Lessons on Copyright

Bonnie Pelnar shares important information about copyright, and what it means to you. This is the first part in a series.
By Bonnie Pelnar

Lessons on Copyright

The first installment in a series on Copyright

By Bonnie Pelnar



There are few things more infuriating than discovering that someone used your photography without asking you, giving you credit, or paying you money. Even though a digital image is not something you can hold in your hand, the offense feels no less significant than if someone stole your bike right from under your nose. You feel violated.

Whether you're a professional, enthusiastic amateur or even a novice with a happy snappy, copyright is something you should understand before you ever pick up a camera. Copyright is ownership. With this ownership comes the power of distribution and presentation. This is the "right to copy."

We all know how powerful images can be. The right image can be worth tens-of-thousands of dollars, or it could be worth nothing if you don't protect what you own.


What is copyright?

Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, is a right protected in the U.S. Constitution and granted for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.

Copyright of a photograph is obtained the moment you click the shutter. Even if you've used someone else's camera, the photos you took belong to you.




Before the internet we would make prints and enlargements of the our best shots and entertain our friends with slide shows at our photo club, but the original slide or negative remained securely in our possession. Things were pretty cut and dry and unless you submitted them to a stock agency or sold them as a print, the chances of someone stealing and reprinting your image was pretty slim.

Scanners, digital cameras and the internet has changed everything! Not only are images much easier to share, they are also much simpler to steal.


GIve us your images

Being the show-offs most of us photographers are, we immediately want to share our images with friends, whether it be on Facebook, via email or on our personal websites. Technology makes this even simpler to do with cell phones and cameras that upload and post instantly to the social media networks, totally by-passing our computers. This does not diminish your copyright, but it does make it a lot harder to protect. You're images are now "out there" and you risk losing control over who uses them and how. They are also technically "published", and this does affect how you proceed in the copyright registration of those images.

We've also seen a rise in online photo contests that encourage you to submit your images with promises of big prizes, sometimes with consequences that you may not totally understand until it is too late.

Too often new photographers consider it a compliment when someone likes their image enough to post it on their Facebook page, forum post or website. I often hear comments like "I don't do it for the money anyway" but they may not realize the impact this has on the bigger picture.

In my series of upcoming articles I'm going to discuss copyright from the viewpoint of the photographer, the infringer, the buyer, and the seller. I am not a lawyer, so if you need legal advice do consult an attorney. I'm simply sharing what has worked for me when trying to protect what I create with this ever changing technology.

I hope these articles will raise your awareness of why copyright knowledge is so important to you and give you a better understanding of how you can protect your assets.



Coming soon - part II of the Copyight series

Future articles will include:

• The difference between copyright, trademark and patent
• Why you should register your images with the copyright office
• How to register your images with the copyright office
• Giving away copyright, losing copyright, public domain
• What's an image worth?
• Tips on protecting your images
• What to do when someone steals your images


Bonnie Pelnar is an underwater photographer, producer, presenter, designer, teacher, and marketer for the dive and travel industry for over 16 years. She conducts photography workshops at tropical destinations around the world. You can read more about her work, her workshops, and her photo tours at http://www.underwatercolours.com.


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