In most circumstances, it is a simple process to copyright a picture or photograph. In the United States, the 1976 Copyright Act provides that a picture is protected by copyright from the moment it is created in a fixed medium, such as a print, slide, or computer file. In many other countries, the international Berne Convention provides similar protections. To ensure legal protection, a copyright notice should be attached to the picture. You can also officially copyright a picture by registering with the U.S. Copyright Office or a similar legal body in other nations.
Under U.S. copyright law and related international agreements, a picture, photograph, or any other work is legally protected by copyright the moment it is created, that is, when it is fixed in a tangible form that is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a device. For casual snapshots and the like, this is all that may be required. For professional work, or if there is a risk the picture may be widely distributed without your consent, you may want to copyright a picture officially by registering it. Even if you decide not to register, an attached notice is a simple way to copyright a picture for most purposes.
A copyright notice includes the date, your name, and the copyright symbol, a letter “c” in a circle or its equivalent. For example, you can copyright a picture in print form by attaching a sticker to the back of the print that reads “(c) 2010 Jane Doe.” The location of the notice does not matter as long as it is attached; you could also write it in ink on the frame of a slide. For digital pictures, you can use photo manipulation software to attach a small notice in the corner of the picture where it will not distract from the image. This notice does not itself copyright a picture; it only provides notice that you are aware of and are asserting your rights as the copyright owner.
If you are posting a picture to a social networking site or elsewhere on the Internet, it is particularly important to attach a notice if you think you might ever need to prove your ownership. Remember that any image on the web can easily be copied and distributed widely by friends or strangers alike. Most people will not remove a copyright notice; what is attached will stay attached, but once a picture is circulating, it will likelly be impossible to track and monitor it.
To copyright a picture with complete legal protection, register it. The U.S. Copyright Office allows multiple pictures to be registered for the same fee. Simply collect all your pictures into a volume with a title like “Images by Jane Doe” and submit it to the Copyright Office with the appropriate fee and paperwork. This will protect your rights in case of a legal proceeding. Other measures could be circumvented by fraud or disputed by an attorney. You should consider registering your professional work before submitting it to an unknown party or posting it to the Internet.