To copyright or not has always been a big question.  One has to understand that in the United States of America, a copyright is inherent as soon as an image is tangible.  That simply means each print, slide, video tape or digital image is protected by the copyright laws the very moment it is physically made!  The real question is whether to register the copyright or not. To make that decision, one must understand ownership and the nature of the copyright laws.

The creator is the owner of his or her creation. For legal purposes, a photographer is considered ‘the artist.’ This idea is the very basis of the copyright law, which was updated in 1978. Only original works may be copyrighted. Generally the creator owns all rights to his photos unless they have been signed away (on paper) to another party.

One exclusion is “works for hire.” If a photographer is employed by or hired by a company to do a photographic assignment and his/her work is paid for by the company, this usually constitutes “work for hire.” Under such conditions, the photographer does not own the copyright unless specified in writing and signed by a representative of the company.

When the conditions of employment or assignment are clearly defined, there are no misunderstandings. Everyone knows what to expect from the other party, and no one ends up in court.

Photographs, digital images, and videos (hereinafter referred to as “the works”) perceived to have creative value should be copyrighted. The registered copyright gives the creator control over the original work and all reproduction rights for the lifetime of the creator (in this case the photographer/artist) plus 50 years.

The copyright ensures that the creator will have the right to determine when and how his images will be used. This is a valuable right, and it should be carefully exercised and guarded for its value. It is true that creativity is fostered when authors or artists are permitted a period of exclusive control over their creations.

The copyright law:

A registered copyright (title 17, USC 102 taken from Public Law 96-517) “protects original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. Works of authorship include pictorial, graphic and many others.  In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.” Only the work may be copyrighted. The ideas or the process may not be copyrighted.