This article is intended on providing only the basics about copyrighting your photographs within the United States (at this time of writing, 12-11-07). No legal advice is applied. For more detailed information you can visit www.copyright.gov.
--As of March 1, 1989, copyright has been made automatic. The need to register with the Copyright Office is no longer required to provide protection. Once you create a picture, you own the copyright. A copyright notice (for example, a copyright symbol or watermark) is also no longer required to protect your photographs (excluding older works); however, many photographers continue to use to identify themselves and the date of creation.
--As a general rule, for works created on or after January 1, 1978 the copyright is legally yours throughout your life plus 70 years beyond that unless you decide to pass your rights on to another.
--Before an infringement suit may be filed in court, registration is necessary. Registered works (if registration occurs within 5 years of publication) serve as prima facie evidence (proof) of a valid copyright. Registered works may also be eligible for statutory damages and attorney's fees in successful litigation.
--If someone was to steal your photographs, they can be liable for statutory damages up to $30,000 ($150,000 if willful infringement is proven by the copyright owner) for each work infringed on and may also be liable for attorney's fees incurred by the copyright owner.
--Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.
--To register photographs you will use the Visual Arts form which you can find at http://www.copyright.gov/.
--The current fee is $45 per application. You may register a collection of photos on one application under one title.
--Registration takes effect the day all the required elements in acceptable form are received; however, it takes approximately 4 months to receive your certificate. I suggest sending your application requiring confirmation of delivery since you will not receive acknowledgment from the Copyright Office.
--You will be notified by the Copyright Office via a letter or a telephone call if further information is needed to complete your application.
--If your application is rejected, you will receive a letter explaining why.
--Works created on or after January 1, 1978, are not required to be renewed.
--Online registration is expected in the future.
--Unfortunately a copyright is not protected throughout the world. Not all, but most countries do honor each other's citizens' copyrights. You can find more information regarding this matter at www.copyright.gov/circs/circ38a.pdf.
I hope you find this information helpful but be sure to visit www.copyright.gov before deciding whether or not you should register your photographs.
Diana Cooper specializes in nature and wildlife photography. http://www.dianasphotography.com/ and http://www.cafepress.com/dianasphotos