Thanks to the Internet, it is possible to share a photograph in a matter of seconds. However, this same technology also makes it easier for someone to use your photo without your permission or without paying a fee. Therefore, it is often necessary to take steps to protect it under copyright law.
Claims to copyright in both published and unpublished photographs can be registered in the U.S. Copyright Office. Published and unpublished photographs cannot be registered on the same application, so it is important to know the difference.
Under copyright law, publication has a very distinct meaning. As explained by the U.S. Copyright Office, “It requires the distribution of copies of the photograph to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership or by rental, lease, or lending. Offering to distribute copies to a group of people for purposes of further distribution or public display also constitutes publication.” Most importantly, a public display of a photograph alone does not meet the definition of publication.
For published photographs, applicants can apply to register a single published photograph or an entire unit or package of published photographs in one application. A collection of published photographs could include photos in a calendar, a set of baseball cards, or illustrations in a book.
Applicants can also register a single unpublished photo or a collection. For collections of unpublished photographs the photographs must be neatly assembled; a collection title must be provided; the same party must be the copyright claimant for all the photos; and one author must have either created or contributed to all the photos.
Source: U.S. Copyright Office