I get this question from my clients all the time. “Should I watermark my images? Do I need to include the copyright symbol on my website footer?”

The copyright symbol doesn’t give you special protection. In the United States, when you create a painting/novel/song/illustration and bring it into the world, it is automatically copyrighted, whether or not you choose put a symbol on it. If someone uses your work without your permission, you can demand that Google remove it from their search results, have a lawyer send them a cease and desist, etc.

Even so, the © symbol is still worth including, because it unambiguously lets other people know, “in case you were wondering if this was in the public domain, no, it’s not. You need my permission to reproduce this.”

However if you anticipate both needing to and willing to defend your copyright by suing someone for infringement in federal court, then you must register your copyright (which costs money) within 90 days of releasing the work.

Personally, I think it’s a pretty high bar to justify spending the money and time to register a copyright. I’d have to look at my creation and answer BOTH of these questions with a “yes”:

  1. I can see how lots of folks are going to be tempted to use my work without permission
  2. I’m absolutely willing to spend the lawyer fees to try to get each infringer to cough up $750 (or more) for using my work without permission.

Copyright registration is about preparing to battle infringers in court to make them pay money, even if they weren’t making any money by using your work themselves.

This is why everyone should be very cautious about using images found on the web to illustrate their web pages. Photo licensing companies like Getty have lawyers whose sole job it is to seek out and financially punish individuals for using their images without permission, even for personal and profitless projects. I’ve had several clients pay $1,500 claims for copyright infringement just because they decorated a blog post with an image they found using Google images. In one really unfortunate case, a client was fundraising for Palestinians and had to pay a huge fine after including a newspaper photograph of miserable Palestinians on their website appeal.

To decorate this blog post, I found this image which was released by opensource.com under a Creative Commons “attribution, share alike” license.