Anyone who has ever spent the time and energy necessary to create a flawless image knows that they don’t want anyone else to take credit for it. Copyrights are all about protecting the original artist, ensuring nobody will be able to share or distribute it without the permission of the original artist.

When, and why do photo copyrights expire? Copyrights to a photo will expire 70 years after a person has passed. This is due to the fact that the free exchange of the public in terms of ideas, expression, and beauty must continue. Copyrighted images can also not be passed down to the next generation, and thus need an expiration date.

Knowing the ins and outs of photo copyright is imperative to ensuring that your work is safe. While copyrighting is generally simple to understand, there are still some aspects that can be overlooked when it comes to copyright laws and regulations. Join me for an overview of the important things you should know about photo copyrights.

What Is Photo Copyright?

If you do not know what a copyright is, then it will be hard to understand its importance of it. To break it down as simply as possible, a copyright is a form of property law that focuses on protecting works of art, which includes photographs.

Copyright, being an intellectual form or property law, is fairly similar to patent law. This type of law ensures that machines and their processes can’t be distributed under another name or company. The trademark law is also similar in which it protects brand names, logos, and slogans from being stolen.

A photograph becomes the property of the artist the moment the camera is clicked. As pressing the shutter button adds light and a fixed medium to the camera, creating the photograph, it becomes the sole property of the artist at that moment.

Once you have taken your photograph, there is immediate copyright given to the owner. At this point, no one is allowed to distribute your photograph without your permission, and they may not reproduce it for themselves. There are certain circumstances though, such as fair use and a system known as works made for hire.

If Copyrights Are Automatic, Do You Still Need to Register?

It’s true that you own the copyright immediately after you take your photograph. This means that registering for the copyright of your photos isn’t necessary. However, by registering the copyright of your photographs, you’re adding an extra layer of protection against people stealing your photographs. There is a slew of other benefits to registering, including:

  • You can file an infringement lawsuit If someone has stolen your photograph. But this is only true if you are registered. If you’re not registered, you lose this opportunity. The only time there is an exception is if you have filed and your application was rejected for whatever reason.
  • You are able to recover any fees or damages of an infringement lawsuit. This includes attorney’s fees and any possible statutory damages – again, only if you are registered.
  • After registering you will create a public record of your registration of copyright to your photos. This lessens the possibilities of anyone trying to steal your image as they will see you have completed registration.

As you can see, registering for copyright is normally a good idea if you’re serious about avoiding infringement. This is particularly important for someone who is planning on creating a professional photography job, in which beautiful photos that have taken time and energy will likely be distributed and used under someone else’s name.

Note: Here’s a quick, 6-page circular (circular 42) on the Copyright Registering of Photographs for more specific information on the process.

When Do Copyrights Expire?

You might wonder why a photo that is copyrighted will eventually expire. Well, while homes, land, and other forms of property can be passed on from generation without hassle, this isn’t true of copyrighted images.

In the eyes of the law, photograph copyright isn’t a tangible form or property, but rather an idea and expression. So, it’s not something that can be passed.

So, when will copyright actually expire? Copyright to a photograph will expire automatically after 70 years have passed from the artist’s death. This means that someone who has a copyright to their images and passes away in 2000, will have their copyright expire in the year 2070.

Why Do Copyrights Expire?

The purpose behind copyright is to allow the artist to have sole ownership of their photography, so nobody can duplicate it or redistribute it. However, photographs are ideas, expressions, and beauty that want to be shared with the world.

What the copyright does for the artist is allow for him or her to share their ideas and expressions with the world in a safe way. This free exchange within the public is why copyrights were created in the beginning, but they are also why the copyright expires over a period of time.

The History Behind Photo Copyrights

The first copyright law ever was put together back in 1790. This Copyright Act of 1790, as it is called, was actually a representation of the Statute of Anne. Its purpose was to provide an artist with copyright to his own photographs and images that could not be stolen by others and redistributed.

The initial law, the Copyright Act of 1790, gave the author 14 years of copyright for their images. Later, in 1909, the law was changed to allow for a 28-year term, rather than 14. At this point, the author was also able to renew their term, if needed, for another 28 years. Renewal could only happen once during the lifetime of the author.

In 1976, the law was changed once again, in a pretty big way. No longer was the author allowed to renew their copyright, not even once during their lifetime. Instead, the law passed for the duration of copyright to last at least 50 years after the author passed away. With this law, the United States was able to be more ‘in line’ with the copyright laws found around the world.

The latest law change of copyright photos changed in 1998. In the year 1998, the United States Congress decided to lengthen the amount of time for copyright yet again. It changed to 70 years after the death of the author/artist, which is the law we still hold true to today.

What Happens When Copyright Expire?

When the copyright to a photograph expires, it’s pretty simple: the photo then becomes public domain. It’s important to know exactly when the original author passed away, though. For someone who has the copyright to their image and passed away after 1976, you need to wait at least 50 years before you’re able to use their photos.

With the same way of thinking, anyone who has created a photograph and has the copyright to it that passes away after 1998, will have to wait at least 70 years before you are able to use it.

While it’s true that the author won’t be able to tell whether or not his photos are being used at that time, it’s still illegal to use the photos. A copyrighted image should never be used until the copyright has completely expired, not the author.

Can You Buy or Sell Copyrights to a Photo?

In some circumstances, an individual may want to sell their copyright. This could be due to the fact that the person is ill and wants a family member to inherit their copyright, or they simply don’t want the photo and copyright in their possession for another reason.

Whatever the reason may be, the simple answer is yes, you can buy and sell copyrights to a photo.

But while you have the option to sell your copyrights, that’s not the only way to get rid of them. Here are some important things to know about transferring copyright:

  • You have the ability to give your copyright to a photo as a gift or leave it in your inheritance. Remember, though, that copyrights won’t automatically be given to the next of kin.
  • Rest assured, copyright may never be involuntarily taken from the artist, under almost any circumstances. This cannot be done by one person taking another individual to a court, or by a government body trying to take the copyright away. An exception might be, however, if there is a preceding going on for bankruptcy.
  • If you don’t want to sell your copyright but wouldn’t mind letting others use or display your images, you also have the option of granting a license. Licenses will have a limited duration in which they are valid, and you can also place certain conditions and terms to go along with the license for your photo.

What Is ‘Works Made For Hire?’

We mentioned previously how copyright can be complicated when it comes to works made for hire. So what exactly is work for hire, and what are the rules regarding copyright to these individuals?

To put it simply, someone who is works made for hire has been hired to take photographs for someone else. Under these conditions, the person who takes the photograph does not own the copyright; the person who hired the individual to take pictures has sole copyright ownership.

Think of it this way: an amateur photographer who works for the local newspaper will be hired to take pictures for the paper. When he takes these pictures, he will not have any copyright ownership of the images; the newspaper does. They may credit him for his work in the paper, but the employee will not hold the actual copyright.

Another way in which works for hire is done is by both parties creating a written contract that will state what the hired photographer will do. This may be a collective piece with many individuals involved, some type of photo compilation, motion pictures, or any other similar category in which a photographer is specially ordered or receiving a commission for work.

What Happens When Infringement Occurs?

In this day and age, it’s not unheard of for people to steal images a lot quicker and easier than they used to. This happens all the time on social media. So, how can you make sure that your images are safe from being copied or redistributed by another person?

Register First

First and foremost, you need to make sure that your copyright is registered within the United States law. You will not be able to file an infringement lawsuit unless you have completed copyright registration.

However, if the infringement of your photograph occurred before you were able to register, you may still be able to sue for the damages. In this type of case, attorney fees and other statutory damages will likely not be paid for.

File During the Time Limit

Yes, there is a time limit when it comes to filing an infringement lawsuit. The rule is that you must file within the first three years in which the infringement took place. After three years, the copyright owner will not be able to file a lawsuit.

There’s only one way around the three-year time limit when it comes to infringement on a copyrighted photograph: if the infringement was hidden or not seen. Think about it: if someone steals your photograph and you do not notice it for the next five years, you shouldn’t have to be helpless; and that is why this rule was made.

In the case where an infringement copyright photo was noticed after the three-year time period, the author’s time limit will begin at the time he notices infringement has taken place. This gives the copyright owner some sort of peace.

What Is the ‘Poor Man’s Copyright?’

For some people, dealing with the government and any fines or fees that come with registration is either too much work or too much money. In this case, one might consider what is known as the ‘Poor Man’s Copyright.’

So what is the poor man’s copyright? To put it simply, the owner of the photograph will mail himself a copy of the original photograph and keep the mail sealed. This, in turn, shows ownership of the photograph, making it a piece of evidence in court should infringement ever become an issue.

However, one should keep in mind that the poor man’s copyright is more of a myth than anything, and will likely not stand up in court. It is weak evidence with no United States copyright law provisions.

When it comes to protecting your copyright, there’s really no easy way out. The best thing to do is to have your work registered with the United States government for copyrights. This is the best way to ensure that your works do not get stolen or used without your permission, and in the event that they do, you will have a solid case on your hands.

Do You Need to Renew a Copyright?

The best practice when it comes to copyrighted images is that the copyright will automatically expire 70 years after the passing of the author.

It’s true that the laws have changed over time. At one point, an author could renew his copyright registration once in his lifetime after 28 years. Since then, though, the laws have changed. Now there is no need or reason to renew a copyright registration. In fact, in this day and age, it’s not even possible.

For Author’s With an Unknown Death

One question that comes to mind is how copyright works when someone’s date of death is unknown. The best way to determine how long the copyright will last for this individual is to do the following:

  • The copyright will expire exactly 95 years after the publication of the first image was made.
  • Or, the copyright will expire 120 years after the image was first created.

Between the two, whatever comes sooner is when the copyright will expire. This not only applies to those who made the photograph themselves but also those who were under a work made for hire operation or anyone who has published their work anonymously or pseudonymously.

Do You Need to Post Copyright Notices With Your Work?

A lot of people will notice a copyright notice displayed proudly on photographs and images created by the author. These notices are noticeable and give the author absolute credit to their images, but is it actually a law that you have to give out notice of?

The simple answer is no. The law does not require you to place a copyright notice with your work. However, many people may find that placing a copyright notice is highly desirable. Here’s why:

  • Placing a copyright notice on your work makes it clear you are the author. It’s easy to get the credit when everyone knows you’re the one who has created something, so proudly displaying your notice on your work can get you much more affirmation.
  • Placing a copyright notice also lets people know that you have actively filed for copyright registration. This will make it less likely for others to steal it, knowing that your works have gone through the law and are legally tied to you and you alone.
  • In a court of law, it will literally be impossible for someone to say they ‘didn’t know’ they were infringing on your copyrighted material if there is a clearly stated copyright notice on your work. This makes winning an infringement case all the easier.
  • If someone removes watermarks or any metadata on a photo, they can actually get in more trouble if they are caught infringing. This will incur greater damages and most likely more money in the end.
  • Remember that you do not have to register your copyright in order to use a copyright notice. The second your finger hits the shutter button on your device, the photo belongs to you.

While it’s not necessary to register, as we’ve covered, it’s always a good idea to add an extra layer of protection by actually registering your photographs with the government.

How to Post Proper Copyright on Your Images

In order to have a proper copyright notice on your images, you will need to have the following:

  • You must have the word ‘Copyright’ somewhere on your piece of art. This could be the entire word ‘Copyright,’ or a variation such as “COPR.” abbreviated or the symbol for copyright ©.
  • You must also have the year of when the photo was first published.
  • You must place your name on the image (or whoever owns the copyright to the image). This could be in the form of initials, only a first or last name, or a combination of both.

Without all three of these listed on your copyright notice, it is seen as ‘void,’ and the work will be treated as if there was no notice written at all.

Note: You may also want to consider using the term ‘All Rights Reserved’ somewhere in your photo. Some countries, including certain Latin American countries, do not recognize ‘copyrights; so they can’t be used to defend your art.

What About Preregistration?

There will be a good chunk of time that passes before your registration is actually valid for copyright. During this waiting period, it will be harder to sue someone for infringement as the copyright hasn’t gone through the process all the way.

For certain photographs, including those used for advertising products or marketing companies, this long period of time could mean plenty of infringement going unnoticed. When it comes to advertising and marketing photos, they are at a higher rate and chance of being infringed upon, so ensuring they are able to sue in a timely manner is key.

This is where the term ‘pre-registration’ comes into play. The special thing about pre-registration is you are allowed to file and be able to sue for infringement much quicker than a regular registration of copyrighted images.

It’s important to keep in mind that pre-registration copyright is not the same thing as an actual registration. Even with the pre-registration of your material, you will still need to file for actual registration. The preregistration will only allow you to sue against infringement while waiting for actual copyright to take place.

What Are the Rules When it Comes to Posting Online?

With most of our world being on the Internet these days, it can be challenging to know what the rules are behind it. Some people will tell you that anything that is posted online is up for grabs, while others still believe in their privacy and keeping their copyrighted images safe. So what’s the deal?

When it comes to online images, a post is always subject to the website’s terms of service. When you post your original artwork online, it is always important to make sure you are thoroughly reading through the terms of service, so you do not miss any important information. If you see any part of the terms of service that you’re unhappy with or don’t agree with, simply do not use the service.

In almost all cases, especially websites where there is a big emphasis on photo-sharing and posting statuses, you will still have the copyright to your photo. However, most of the terms and services will say that they are then able to use your work to copy and distribute it as they see fit.

Every website is going to be different when it comes to their licensing and how they use your pictures. Again, it’s important to read the terms of service initially, but it’s also important to stay up to date on the terms and services.

A lot of websites will state (and they must state) when they update the terms and services. While it might not be something that pertains to you whatsoever, it’s always a good idea to take a glance at the updated version to see if anything will affect your copyrighted images.

Public Domain Websites

So what about certain websites, such as Pixabay, that have hundreds upon thousands of photos to choose from? Is it stealing the copyright and partaking in infringement when downloading and using these photos? No, it is not.

Websites that are designed for artists to post their pictures in the public domain will be giving up their copyright restrictions. These websites have specially written terms of service section that will state that any work that is uploaded will be available to the public for use, and will not be charged with infringement.

On some similar sites, there will be a variety of sections to choose from. Make sure you are only pulling images that are from the Creative Commons selection, as these are the photos that do not have any copyright restrictions.

Some works of art on these websites still have their copyright and will be placed in a separate section of the website. Most of the time, these images will be up for sale, and you can buy a license or the rights to a picture for a certain fee.


Copyrights are given to the photographer the moment they click the shutter button. Copyrights will not expire until 70 years after the date of the passing of the artist. Copyrights can be sold, bought, or given away as a gift. It’s important to register your copyrighted image to ensure it doesn’t get infringed upon.