Compendium of U.S. Copyright Practices, 3rd Edition

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909.3 (A) Photographic Reproductions, Digital Copying, and Digital Restoration


909.3 (A) Photographic Reproductions, Digital Copying, and Digital Restoration


Although most photographs warrant copyright protection, the U.S. Copyright Office will not register photographs that do not display a sufficient amount of creative expression. A photograph that is merely a “slavish copy” of a painting, drawing, or other public domain or copyrighted work is not eligible for registration. The registration specialist will refuse a claim if it is clear that the photographer merely used the camera to copy the source work without adding any creative expression to the photo. Similarly, merely scanning and digitizing existing works does not contain a sufficient amount of creativity to warrant copyright protection.




• Pamela Patterson takes a high resolution photograph of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The photograph is virtually identical to the painting. The registration specialist will refuse to register the photograph, because it is a slavish copy of a work that is in the public domain. See, e.g., Bridgeman Art Library, Ltd. v. Corel Corp., 36 F. Supp. 2d 191, 196-97 (S.D.N.Y. 1999).


The Office often receives applications to register preexisting works that have been restored to their original quality and character. Merely restoring a damaged or aged photograph to its original state without adding a sufficient amount of original, creative authorship does not warrant copyright protection.


The registration specialist will analyze on a case-by-case basis all claims in which the author used digital editing software to produce a derivative photograph or artwork. Typical technical alterations that do not warrant registration include aligning pages and columns; repairing faded print and visual content; and sharpening and balancing colors, tint, tone, and the like, even though the alterations may be highly skilled and may produce a valuable product. If an applicant asserts a claim in a restoration of or touchups to a preexisting work, the registration specialist generally will ask the applicant for details concerning the nature of changes that have been made. The specialist will refuse all claims where the author merely restored the source work to its original or previous content or quality without adding substantial new authorship that was not present in the original.


The specialist may register a claim in a restored or retouched photograph if the author added a substantial amount of new content, such as recreating missing parts of the photograph or using airbrushing techniques to change the image. As a general rule, applicants should use terms such as “photograph” or “2-D artwork” to describe this type of authorship, and should avoid using terms such as “digital editing,” “touchup,” “scanned,” “digitized,” or “restored.”




• Sarah Smith discovers a box of old family photographs in her great- grandmother’s attic. She scans them into her computer and uses software that automatically smoothens the creases in the images. Sarah files an application to register a claim for her own authorship in the altered photographs. The registration specialist will refuse to register the claim, because the use of automated software to smooth preexisting photographs was de minimis.


• Dave Daniel submits an application claiming “photograph and two- dimensional artwork.” The registration specialist asks Dave to clarify the nature of the two-dimensional artwork that he contributed to this work. Dave explains that he took a photograph and then digitally touched up several parts of his image. He also explains that he improved the color, tone, and temper; removed noise imperfections inherent in the film; and adjusted aspects to balance the photograph. The specialist will register the claim in the “photograph,” because this term accurately describes the photograph and the authorship involved in editing the original image. The specialist will ask for permission to remove the claim in “two-dimensional artwork” because the work contains no additional artwork aside from the photograph itself.


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