7 Practical Copyright Tips for Professional Photographers

Camera Sample ImageI’ve been getting a lot of requests lately from professional and semi-professional photographers about what they can do to protect their works on the Web. My answers, unfortunately, are usually a lot of bad news.

The reason is that the copyright realities of the Web for an individual photographer (or any visual artist for that matter) are pretty grim. Images get passed around a lot, attribution is routinely lost and there isn’t terribly much hat an artist can do.

However, as I talked about in my recent copyright webinar, there are things that photographers can and should do to protect their work online. Unfortunately, most of those steps need to be taken before an image is placed online but they are all steps that, with a bit of planning and work, can make the situation online much less grim.

So here are a few tips for photographers to help keep themselves sane when navigating the world of copyright online.

1. Never Release a Pic Without a Watermark

No picture should leave your computer without a visible watermark on it. Ever. You have to operate under the assumption that your images will be lifted at some point and do your best to make sure that the attribution for them is carried wherever they go. Unfortunately, few people check metadata, which is easily stripped regardless, and a visible watermark is simply the best protection.

The key, however, is to find a balance between noticeability and interference. This is a tough balance to strike, but can be done with enough work.

2. Don’t Forget the Metadata

As true as it is that metadata, whether EXIF or IPTC, might be stripped out, it might not. Don’t forget to ensure that every photo you put online has this data attached to it. This should, at the very least, include copyright and author information, enough to verify that the image is yours if needed and make it easy for someone interested in the photo to trace it back to you.

3. License and License Well

No matter what the terms of use of your images are under, it’s important to make their license clear and put it on every page of your site. With Google, visitors don’t come in through the front door and they won’t click to read your dedicated license page. Make the terms plain and clear and in a place where someone who just stumbled across the image will see it. The odds of the license being followed go up dramatically when it’s clear and visible.

Also, be sure to avoid both industry and legal jargon as they only serve to confuse further.

4. Search for Your Images Regularly

You most likely know what your most popular images are and it makes sense to see where they are being used. For quick searches you can use an image search engine such as Tineye. If you want a more complete solution but are on a budget you can use ImageRights (previous coverage) or SignMyImage (previous coverage).

For a more advanced system, considering either Digimarc (previous coverage) or Picscout (previous coverage).

The main thing though is to use these tools first and foremost to understand how your images are being used and then make decisions about if and how to respond.

5. Focus on Bad Actors

As you start exploring how others are using your content, you’ll likely find that not everyone is acting in bad faith or even causing any harm.

If you take a firm hand with those who are just trying to let others know about your work, are making uses of your content that don’t affect your bottom line or generally not hurting you at all, you’ll likely do much more harm than good.

In short, use common sense when approaching those who are using your content and respond appropriately. Understand that a lot of people aren’t aware of how copyright works on the Web and, as a copyright holder, you have a chance to be an ambassador.

6. Register Your Works

This one should go without saying, but regularly and consistently register your works with the U.S. Copyright Office, especially if you are in the United States or are dealing with infringement in the U.S. Failure to register, especially for a professional, can be a very costly mistake.

7. Keep Putting Out High-Quality Content

Finally, the best protection against piracy is to be ahead of it. If you’re putting out high-quality work on a regular basis, the infringers and others who might want to claim to be you will always be several works behind. Keep honing your craft and putting out newer, better works, you’ll likely find that the impact infringers have is much less.

Bottom Line

In the end, every photographer is in a different copyright situation online. The nature of the work, their business model and their online presence creates a very unique situation that only applies to them.

This is a big part of why every photographer (or artist of any variety) needs to take a look at their situation, the realities of the Web and understand what combination of business model, tracking, licensing and enforcement is needed to get the most from their work.

In short, what works for one photographer won’t work for another, a big part of why it’s difficult to come up with seven tips that work across the board.

Still, these are all steps that every photographer can and should take to stay on top of the very difficult climate online right now. They can each easily save you a lot of headache down the road.

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