Copyright In Europe: Protecting Your Photographs

In an age of digital photography and the internet, it has never been easier to copy, steal and take somebody else photographs.

With a click of a mouse, a user can take any image from any website and make an exact copy, using the photograph for whatever purpose they like.
However, this doesn’t make it right nor does it make it legal, and to prevent pictures from being stolen, it is important for photographers to understand how copyright works and how it protects their rights Copyright theft is rife.

Many photographers have found themselves aghast to see their work reproduced on blogs and websites without their knowledge, often resulting in a loss of much-needed income.
This makes some professional photographers think it necessary to get some kind of professional indemnity insurance to protect against these losses. However, you don’t have to put up with copyright theft. 
Any photograph you take belongs to you, and you have every right to expect payment or some form of accreditation for its use.

Copyright of Pictures
A lot of photographers believe that to attain copyright for photographs you have to go through some form of registration process or application, but this isn’t true. The moment you take a picture, you become the copyright owner. In Europe, all countries have their own copyright law, such as the UK’s 1988 Copyright Act, but the Copyright Law of the European Union also protects a photographer’s copyright.

These laws ensure that every photograph you take, whether it’s at somebody’s wedding or is a commissioned work for a newspaper or magazine, is automatically copyrighted to you.
There are a few occasions when the photographer doesn’t own rights to copyright. If you are an employee of a company and your job is to take photographs, such as if you work for a press agency or newspaper, the copyright reverts to the employer, but freelancers, even those paid a commission, retain the rights to any picture unless it is signed away in a formal contract.
Registration, such as through the UK Copyright Service, is unnecessary, although it can help prove ownership when the rights of a photograph are disputed. Generally though, proving you took the picture is relatively simple as the first usage of any publication, such as on your own website, would be proof enough. In Europe, you retain copyright for your entire life, and your estate keeps copyright for a further 70 years after you die, by which time, copyright is lifted and the photographs become freely available.

Your Rights
Copyright remains with the photographer even when you sell a photograph for publication. By purchasing a picture from you, a magazine, website or newspaper is acquiring a license to use the image. Licensing comes in various forms. Usually it is to use your work once, such as in one issue of a newspaper or magazine and in one particular territory (such as Britain).

This is called “First Serial Rights” or “First Electronic Rights” if it’s for a web-based publication. These rights mean you can’t sell the picture to anybody else, or indeed publish it yourself, until it has appeared in the publication or website to which it has been sold. Sometimes an organization may wish to acquire “All Rights”. 

This essentially means you are selling the copyright and the image would belong to them. If somebody asks for this, make sure you are prepared to lose all rights to the picture and are being properly compensated for it.
While it is common practice for photographers to receive accreditation on a picture, often declaring your copyright, not all publications do this, especially newspapers, but is always worthwhile asking, as having your name followed by a copyright symbol helps to deter others from reproducing the image.

Defending your Rights
You can take measures to prevent unauthorized usage of your images, such as including a digital watermark on any portfolio pictures, which in effect marks the image, or by including a minor alteration to the picture to help provide proof of ownership, but in the digital age, image theft is virtually unavoidable. However, if you find that an image has been reproduced without your permission, there are steps you can take.
Firstly, simply contact the publication, website or blog that has reproduced the image and explain that it is your picture. It may well be that they were unaware the picture was copyrighted; they may even agree to pay you for its usage. If that doesn’t work, send a “Cease and Desist” letter. This is just a formal letter telling them they are in breach of copyright law and that if they refuse to remove the offending image in a certain time frame (usually 28 days), or pay you for the work, you will take them to court. Often, this letter is enough to scare most people into removing the image.

Finally, if all else fails, you can begin legal proceedings for copyright infringement and apply for damages and/or royalties to a court. To do this, you will of course need a solicitor, but specialist copyright lawyers are easy to find. While the costs of legal assistance will be awarded to you if your case is successful, you need to bear in mind that if you are prosecuting an individual, such as a blogger, they may not have any money, and you could be left with a large legal bill.

While understanding copyright won’t stop it from happening, at least by knowing your rights you can now take steps to prevent people from taking advantage of all your hard work.

Credit: Imogen Reed

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