Photographers: What’s Your Copyright Lifespan?

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In the 1990’s, photographers often used Corbis‘ copyright registration program for their photographs. A valid copyright registration is required in order bring a legal action for infringement, and a registration prior to infringement is vital for purposes of obtaining statutory damages and attorneys fees. Without registration,  the copyright owner is left to pay his or her own legal fees and can only recover actual damages, often measured by the profits made by the infringer.

A federal court decision, however, exposed a fatal flaw in Corbis’ process. Photographers Marc and David Muench brought a copyright infringement suit based on a textbook publisher’s use of their images that they alleged went beyond the scope of the Corbis license. The court ruled against the Muenches, saying they didn’t have ground to sue because the images were not properly registered through Corbis’ bulk copyright registration program.

This program, used by hundreds of photographers, was thought to be a benefit for photographers because it took care of the copyright registration process for artists and allowed Corbis the right to pursue infringers. The result, however, is that the Corbis collection of photographs are now only valid as a compilation. The individual authors of each photograph were not identified as authors in the registration.

This means that the individual photographers whose names were left off when the compilation was registered do not have valid registration for their individual images in the collection.

The result is vulnerability for the hundreds of photographers who have used the registration system through Corbis.

This case emphasizes an important lesson for all creative professionals: it is imperative that you register your own images in order to preserve important remedies in the event of infringement. If you have images with Corbis and signed a Corbis Copyright Assignment Affirmation Declaration, or have other photos being licensed through any other site, or on your own, you should immediately start the process of registering the images by contacting the The U.S. Copyright Office today.

Get the ball rolling, because without registration you will face the same situation as the Muenches, with no grounds to sue for infringement.

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