office.
The FAQ on their website says that a work is copyright protected as soon as it is "created and fixed in a tangible form that is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device." If that's the case, then why do you need to register your work with the copyright office? Isn't it enough to add the copyright symbol (©), your name, and the creation date to the work itself? Well, the answer is yes and no.
Yes, technically the work is copyright protected when it's created. But no, you will not be able to bring the full force of the copyright law to bear unless the work is registered with the copyright office. If it is copied illegally and you want to file a federal lawsuit based on the infringement, it will be much easier to sue the copyright infringer, prove the infringement, and collect damages if the work is registered. The copyright office puts it this way: "Many choose to register their works because they wish to have the facts of their copyright on the public record and have a certificate of registration. Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney's fees in successful litigation. Finally, if registration occurs within five years of publication, it is considered prima facie evidence in a court of law."
With this in mind, I decided to register my image, Man. I started by doing a web search for the U.S. Copyright Office. A number of sites with similar names came up, all promising to register my work for a fee. You should avoid these sites. Make sure you use the real U.S. Copyright Office website, www.copyright.gov. All U.S. federal government websites use the .gov domain suffix.
In my experience, government websites are often hard to use, but the registration process on this website was much easier than I expected. Start by putting your cursor over the picture of a person at a computer that is on the site's home page. This brings up “Register a Copyright." Click that to go to the eCO registration page. eCO stands for Electronic Copyright Office. On that page, you can register online or download paper forms for registering. The bad news about registering online ("e-Filing") is that it can take up to 8 months for them to process your application. However, that doesn't look so bad compared to using paper forms, which can take up to 13 months. Still, while it takes a long time for the copyright office to issue a certificate of registration, "the effective date of registration is the date the Copyright Office receives your complete submission in acceptable form."
So, I decided to register online. I clicked "Log in to eCO," and then I clicked "If your are a new user, click here to register" at the bottom of the User Login box. Setting up an account was as simple as setting up an Amazon or Netflix account. You just enter some basic user information and then click “Register a new claim.”
At this point, you have the option of registering one work or a group of works. The advantage of registering a group is that it costs less per work. However, registering a group is time-consuming, because you need to enter identifying information for each work and then upload a copy of each. I only registered a single work, Man.
Completing the registration form consisted of filling in a dozen data fields including the name of the work, its creation and publication dates, the author, and so forth. Once I got through most of the data fields, I was presented with a “Special Handling” page. For a “significant" fee, I could have jumped ahead of other filers to get my work registered more quickly. I would have needed a compelling reason such as a pending contract deadline, or pending or prospective litigation. I chose not to use special handling. After reviewing the information that I entered, I added my copyright application to my shopping cart and checked out, using my credit card. (On the website, this is referred to as paying “via plastic card.”) Registering my image cost $35. (You can register a group of photographs for $55.)
To complete my submission, I still had to upload a copy of my photograph. This was easy and intuitive. The website provides guidance about acceptable file types and maximum file sizes. After I finished uploading a JPEG file, I received a confirmation email. The whole process of registering my image took about an hour. In 8 months or so, I should receive a registration certificate. Now that I have an account with the copyright office, and I understand the registration process, I will no doubt register more of my work.
For the most part, when I upload an image to a social media website, I assume it will be liked, favorited, given thumbs up, and perhaps even misappropriated. That's a simple fact of life online. I don't intend to register every photograph I post online. But I do recommend registering photographs that are important to you, especially work you intend to publish widely online.
© 2016 Gene Dominique