U.S. copyright law protects all original expression, including images such as photographs, paintings, drawings and computer graphics. Copyright protection begins the moment you capture an image in tangible form – whether on paper, canvas or in a computer file. However, completing the steps to formally register your copyright gives you greater ability to legally protect your creation.
Advantages to Registration
Copyright gives you the exclusive right to make copies of your image and sell them to others, or to display your image publicly. You also have the exclusive right to use your image as the basis for another work of art, such as a mural or collage. Anyone else who wants to do these things has to get your permission first and potentially pay you for a license to exercise any of these rights. If someone copies your image without your permission, they've infringed on your rights. However, you can't file a lawsuit for infringement under copyright laws in federal court until you've officially registered your copyright. Official registration establishes a public record of your creation and ownership.
Application for Registration
You can file an application to register your copyright claim either online or by mailing a paper application. The Copyright Office will issue a certificate of registration once it receives your completed application along with the filing fees and copies of the image. Filing online allows you to take advantage of a lower filing fee and faster processing time, and it gives you the ability to track your application's status. In some cases, the Copyright Office allows you to file a single application for several images. For example, if you have several photographs that were published in the same year, you may be able to file a single application to register your copyright for all of them as a group. Before filing for copyright, consider filing through a copyright lawyer to make sure that you understand all the intricacies of the process.
Publication of Your Image
Copyright law protects both published and unpublished images. Generally, publication occurs when copies of your image are distributed to the public in some form – for example, a copy of your image appears in a magazine or on a website. Simply placing your image on public display, such as in a gallery, doesn't necessarily constitute publication. Similarly, if you sell a one-of-a-kind image, such as a painting, that sale doesn't mean your painting has been published for purposes of copyright law. Publication affects the number of copies of your image you must submit to the Copyright Office, and also triggers the legal requirement to send copies of your image to the Library of Congress.
To clarify, when someone buys an image like a painting or a photograph, what they're buying is the physical image, not the copyright to it. They only get the copyright if the creator specifically assigns it to them, or if the image was created specifically for the recipient under a work-for-hire agreement. It's the same as when someone buys a book or a DVD. They acquire a physical copy of the item, not the right to reproduce it.
Making the Mandatory Deposit
You must include copies of your image for deposit with the Copyright Office when you file your application for registration. The Library of Congress also requires copies of your image within three months of its publication in the United States. The registration deposit and the Library of Congress deposit are two separate things. However, you can use the same deposit to satisfy both requirements if you're filing for registration of your copyright in an image that has already been published. Generally, regulations require deposit of one copy of your unpublished image or two copies of your published image. The Library of Congress exempts some images, such as those published on greeting cards or picture postcards, from its mandatory deposit requirements. Additionally, many images have special deposit requirements due to storage space limitations.