How to copyright your photos (Protect your images online)

Learn how to copyright your photos, how to enforce a copyright claim and how to copyright pictures for free in this ultimate guide to online image protection.

Ever asked yourself, do I need to copyright my photos?

If you’re a professional photographer, the answer is a definite YES!

When you possess the copyright of a picture, you can stop others from using it without your permission.

Copyright law protects creators – when you take a photograph, you have certain rights to it, even if you don’t add a copyright or trademark symbol.

However, knowing how to enforce your rights is another matter entirely.

This guide will teach you how to register a copyright, enforce a copyright claim and everything else you need to know about protecting the ownership of your images.

(We’ll also discuss how the use of a watermark can deter image theft and some other free ways to copyright your photos.)

Don’t worry – even though copyright protection is a complex topic, we’ll keep this guide simple!

Let’s dive in.

What is Copyright?


Copyright refers to the intellectual property an author has of their work in a tangible form. By tangible, it means that the idea is not subject to copyright – the photo you make with that idea is.

Other considerations are originality and creativity – that’s to say that if you copied it, you don’t have the copyright of it.

Copyright covers a wide range of expressions – in this article, I’ll be focusing on photography.

What is Poor Man’s Copyright?

While the intellectual property of a photograph belongs to the photographer who created it, registering the work to prove (and ultimately enforce) copyright costs money.

Since not everybody can afford to register their work, creators have found other ways to prove ownership of their intellectual rights.

The poor man’s copyright is based on the idea that you had the image in hand before anyone else. So, before you publish it, you need to go to a notary or mail it or use any other reliable method that shows the date.

This way, if someone else wants to use it or register it as their own work, you can prove that you had it first – hence, he can’t be the original author.

Keep in mind that this isn’t a substitute for copyright registration – it would only be an extra help if you end up in court that wouldn’t guarantee that you win the fight.

The value of this proof might change from one country to the other – you should consult with a lawyer in your area to have more accurate information.

How to Register Your Copyright


Here’s how to copyright photos in the USA.

  • Go to the U.S Copyright Office website
  • Open the menu Registration, then choose Register Your Work: Registration Portal.
  • Register for an eCO account or log in if you already have one
  • Fill in the application – a standard application is valid for most types of work, even if it was made for hire or collaborative work. If you’re registering a group of photographs, then use the form to register a group of unpublished photographs or published photographs – whichever is the case.
  • Make sure the work you’re registering is eligible for the type of form that you’re using. Then follow the instructions on the screen.
  • Click Add to Cart to confirm the request and pay the registration fee. A confirmation email will be sent after you pay – this is only a receipt; it’s not the final registration.
  • Submit a copy of your photograph on the next screen – confirm the type of files accepted in the system.
  • Once the file is uploaded, click the Complete Your Submission button to confirm and submit. You’ll receive an email confirming your registration.


Copyright laws in Canada didn’t cover photographs until 2012. Even now, it’s a complicated matter, and some photographers and associations such as CAPIC suggest you still use agreements and contracts on top of the copyright registration for further protection.

Of course, you should check with a local lawyer for more precise information.

Here’s how to copyright photos in Canada.

Prepare the application form. You can get the form online on the Canadian Intellectual Property Office website or at the Client Service Center or a regional Innovation, Science and Economic Development Office.

You can then submit the application and pay the fee both online, via mail or in person. It’s strongly recommended that you do it electronically though – it even has a lower fee.

To do so, follow the instructions on the screen. You don’t need to submit a copy of the work – just provide all the information in the form.


Here’s how to copyright photos in Australia.

In Australia, like in many other countries, you have the intellectual property of your work as soon as you create it. However, unlike other countries like the US, there isn’t an agency where you can register your copyright.

This may be a problem if someone illegally uses one of your photographs, and you need to prove ownership to win the case.

So, the best way to protect yourself is via written agreements and contracts. You’re highly encouraged to consult with a lawyer to draft your own or review the contract offered by your client before you sign it.

You can also hire an agency to help you manage fee and licensing issues.


Here’s how to copyright photos in the U.K.

In the UK, you get copyright protection the moment you create the photograph. However, there isn’t a way to register your copyright.

As such, you’re highly encouraged to seek legal advice to draft your own contracts or consult about agreements proposed to you by a client or employer.

There is a government office that can give some guidance on the matter – the Intellectual Property Office. They offer a copyright notice service that should help with misunderstandings.

The disclaimer says that “It’s intended to provide an authoritative, impartial and reliable point of reference”. It’s also authorized to offer an ‘orphan work license’ if you need to use a photograph from an unknown author.

You can submit any enquiries for free, as well as submit an online form to request a copyright notice.

How to Enforce a Copyright Claim

When you discover someone is using your photos without permission, you need to decide what you want to do.

If the wrongful party is not making money with your photos and might just be ignorant on the matter, some photographers prefer to contact the person and ask to remove the photo without legal action.

If, instead, you want to make an infringement lawsuit, you need to decide if you want to file for statutory damages or recovery of actual damages.

Keep in mind that statutory damages can only be claimed if you had a copyright registration before the infringement or make the registering within the first three months.

To proceed with legal actions, you can contact an attorney or use an agency specialized in representing copyright owners that can act on your behalf.

Pixsy is one of the best options to monitor where and how your images are being used.  They also provide services to help you license your work and find a legal resolution in case of any unauthorized use.

To make things easier, you can use Pixsy to register in bulk and to multiple copyright offices (US and Canada for now; China and India coming soon). This unified form will save you time, money and bureaucracy.

How can I Protect my Pictures from Being Copied Online?

There are different ways to protect your work from being stolen from your social media, website, or anywhere on the internet.

Copyright infringement includes being used elsewhere without permission, create derivative works from it or worse, being sold and distribute copies for an economic gain of a third party.

Some of these techniques are free and others are paid. Some will protect you more than others, so you can combine many of them to be safer.

  • Register the copyright.
  • Don’t share high-resolution images.
  • Read the terms and conditions of every website where you upload your pictures.
  • Add copyright to the metadata of your images.
  • Watermark your images all over – this makes it harder for apps that remove watermarks
  • Add a disclaimer or the copyright symbol.
  • Whenever possible, disable right-click options.
  • Hire legal protection.
  • Get special software or hire a service to check for the use of your images online regularly.
  • Get a DMCA protection certificate for your website.
  • Try the poor man’s copyright.

How Can I Copyright My Photos for Free?

According to the U.S copyright law, there are various ways to help protect your intellectual property by showing copyright ownership.

Remember: none of these methods actually replace official copyright registration to pursue legal action following image use without your permission.

Use a Watermark

A watermark is a superimposed logo, signature, or text meant to protect the ownership of a photo from theft and illegal reproduction.

On the plus side, it’s free, and it makes perfectly clear to everyone that the image is yours – it also works for branding.

On the downside, it’s easy to remove with some photo-retouching skills, and it can distract from the main subject or ruin the aesthetics.

You can create and add a watermark using Luminar and most other photo editing programs.

I’ll show you how to do it in Lightroom because I believe it’s the easiest way to do it – especially if you need to batch watermark many photos. Here’s how to do it:

  • Import all your images to the Lightroom Catalog and edit them if necessary.
  • Select the image you want to watermark. If you want to do it to a batch of images, you can select all of them by clicking on one of them and press Ctrl + A.
  • Click the Export button on the Library panel or press Ctrl + Shift + E to open the Export dialog box.
  • Adjust the export settings such as destination folder, size, resolution, etc. – make sure you share only low-resolution files as extra protection.
  • Find the Watermark section and tick the Watermark option.
  • From the drop-down menu next to it, choose Edit Watermarks.
  • In the new dialog box, choose the watermark style. If you choose Text, you’ll see that the text box under the photo preview will be enabled – you can type there your name, your website, or any information you want. If you choose Graphic, you’ll enable the Image Options section to upload your logo or any graphic.
  • Adjust the size, position and opacity under the Watermark Effects section. If you’re batch watermarking, keep in mind that all the watermarks will apply in the same position in all the images.
  • Click on Save. This will open the dialog box where you can name your preset – this way, it will be available any time you need it.

Keep in mind that adding a watermark doesn’t provide any legal protection against copyright infringement.

Add a Creative Commons License

A creative commons license is used when you’re willing to grant free permissions to distribute, copy and alter your images – you’ll always retain the copyright of your work, though. There are different types of CC licenses that allow you to choose what people can do with your photos and under which conditions.

There are six types of licenses to choose from. The most permissive is CC BY, which allows others to distribute, remix, adapt and build upon your images even for commercial use, so long as they give attribution to you as the original author.

On the other end, the most restrictive one is CC BY-NC-ND which allows the copy and distribution of your images unadapted, for non-commercial use and, of course, giving attribution.

The other four license types in between have different gradations of these permisses – make sure you choose the one that works best for you. Keep in mind that these licenses can’t be revoked.

To add a Creative Commons license is free and easy. Check out the type of licenses available here and choose one.

Then make sure people know your images have a Creative Commons license. You can simply write in the caption how this photo is licensed or embed an HTML code associated with the license you chose (available on the CC website).

Add a Copyright Notice

In most countries, photographers own the copyright of their images from the moment of creation without the need for registration.

Therefore, it’s perfectly legit that you add a notice stating that you are the copyright owner. You can do this anywhere on your website or under each photo.

You can write a short disclaimer that typically includes the year of publication (or stating that it is unpublished work), your name and the copyright symbol ©.

The keyboard shortcut to add the © might change from program to program. For example, in Photoshop, you can use Alt-G on Mac or Alt 0169 on PC. You can substitute it with the word Copyright or its abbreviation Copr.

Adding this notice will let people know that distribute copies of your work or doing derivative works is copyright infringement. However, it’s not enough to file an infringement lawsuit – at least not under U.S copyright laws.

For that, you need to register your copyright on the U.S copyright office, as explained earlier in this article.

Add Copyright information to your EXIF data

Adding your information to the EXIF data of your image is another way of letting people know you’re the copyright owner – still, it doesn’t offer legal copyright protection.

  • On the camera:

The steps might be different on each camera, but they all have a menu where you can set up your copyright. First, enable the Copyright Information.

Then, add your name and any other information you want – for example, your email address or your website.

  • In Lightroom:

You can add your copyright information to your photos using Lightroom – the best thing is you can do it to a badge of photos.

  • Import your photos to the Catalogue
  • On the Library module, go to the Metadata panel.
  • On the Preset area, select Edit Presets.
  • Enter your information. You can use this to state all rights reserved copyright status or the terms of the creative commons license if you chose to use one of those.
  • Save as a preset to use on future imports.

Image Copyright Protection FAQs

How much does it cost to copyright a photo?

A copyright registration has different fees in each country. In the US, it depends on the format, $45 USD for electronic filling up to $125 USD for paper filling – the cost is per photo with a Standard Application. In Canada, you’ll pay $50 CAD for electronic submission via and $65 CAD  through any other means.

Can someone steal my photos from Instagram?

Yes, image theft from Instagram is, unfortunately, very common. You can notify Instagram directly through their form or fight for copyright infringement via legal channels. Instagram will remove the images but won’t help you get paid or recognized and won’t delete the account that stole them.

If you go through the legal way, you still might not have a satisfactory result – look at the Richard Prince case where he exhibited and sold portraits found on Instagram without permission and was found as fair use.

What to do when someone is using your pictures? 

You could try contacting the party at fault and try to settle the problem out of court. Otherwise, you can seek legal advice, especially if you have registered copyright.

How long does copyright last?

This might change in different countries, so you should check official sources. However, in the US, the copyright lasts for as long as the author is alive plus 70 years.

How do you know if an image is copyrighted?

The copyright can be expressed with the symbol ©, or have a disclaimer somewhere on the website, or have a watermark. It’s safe to assume that most images online are copyrighted – the ones under creative commons usually say so clearly. To be safe, always contact the owner or editor of the website to ask for permission to use it or find out the licensing situation.

Final Words

Copyright laws are complicated, and they change from one country to another.

This article is by no means a substitution for legal advice, but hopefully, it cleared out some of your doubts regarding how to go about it and where to search for help and guidance.

Most copyright infringement cases are solved out of court. The ones that get to court are solved on a case-by-case basis where it’s difficult to know whether they will be found as fair use.

So, if you have any experiences and want to share them in the comments section, we can all learn from them. If you have any other doubts or suggestions on how things work in your country, feel free to post them too.

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Shotkit Writer & Camera Gear Reviewer

Ana Mireles is a Mexican researcher that specializes in photography and communications for the arts and culture sector.

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