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Government Shutdown Affects U.S. Copyright Office

By Jules Ebe on October 3rd 2013

It seems everywhere we turn we come across a story in which the current US government shutdown is causing headaches for photographers in unusual ways. From the closure of wedding venues in National Parks to the difficulties with passport services for traveling photographers – the list seems to grow by the day.


The US Copyright Office is yet another one of those “non-essential governmental operations” that is affected by the current shutdown. People can still file their copyrights online, but they will not be processed, nor will the registration take effect until after the offices re-open (whenever that may be).

So what does this mean for photographers and artistic professionals?

What This May Mean for You

As professional photographers, we are dependent on the ability to control the reproduction of the images we generate for our clients.

Reproducing photos without permission is illegal, however, with the department closed, individuals have limited access to anything searchable on the website. I tried to open several links myself, and was always diverted back to the “Close Warning” instead of the material I was hoping to find. It would appear that if you want information on anything that may have been registered with the department, or your own files, you are going to wait with the rest of the nation as this, and other government entities, remain closed.

Copyright Basics

“Copyright” refers to the rights given to creators for their literary and artistic works, otherwise known as “Intellectual Property”.

Copyright is a property right.

Some artists prefer to use Creative Commons Licensing, which is handled separately from copyright registration.

Under the Federal Copyright Act of 1976, photographs are protected by copyright from the moment of creation. Photographers have the exclusive right to reproduce their photographs.

Unless an individual has obtained permission from the original photographer, a client cannot copy, publicly display (that means online as well), distribute (no scanning and forwarding), or create any other kind of derivative work from the photographs. Many photographers will actually register certain projects or client work to ensure the protection of their intellectual property.

A photographer can easily create thousands of separate pieces of intellectual property annually. Not all works are registered, however some projects, as well as commercial material are registered with the US Copyright Office. Therein lies the current conundrum.

So What Now?

During this time, if you are a professional that uses Copyright Registration, you may want to consider Creative Commons as an alternative until regular operations is back up and running. There is no registration to use the CC licenses and it will provide some security in the interim. If you prefer to register with the US Copyright Office, you can still file copyrights online by following this link (the only one I could find that was still working).

To learn more about Creative Commons and how it works, check out Decoding the Creative Commons Licensing & Copyright Mystery.

Until Next Time . . .

Stay Inspired ~ Jules

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is a Southern California based Conceptual Artist and Photographer. Her work has been featured in several print publications and selections can be seen in local gallery exhibitions. Connect with her on Facebook and Google+.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Elisa

    Let me preface this by saying that I adore SLR Lounge, but this particular post is all kinds of confusing and misleading. First, I agree with everything “COPY RIGHT” said above. To help clarify what happens when the government is shut down or otherwise lagging in registering copyright — in short, you are still protected.

    From the ASMP website:
    Q: It can take as long as eight months to receive a certificate of registration. What if there is infringement of my copyright during that time? Do I lose my ability to sue for statutory damages or ask for the other side to pay my court costs?

    A: In the words of the Copyright Office: “A copyright registration is effective on the date that all the required elements (application, fee and deposit) are received in acceptable form in the Copyright Office, regardless of the length of time it takes the Copyright Office to process the application and mail the certificate of registration.”

    As for Creative Commons… “When you license your work with creative commons, you are giving people the permission to use it without having to ask permission, provided they use it in the manner stated in your creative commons license. The reason people use creative commons licenses is to make it easier for everyone to share and adapt creative work without the concern of copyright infringement.” — from a teacher edu website about when it’s appropriate to use work found on the web (

    So… why would someone worried about copyright protection want to put their work under a creative commons license? Answer: They really shouldn’t. Depending on the cc license they choose, they could potentially lose the right to sue for use if they do.

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  2. Copy Right

    Actually, copyright registration and the CC licenses have nothing to do with each other, except that they relate to copyright. Registration is required to bring suit in court (for U.S. works, at least), and registration within three months of publication (or before infringement) is required to obtain statutory damages and attorneys’ fees in an infringement suit. But a copyright interest arises on the creation of a copyrightable work — one need not register their work to “have a copyright.”

    CC licenses are just that — licenses. They do not afford any protection themselves, they simply provide users with certain rights. But it is inaccurate — and frankly a major disservice to the photography community — to mix the two up. Professional photographers should continue to register their works as they ordinarily would even though the registration applications apparently won’t be processed until after the shutdown ends. If they want to make work available under a CC license, they should feel free to do so, just as they did before the shutdown. The two are not substitutes for one another.

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