In February this year it was reported that approximately 250 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every single day, with over 845 million people wanting to share moments in their life with their friends and family online. However, very few of these people are likely to know that their images are protected by copyright.

One such person was Jay Breen, a Facebook user from South Carolina, who recently discovered that the photos he had uploaded to his account had been used to advertise a risqué dating website. Reports of incidents like this are on the rise and it is increasingly important for people to be aware of copyright – and how to protect it.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a way of rewarding authors of literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works, including sound recordings, films (including DVDs) and broadcasts, by giving them an exclusive right to it. This means that the work cannot be used or copied by anyone else without the consent of the author. Copyright lasts for a set period, usually up to 70 years from the date of death of the author; different kinds of works last for different periods of time.

Copyright Registration

Unlike other forms of intellectual property, copyright does not need to be registered to be enforceable. In the UK it applies automatically.

What doesn’t copyright cover?

Copyright is a protection of expression, so it will not protect ideas themselves, but may protect written or otherwise recorded works reflecting those ideas. Other forms of intellectual property rights provide the main form of protection for brand names and logos (trade marks); inventions and processes (patents); and designs (registered and unregistered design rights), although copyright may also exist in materials relating to these things. Works in which the copyright has expired are said to be in the "public domain" and can be freely used by anyone. It is important to note that a work which is in the public domain in one country may still be in copyright within other countries. 

“But everything on the internet is public domain”

Wrong. It’s a common misconception that anything uploaded to the internet is automatically “public domain” and anyone can copy it. This is not true. Unless the copyright has expired on it or the author expressly states that they give up their rights to the image or recording or work, the author will still be able to enforce their copyright. So taking photos from someone else’s album on Facebook or any other website will amount to an infringement of the photographer’s copyright. Uploading to the internet may make a work publicly accessible, but not necessarily in the public domain.

How to protect your copyright

Since copyright is an automatic right and there is no authoritative body governing it, it is up to the copyright holder to enforce it.

The first step in doing so is making it recognisable that this work is covered by copyright. Taking measures such as adding a distinctive watermark to images or putting an indication of copyright such as the “©” symbol will indicate that it is covered by copyright and may deter potential copycats from copying your work. If someone goes ahead and used your work anyway, the easiest (and cheapest) way to go about this is to contact the person using the work and request them to stop doing this or further action will be taken. If this doesn’t work, it may be necessary to go to court to have your copyright enforced. 

An even simpler solution with posting photos on the internet would be to change privacy settings on websites, such as Facebook, so that only friends and family can see them. This won’t do anything to stop them from copying and placing your images elsewhere, for example on another website as in the case of Jay Breen, but by limiting the number of people who have access to your photographs narrows the number of people who can repost your material, therefore reducing the chances of your photos appearing somewhere that you don’t want them to be.