First, a little background. As photographer and writer, I am pretty well versed in copyright law. The United States Copyright Law is rather long and complex as it covers copyrights for music, photos, literary works, motion pictures and television, and other works of art. If you want to read the whole thing you can do so at www.copyright.gov .
What Is Copyright?
In simple terms, U.S. Copyright Law provides that any original work (photos, writing, paintings, sculptures, etc.) created since 1978 are automatically copyrighted to the creator of that work and protected against unauthorized use. It does not have to be registered with the copyright office. When you take a photograph with your camera, that photograph is instantly and automatically your property and copyrighted to you the moment you snap the picture. The pictures does not have to have a copyright notice on it although you can include one if you wish.
You do not have to register your work with the copyright office but you may do so if you wish and registration does provide some additional protection. Basically, if your work is not registered with the copyright office and someone infringes your copyright, you can only sue for actual damages (money they made or you lost due to the infringement). If your work is registered, you can also sue for punitive damages up to $150,000. Registration is relatively easy and inexpensive.
By owning the copyright, you have the right to grant or deny permission to others to use your copyrighted work. Nobody has the right to reproduce or use your work without your expressed consent. Unauthorized use is copyright infringement and it is a punishable crime. There are some exceptions under the "fair use" clause that allows some limited use for educational or news purposes.
Under the law, copyrights are treated just like any other personal property. You can grant permission to use the copyrighted material, either in a limited or unlimited basic. You can give away, sell, or lease your copyright. Your copyrights can be inherited by your heirs or willed to another party.
How Long Does Copyright Last?
For works created after January 1, 1978, the copyright duration is the life of the author plus 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors. To determine the length of copyright protection for a particular work, consult chapter 3 of the Copyright Act (title 17 of the United States Code). More information on the term of copyright can be found in Circular 15a, Duration of Copyright, and Circular 1, Copyright Basics.
Generally speaking, the copyright on most work created before 1922 and any work created before 1891 would now be expired and the work would be considered public domain but it is a good idea to check and make sure since the copyright laws changed several times between 1909 and 1976.
Who Owns a Copyright?
So you found a picture on the internet and you want to use it on your website or publish it another way. But, who owns it? That can sometimes be a tough question to answer. For modern works, it is generally accepted good form to give credit to the copyright owner such as "Photo by ....." or "Courtesy of .........". Anyone who publishes a work containing work by someone else legally should have obtained permission to use that work and should know who to contact. This includes works published on the Internet in websites although people frequently illegally copy and use copyrighted works without permission. Most published works contain a copyright notice naming the copyright owner but even that can be problematic as people often illegally claim copyrights to works they do not own (see Copyfraud). For older works created before 1922, it is most likely that the copyright would have expired and thus the work would be considered "public domain" and free to use without permission.
From the U.S. Copyright Office: http://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-definitions.html
"A work of authorship is in the “public domain” if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner."
Copyrights and the Internet
There is a lot of confusion and misinformation regarding Copyrights, particularly regarding photographs published on the Internet. This information page is an attempt to clear up some of the misunderstandings.
It's on the Internet so it is in the public domain and fair game for people to copy it and/or republish it on another website.
WRONG! Original works, be they writing, music, paintings or photographs are afforded the same protection on the Internet as they are in printed form or other media. You cannot legally copy, reproduce or publish any copyrighted work without the expressed consent of the Copyright owner. Get it in writing! It is easy to copy and paste photos on the Internet but IT IS ILLEGAL unless you have permission from the Copyright owner.
But it didn't have a copyright notice so it wasn't copyrighted.
again. Notice was required under the 1976 Copyright Act. This requirement
was eliminated when the United States adhered to the Berne Convention,
effective March 1, 1989. A Copyright notice is NOT REQUIRED but may be used
if the author wishes.
What if it wasn't registered with the Copyright office?
Registration is not required. Any original work created since
1978 is AUTOMATICALLY protected under the Copyright laws.
Unpublished works created prior to 1978 are also protected even without
registration. Registration offers no additional protection but it does offer
some advantages and increases the damages that the Copyright owner can sue
for if his or her copyright has been infringed.
How long does the copyright last?
original works created since 1978, the copyright lasts the life of the
author plus 70 years.
Can Copyrights be transferred or sold?
Copyright owner can grant exclusive or limited publication and/or use rights
to anyone they wish. In addition, a Copyright may be sold, transferred and
even inherited. Transfers MUST be in writing. Copyright is a personal
property right, and it is subject to the various state laws and regulations
that govern the ownership, inheritance, or transfer of personal property as
well as terms of contracts or conduct of business. For information about
relevant state laws, consult an attorney.
I can use a photograph without permission under the "Fair Use" act.
unless you are a news or educational organization. There are very specific
guidelines governing use under the Fair Use provision that are too
complicated to go into here. See
www.copyright.gov for information.
I hired a photographer to make a picture for me so I own the Copyright.
Not necessarily. In fact, many professional photographers retain the Copyrights on all of their photographs so that you cannot legally copy them yourself and you have to buy copies from the photographer. This should be clearly spelled out in your contract with the photographer. In some cases, such as an employee taking pictures for an employer as a regular part of their job, the employer may be the actual Copyright owner.
So what are they going to do to me if I use their pictures on my website?
Willful infringement of a Copyright can result in having to pay actual damages plus statutory damages of up to $150,000. Also note that not only is the person who illegally posts Copyrighted material on a website liable, but in some cases the website owner may also be liable if they are aware that Copyrighted material is illegally on their website and do not remove it.
For more information about Copyright law, see the official government Copyright website at www.copyright.gov