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Copyright and Creative Commons Explained

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Read Time: 10 mins

Today, we are going to explore the complicated world of copyright and Creative Commons. In this tutorial, you'll learn how to protect yourself as a photographer, get some tips to stop people using your photos without permission, and get a taste of what Creative Commons is all about.

Copyright Law

Before we proceed, let me say that Phototuts+ and its parent company cannot be held responsible for use or misuse of any of the information in this tutorial. When it comes to serious legal matters, please seek professional counsel. International copyright law is extremely complex.

That being said, let's start at the very basics. International copyright law has been in place since 1886.

Copyright is "the exclusive legal right, given to an originator or an assignee to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material, and to authorize others to do the same."

In the case of photography, any photo you take is instantly copyrighted as your original work. However, proving yourself as the original owner of a photograph after it has been stolen or spread around the internet can be quite difficult. If you believe that your photo is going to be a commercial success it is best to register the copyright on the photo as soon as possible.

Owning copyright (whether registered or not) allows you to reproduce the work, display the work publicly, prepare derivative works based on it and distribute copies via sale, rental or lending.


In America, copyright is registered with the US Copyright Office in Washington DC. It costs $45 per application, not per photograph. You can send in as many photos as you like as long as you can do it on one application form. The pictures have to be high enough quality to compare them to a stolen copy I would suggest no smaller than 500 pixels wide.

For more information visit the US Copyright Office.

United Kingdom

In the UK, you have the United Kingdom Copyright Service (UKCS). UK copyright can be completed online, and costs £39 for 5 years or £64 for 10 years. You can upload as many pictures as you like however you pay 3p per MB once you go over 10MB.

For more information visit the UK copyright service.


In Australia, you have the Australian Copyright Council. In Australia, you don't have to register your work at all, its automatically copyrighted from the second it has been created. Because you are not registering copyright things can become tricky if you're shooting for a client or as a second shooter. You need to agree who will maintain copyright on the images you shoot.

The Australian Copyright Council's website should be able to answer all your questions.

If you live anywhere else I would recommend researching into your local countries law and find out how much it costs to copyright your photos.


If you copyright a photo in your country,  it protects your photo in your country and any other country that your home country holds copyright relations with.

That's a bit of a mouthful so here is an example. If you register your photo in the US and another US citizen steals your photo then stopping them is not too difficult. However, if someone steals your photo and they live in North Korea, stopping them is going to be near impossible due to the poor government links. But if they live in Sweden or France, you'll have a good case.

Fair Use

Fair use is an exception to the rule of copyright. It allows someone to use your work without having to contact you. Examples of fair use include commentary, research, teaching and news reports.

An easy example of fair use to understand is a book review. A review might choose to quote extracts in their article. Because the article will only use small amounts of the original work, it is seen as fair use.

The "purpose and character of the use" is deemed the most important factors about fair use. Courts decidewhether copyrighted work has been used to create a new work. Work which has not been published by the original author is often seen as an exception. The courts also generally believe that it should be the copyright owners right to control the first public appearance of the work.

Fair use is a very detailed topic and I would suggest seriously looking into it.

You can find a fun and amusing video called "A Fair(y) Use Tale" that explains everything using small clips from Disney films (under fair use of course!).

Credits to lawgeek for the image 

Shepard Fairey

Frank Shepard Fairey is an American contemporary artist, graphic designer, and illustrator. You may not have heard of him before, but no doubt you have seen one of his most famous works to date: the Obama Hope poster.

The poster has been seen as the most iconic political posters since WW2. However, only after Obama won the top job did the truth come out about the poster. Fairey had wrongly attributed a photographer for the original photograph he based the piece on. It was found out that instead he used a copyrighted photo taken by an Australian Photographer named Mannie Garica.

Fairey contacted Anthony Falzone (The executive director of the Fair Use Project) and pleaded that he used the image under fair use. However Mannie Garcia, though proud his photo was used for one of the most famous artworks in America, still felt it was important that he "condoned people taking things, just because they can, off the Internet."

The two artists settled things out of court in January 2011. This story is a perfect example of how tricky fair use law can be.

Protect your work

There are several ways you can protect your work. Even if you don't register for copyright, it is still worth taking some simple step to make it harder to have your work copied or taken without your permission.

The most obvious and often overlooked is to simply to place the copyright logo (©) and your name at the bottom of the picture.

The copyright logo shortcut is simply: Option + G on an Apple Mac or Alt + 0169 on Microsoft Windows.

Adding your name and copyright on every photo might seem like a pain but remember if you have Photoshop on your computer you can create an action and then use the batch command to apply the effect to a whole folder of pictures. It's one of my favourite commands in Photoshop (one that I use almost daily), if you want to find out more I would suggest reading David Appleyard's Quick Tip: Automated Watermarking With Photoshop.

It is also a good idea to put the statement "All rights reserved" on the image as well. In most countries, it is naturally assumed all the rights are reserved, but it never hurts to put drive home the point.

Editing the EXIF Data

Another way to help prove a photo is yours is to edit the EXIF data. This data includes many facts including the time taken and all the settings you shot at.

You can make sure that your details are in the correct sections. Some software also allows you to batch process the exif data so you can apply it to all your photos at the same time.

The Exif is often hidden away and is a great way to prove you own the original copyright.

Microsoft Windows suggested software: PowerEXIF Editor, Exifer or Microsoft Photo pro.

Apple Mac suggested software: Reveal (pictured) or ExifTool

EXIF: In-Camera

Most SLRs and many compact cameras allow you to edit the EXIF data in-camera before you shoot. You can input your name and often an email address, then every photo you shoot from then on will include this data. It's a handy tool which is well worth setting up. It only takes a few minutes.

On my Canon 7D I found the menu in the yellow tools section under "Copyright Information". I presume it will be in a similar location on most cameras.

Credits to Daniel Dionne for the image

Removing the right click

Some sites allow you to remove the right click function from your photos, hence removing the option of "copying" the image.

This isn't a great way to protect your photo. Mac users can oftem press CMD + click to bypass this in other cases, taking a screen shot works as well.

If you have removed the right click your personal blog, it has a tendency to annoy users. They may want to email the image to a friend or chat it to someone online, but if even these actions bother you, by all means disable the right click. Just know that there are easy ways around it.

Credits to raneko for the image - Link

Reduce the picture size

It's a good idea to reduce your image size for web viewing? That way people cannot make high quality prints of your images, and as a bonus, they're quicker to upload.

Unless you plan to allow people to use your image for computer wallpapers, I would suggest a resolution of around 1400 pixels wide at max.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons allows you distribute your work a the manor you specify. Most photo sites such as Flickr and Deviant Art allow you to choose a Creative Commons license or tag when you upload your images.

Every photo we use on Phototuts+ has to either have a Creative Commons license or the permission of the original photographer, making our weekly round-ups more challenging than you might think!

The  Creative Commons license's is just an idea, its not backed by any laws and has only been created to help artists/developers share their work. As long as you respect other people licenses and they respect yours the system works perfectly and is well worth using yourself.

There are currently six types of licenses you can choose from:

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND)

This is the most locked down Creative Commons license. This allows people to share your photography on a non-commercial level. They are not allowed to edit the original photo in any way. Credit must be given to the photographer. This could be in the form of a link back to the original photo or the photographer's name if used for print.

Example of use: Here on Phototuts+ we could use your photo for an article and then link back to your work.

Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike (CC BY-NC-SA)

This allows users to share the photo as well as adapt and edit the original photo for non-commercial use. But the new artist needs to release their edited photos under the same rights (share alike). Once again credit has to been given to the original photographer.

Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY-ND)

This allows redistribution of your photo for both commercial and non-commercial use. The photo must be the original and cannot be edited in anyway without permission from the photographer. Like all Creative Commons, the photographer must be credited at all times.

Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC)

Allows users to edit and adapt the photo for non-commercial use. Users do not have to release the edited photo under the same license however still have to acknowledge the original photographer.

Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA)

Very similar to the Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike license, however the user is allowed to the work for commercial use. Even though they can use it for commercial use they still have to then license their new work under the same terms.

Attribution (CC BY)

Allows anyone to either share, adapt, edit and built upon your work for commercial or non-commercial purposes. However credit must still be given. If you wish to release free images for people, this is the license for you. Click on some of the photos in the article, and take part in the Creative Commons process yourself.

Thanks For Reading!

I hope this tutorial sheds some light on the mysterious world of copyright and Creative Commons. If you have any experiences with copyright or advice or new photographers regarding it, please post your comments below.

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