How to copyright a photograph or image

Copyright protection gives the owner of a photo or image several exclusive legal rights over its use and distribution. Here's how to make sure you're protecting your rights.

by Michelle Kaminsky, J.D.
updated May 11, 2023 ·  2min read

The internet makes it easy for anyone to use an image without a creator's permission. If you share any content online—even only on your personal social media accounts—it's a good thing to know how to copyright an image.

Copyright is a group of rights over an artistic work that gives the copyright owner the exclusive right to display it; make, sell, or distribute copies; or create adaptations (in copyright law called “derivative works") based upon it.

Creators own the copyright to an image the moment they create it—and this applies to digital images just as it does printed ones. In other words, the image doesn't have to be printed or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office to obtain copyright protection.

woman in white swaeter holding a camera and looking at her laptop

Photo copyright protection checklist

Before beginning the process of registering a copyright for an image, you must make sure it qualifies for protection. Here's what makes a photograph copyrightable:

  • It must be your original work. The work must originate with you and show a minimal amount of creativity. It does not, however, have to have artistic merit per se, and the kinds of images that can be copyrighted include digital, print, black and white, color, and graphic designs.
  • The image must be fixed for at least some period of time in a tangible object. This means that the image cannot merely be an idea or concept but rather must be on film or captured digitally.
  • You must own the copyright. If you took the photo as part of a work-for-hire agreement (such as a freelance photographer), your employer likely owns the copyright unless your contract states otherwise.

If the image meets all of these conditions, you can move forward with registering your photo's copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Note that trademarking is an entirely different process and protects words, phrases, or symbols that identify the source of goods. It is also accomplished through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

How to copyright a photo

While you don't need to register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office to receive protection, registration does have important advantages, including creating a record of your ownership and allowing you to file a federal lawsuit for copyright infringement. Here are the basic steps for filing a copyright:

1. Complete the application form. You can either do this online or with a hard copy that you must mail to the U.S. Copyright Office.

2. Include a copy of the work to be copyrighted. The Copyright Office provides information on whether you must provide a physical or digital copy.

3. Pay the filing fee and submit your application. Processing time varies, but the date on which the registered U.S. copyright becomes effective is the date on which the office receives the application and fee.

Once you register your copyright, you may choose to transfer any or all of your rights to someone else by agreement. You may also choose to license the photograph for specific usage, which may be limited in terms by types of usage, time frame, etc.

While you can copyright a photograph for free on your own, using the help of legally trained professionals will ensure that you have attached all of the copyright rights you intend to retain regarding your work.

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Michelle Kaminsky, J.D.

About the Author

Michelle Kaminsky, J.D.

Freelance writer and editor Michelle Kaminsky, Esq. has been working with LegalZoom since 2004. She earned a Juris Docto… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.