If it seems like a no-brainer to think you file an infringement suit against someone using your personal photos without your permission simply because they belong to you, but you may want to think again. While the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 ensures that works of the visual arts, such as pictures, automatically inherits copyright protection without publication or registration with the U.S. Copyright Office, owners must copyright their works before an infringement suit may take place. Copyrighting personal photos provides certain advantages and it is wise to register your works with the U.S. copyright office prior to displaying them publicly to provide a broader array of remedies should someone use your pictures without your permission.
Make copies of the personal pictures you would like to copyright to send them to the U.S. Copyright office along with your copyright application. You must make copies of the photographs because the copyright office must keep a visual representation of your work on file, so if you send in the originals, you will not get them back. It is OK to send black and white copies if the pictures do not contain any color, but it is advantageous to send in color copies if the pictures contain color to provide as much authentic detail to the original photographs as possible.
Visit the U.S. Copyright Office’s online registration system to complete the registration process, or print a copy of the Form CO to complete an offline paper application (see Resources). The online and offline methods involve the same forms and process, but the U.S. Copyright Office charges lower registration fees as an incentive to complete copyright applications online.
Select “Visual arts work” as the type of work you are registering and provide any available titles for each picture you are registering. List the year each picture was taken, the country they were taken and the publication information, such as date, ISBN and so forth, your pictures are already published as a contribution to a larger work, such as a book.
Provide your full name, birth date and citizenship status in the author information section of the form. Under the “This author created” section, check “2-dimensional artwork” or “photography” depending on which option is available among the selection on the form.
List your full name and contact information, along with phone number and email, in the claimant information section. If you have or plan to give copyright ownership to someone else or a company copyright ownership, fill in their contact information in the claimant section. Also provide the contact information for the rights and permissions contact and the individual or company to contact for correspondence. The U.S. copyright office needs this information should they or anyone else need to contact you about obtaining legal permission to use your pictures.
Write down the name and address where the U.S. Copyright Office should mail the registration certificate and include the copies of your pictures in your package before sealing and mailing. If you are completing the online application, you must send a separate package containing copies of the personal pictures you want to copyright. Include a check or money order for the filing fee indicated on the form, or pay the online registration fee with a credit or debit card. Mail paper forms or copies of your photos to supplement your online application to: Library of Congress, U.S. Copyright Office; 101 Independence Avenue SE; Washington, D.C. 20559-6211 and wait up to 3 weeks to receive your copyright certificate in the mail.