Registering your photos with the U.S. Copyright Office is one of the most important things you can do as a photographer. Doing so allows you to assert your rights over your photographs and defend them in federal court, should you need to do so. It is common knowledge that your photograph is copyrighted the moment you click the shutter, however you don’t have the ability to protect and defend those copyrights in court until your photographs are properly registered.
The copyright office provides several ways to register your photographs. The quickest, easiest, and most cost effective is to use eCO. There are several good resources available on how to register your photos using eCO. Registering your photos with eCO costs $35, however it has limits to what can be registered. It works fine for unpublished photos, or published photos “contained in the same unit of publication and owned by the same claimant”. I’ve asked several lawyers about the “same unit of publication”, and the consensus seems to be that a “unit of publication” is a book or magazine. The definition is rather ambiguous when it comes to defining “unit of publication” for online use.
Due to the ambiguity of the “unit of publication” definition, I choose to play it safe when registering my photos. In other words, I register my photos as a “group registration of published photographs” using the old paper forms. It’s a little more expensive ($65), but I know it works. This is going to be changing soon, though. Earlier this year the Copyright Office launched a beta program to test group registrations of published photos using eCO. Presumably, this means that we’ll all be able to start doing group registrations of published photos using eCO within the next few months.
So, without further adieu, here is how to register your photos using paper forms:
Step 1. Prepare your photos to be sent to the U.S. Copyright Office. The photos don’t have to be very big. I export mine at 500px on the long edge. Give them meaningful file names that will also serve as the titles. For this batch I titled mine “CM-2010-Published-Photo-X” (where X is the number of the photo). Create a text file that will be an index for the photos. In the text file put the title and the date published. I use the date I uploaded the photo to flickr as the date published. Burn the photos and the index file to a CD.
Index File (click to embiggen):
Step 2. Download Form VA from the U.S. Copyright Office. This form is for registering visual arts works. This is an editable PDF, so you can type directly into it and print it when you are finished. You won’t be able to save it unless you print to a PDF.
Step 3. Edit your downloaded Form VA. I’ll guide you through it, section by section.
Section 1 (click to embiggen):
Title of This Work: This is what you want to title your submission. I name mine based on the date range of photos I am registering. In this example I’m registering all of my 2010 photos that I uploaded to Flickr/SmugMug, so I went with “CM 2010 Published Photos”.
Nature of This Work: We’re registering photographs, so we’ll put “Photographs” in here.
Previous or Alternate Titles: This is basically a description, however it must be worded in a specific way, eg: “Group Registration/Published Photos: Approx. X photos”. Change X to the number of photos you’re registering.
Leave the rest blank, unless you know what you’re doing.
Section 2 (click to embiggen):
Section 2 has two parts for two different authors, if applicable. If you only have one author (yourself), you only need to fill out part “a”.
Name of Author: Put your name here.
Dates of Birth and Death: Put in your “year born” and leave “year died” empty if you’re still alive.
Was this contribution to the work a “work made for hire”?: Answer accordingly. Pay attention to the note in the left column if the answer is “yes”.
Author’s Nationality or Domicile: For photographers that are U.S. citizens living in the U.S. put “U.S.” on both lines.
Was This Author’s Contribution to the Work Anonymous or Pseudonymous?: Answer accordingly. This may have implications to how you fill out the rest of the form, so read the instructions carefully if you choose one of these options.
Nature of Authorship: We’re registering photographs here, so check “Photograph”.
Section 3 (click to embiggen):
Year in Which Creation of This Work Was Completed: This is the year in which your work was published. In this example I was registering my 2010 photos, so I put “2010” here.
Date and Nation of First Publication of This Particular Work: If you’re registering your work as published (as I do), fill out this section. For month, put in the published date range using the first and last month/day in your index. For me, this was 3/30 and 9/25. You do not need to fill out the day or year boxes if you’re inputting a range of dates.
Section 4 (click to embiggen):
Copyright Claimant(s): Put in your name here.
Leave the rest of section 4 empty, unless you know what you’re doing.
Section 5 (click to embiggen):
Previous Registration: Check “no” if this is the first time these photos are being registered. If you need to check “yes”, consult the instructions on how to fill out the rest of section 5.
Leave section 6 blank, unless you know what you’re doing.
Section 7 (click to embiggen):
Correspondence: Input your name, address, telephone number, fax number and email address for the Copyright Office to get in touch with you if there’s a problem with your submission.
Section 8 (click to embiggen):
Certification: Check the appropriate box. Since I’m the author, I chose “author”.
Typed or printed name and date: Type your full name, and put in the date you filled out the form.
Handwritten signature: Don’t forget to sign this line before mailing in your form.
Section 9 (click to embiggen):
Certificate will be mailed…: Put in the name and address you’d like your registration certificate to be mailed to.
Step 4. Print and sign your Form VA, throw it in a box with the CD containing your photos and a check or money order for $65. Send the box to the Library of Congress at the address listed on Form VA. I send mine via USPS Priority Mail, which is trackable. This is so I know exactly when they’ve received my submission. The Copyright Office suggests you use USPS over UPS or FedEx as processing UPS or FedEx deliveries may take additional time.
That’s it! Congratulations, you’ve successfully prepared your photos for registration with the U.S. Copyright Office!
Your photos are considered “registered” on the date that they get delivered to the Copyright Office, even though you may not receive the registration certificate in the mail until 6+ months later.