Art Business

How I Developed a Copyright Plan to Protect My Art and Why You Should Too

I hope with this post I can help you get clear on why you should get a copyright plan in place for your art, and show you how to save time devising one.

Like many things, getting a good strategy in place for copyright protection takes a while to figure out. One can read about it, as I did, until the cows come home. But after a long time digesting the info, I finally did come up with a plan, and I am sure you can too. Read on to follow my three best practice recommendations to protect your art and photographs on social media and beyond.

My own personal work dates back to 1980, and most of that work of course resides on film. My photographic archive is something precious to me. The vast majority of my film work is not yet digitized. If I include more recent digital work, my archive is way over 200k images. Have I kept this work for a reason? For sure, I always planned to “do something with it” one day.

That day has now arrived, but the issue of copyright protection is one I started researching a good many years ago. Back in 2012, when I began learning how to use social media, I became extremely wary of posting my work online. For the projects I was doing at that time, I even started licensing stock images, rather than using my own. The truth is that I never found a single blog post on the subject of what you should, and should not do, in regards to protecting your work from being ripped off especially if you are active on social media.

Don´t get me wrong, there is a lot of information, and scare stories out there, but the problem is that is not easy to make sense of it. On this link, which includes a great analysis by US intellectual property attorney Kathryn Goldman and a video from the U.S. TV program Shark Tank you´ll see, as she says, how one visual artist could have used the infringement of her copyright to create revenue . . . but didn’t.

The common viewpoint of most artists, especially photographers I have spoken to, is not to bother. I strongly disagree, and that is why you will not find a huge amount of my work online. Not bothering at all is a sign you are not serious about your work. However, not bothering to put any kind of strategy in place could be because you are confused about what to do, as I was. I discovered, over time, that it is a balancing act! In order to get known, of course you have to freely put some of your work out there. It’s not logical that you will want to protect every pixel under every circumstance, but you do need a clear plan.

A plan, any plan, is better than no plan at all

That is why – after a painstaking period of learning about copyright practices and getting to grips with the necessary workflow to effectively manage and organize my images, finally I was able to come up with a plan. Here is the three point plan I developed, and I hope it can help you:

Number 1: Register it!

Before posting your work online, or offering it for sale (which is technically “publishing” it, in copyright jargon) be sure to spend the $55 necessary to register a collection of your works with the US Copyright office. If you are in any doubt why the US Copyright Office is the one to register with, as opposed to your national copyright office, listen to this podcast (26 mins in) which interviews Kathryn Goldman about registration, for example, in the UK v. registration in the US specifically. She says “US registration wins, hands down” because one flat fee covers you for the life of the copyright.  She also stresses it is not just about litigation, it is about building your portfolio, having a tangible asset, and implementing a professional work practice. Kathryn also says, “if you don’t file an application for registration before the infringement occurs, you lose your right to recover statutory damages of up to $150,000 for willful infringement and attorney’s fees.” That´s a pretty compelling reason.

So get your act together. That means, figure out a manageable workflow to separate your photos into a well organized collection, and register the works as a ” group ” (up to 750 images) and upload a simple .zip file to the US copyright file. More info at and be prepared to sit down, quietly, and read all the directions. Obviously, you will always be producing more work, so once you get over the initial hurdle, plan to do this process on a regular schedule that works for you.

Number 2: Let them fly!

Be prepared to let some of your work freely go out into the world via social media. This is merely a thinking exercise. What work do you want to protect vs what work do you not mind is widely shared and used? There is a lot of disagreement amongst photographers about this. Some tell me that Instagram is going to make them famous. I guess it depends on the kind of fame you are looking for!  If you are a commercial photographer doing “Work for Hire” you’ve signed away your rights created under this type of contract anyway so there is no point bothering about copyright registration for them. Other photographers would not wish, for example, to actively protect client work. It is just important to separate clearly in your mind what is important to protect versus what you are willing to let fly away! In my case, I have a lot of early film work that is quite unique. I’m protective of that. But by contrast I don’t care so much what I put out on my Instagram account! I don’t protect that work at all. But the early b/w film work, for sure! And more recent work that is being used for my art licensing designs, also. Absolutely. Those are already protected. So, just figure out what is valuable that is worth protecting and stick to it.

Number 2: Build relationships!

Congratulations! Now you have a plan. Start to build relationships with those who you want to use your work one step at a time. If you are contacting photo editors, potential licensors, picture libraries, etc, these are professionals and they will expect, even require, that you can guarantee that the work is yours, and that it is appropriately protected before they will work with you. Always read the fine print and pay attention to what your contracts say. You never know which of your works is going to stand out and make your career! Of course, in some work environments, such as here in Spain where I am based, things are a bit more fast and loose. There is not often the “mindset” for being bothered about copyright. But when your work is protected you can breathe more easily, and if your work does truly take off, you stand a much better chance of prevailing in case of any infringement dispute.