If you find the prospect of registering your photographs with the United States Copyright Office somewhat daunting, you are most certainly not alone. Copyright registration, although critically important to protecting yourself should you ever have an infringement, is not a mainstay of many photographer’s workflow. My hope is that after reading this article you will understand both the value of registering your work and find the confidence to complete the process yourself. I will try to address the mechanics of the basic registration process, as well as making recommendations for best practices to ensure that your work is protected.
For the most comprehensive coverage against any potential infringement, it is strongly recommended that every published image (that is, anything leaving your computer) is registered within three months of publication. Since there is a three-month grace period from the date of creation, if you register all new works on a quarterly basis you will have the full extent of the copyright law protecting you without interruption. If your images are not registered prior to an infringement a photographer may only recover “actual damages” instead of “statutory damages.” With that said, it is possible to register your images after an infringement has taken place, though it will be more complicated in terms of litigation if the infringement occurred prior to your registration for the reasons mentioned above. If possible, you’ll want to keep track of all of your photographs that were shared publicly each quarter and register every three months.
On the recommendation of the copyright.gov, you will want to use the Firefox browser for a reliable and easy navigation through the application portal, even if this is not your usual browser. For the purposes of this article, I will be discussing the workflow for the electronic copyright portal, and digital submission process for the Electronic Copyright Office — abbreviated as eCO. For those of you that would like to submit work physically through mail, this is still an option and you may find detailed instructions available at copyright.gov.
First, let me say that a cold entry to the copyright.gov website may not be the best course of action — that is, proceeding without knowing all of what you’re getting into. To begin, try to become familiar with the process itself in order to get organized with all the information that you’ll need to complete the registration process. Once you’ve got a basic sense of how the process works and have created an account with copyright.gov, it’s time to determine just what type of registration you’ll be creating.
Photographs (not other media) can be registered by group with up to 750 images per group registration, but it’s important to understand that Published and Unpublished groups of photographs are handled separately. These are the different types of registration.
Unpublished photographs can be grouped together in one registration that may include images shot over multiple years. With all this in mind, step one is to sort your work into appropriate groups of Published (grouped by year) and Unpublished images (with no more than 750 images in each group).
You may be asking yourself “what constitutes publication?” Taking into account all the various ways in which photographers share their work, this question can be rather complex. Most experts, however, would agree that publication is the act of distributing a photo for sale or making it available for sale. To keep it simple, a good rule of thumb is to consider any photos delivered to a client and/or posted publicly as published.
After you have your files organized, there is another important step to complete before you begin the actual registration. Every application requires you to include a PDF or Excel file with your case number (see image below for where to find it) and a list of the files that you are registering. This document is referred to as your title document, and an Excel template version can be download from the ”Forms” section of the copyright.gov website. This Excel template will be needed to complete the application, and it’s extremely important to the process. Keep in mind that there are two separate versions of this document available — one for Published and one for Unpublished group registrations.
A good rule of thumb for image specs is to use JPEG files sized at 72 DPI with 700 pixels for the long side as this will be sufficient resolution and should give you a small enough file size to work with large volumes of images within each group registration.
Now that we’ve gotten organized with our images and title document, let’s get into the specifics of the registration process. There are basically three parts to the registration process: (1) filling out the application, (2) processing payment through the portal to the U.S. Treasury, and (3) uploading your images and title document after payment to complete the process.
In the example below I registered photographer for the Dubai-based photographer Shea Winter.
To get started, login to the eco.copyright.gov portal and go to “Other Registration Options” on the far left of the screen. There, you’ll select “Register a Group of Photographs.”
Start the registration and select either Published or Unpublished (see above). Review the eligibility terms and click continue.
Before you move on to the next screen you will want to copy the case number generated for your registration (you will need this for your title document).
Next, select “New” and give the group of images included in the application a title. Input the year of completion and the number of images included in this registration. You’ll then be ready to move on to Author.
To complete the Author portion of the registration, you’ll need to determine whether to register under your individual name or your business, with your work then identified as a “works for hire.” If you are a sole proprietor, you will enter your name under the Individual section on the left for the Author. For those of you that are incorporated, and are employees of your own corporation, we recommend registering the authorship under your corporation’s name.
To register under your corporation’s name, you will be filling out the Organization option on the right side of the Author section, and you will indicate that the photographs were “works for hire.” In this scenario, you will not be including your personal name, as the Author section requires you to register either under your own name as an individual (as would be the case for sole proprietors), or to register under your business name (as would be the case for incorporated photographers who are employees of their company).
If you have a more unusual relationship to your corporation in which you are not considered an employee or your employment status is ambiguous, it might be best to reach out to an attorney for consultation. Although no precise standard exists under copyright law for determining employment, receiving a regular paycheck and having a W-2 filed with the company are strong indicators of employment. Remember, if you are registering under your corporation and are an employee of your corporation, then you will want to indicate that the images are “works for hire.”
From there, you’ll want to move on to Claimant. The claimant is in most cases is the same information that has been indicated in the Author portion of the registration (unless there has been a transfer of Copyright to another party). For sole proprietors, you will include your own name just as you did in the Author section. For photographers who are incorporated and employed by their corporation, you will include your corporation’s name and contact information here.
The next section is for “Rights and Permissions”. This is the public record portion on the application, so be aware that any information given here will be public. If another person is performing the registration for you, they will add their information into the “Correspondent” page, as I have done for Shea.
After completing “Rights and Permissions” and “Correspondent,” you’ll want to move on to the information for mailing your certificate — and special handling if necessary. Special handling is quite expensive and would generally only be necessary if there is pending litigation.
Next up is “Certification”. At this point you will need the document name of the Excel title template document that you created. This document must be named with the title of the group and the case number. You are not yet attaching this document or uploading the images listed, but it is necessary to input the exact document name of your Excel title document and to make sure it has both the group name and case number included.
At this point, you’ll be ready to add your registration to the cart and to checkout. Once your application is in the cart, you can’t go back to change any of the information. The current price of a group registration of images is $55. This price will be the same whether you register one image or seven hundred and fifty images on an individual application. To pay, you will be transferred to the Treasury Department while your application is held in the cart.
Once you have successfully completed payment, you will then be able to click on “Continue” in order to upload the images (500 megabytes or less) as well as your title document in order to complete the process. For ease of upload, create a zipped folder for the upload, and don’t forget to include the title document that has been named to include the title of the group and the case number, as this is a critical piece of your application.
Once this has been completed, so has your submission. If you have indicated that you would like an email verification, you will receive an email acknowledgement of your uploaded deposit. After that, you can then return to the main login portal to check the status of your registration. For applications that do not require additional correspondence, it will take approximately 1 – 5 months to process your application and mail you the physical certificate (with 2.2 months pre-COVID being the average).
Need help registering your copyright? Contact Honore and let’s get the ball rolling!