Given the brouhaha surrounding file sharing, pirated DVDs and the like, you'd be forgiven for thinking that there'd be fairly widespread understanding of copyright. But, as any working photographer will tell you, the opposite seems to be the case. Widely misunderstood and abused, copyright law is actually pretty simple in its application. It's designed to give protection to creators of artistic works (yes, you with the dSLR and the flickr account, that means you) and allow those creators to control how their works are used. Doesn't matter if you're a pro or not, the law applies equally to everyone. And, for once, it's on your side.
Disclaimer: I have no legal training (as will, I'm sure, become painfully obvious to anyone reading this who does). What follows is an explanation based on my personal experience and understanding of copyright law as it applies in the UK. Full details of the UK Copyright, Design and Patents Act 1988 can be found here.
Here's how it works: you press the button, you own the copyright in the resulting image. The only notable exception is if you're pressing the button as part of your job as an employee, in which case your employer owns the copyright. Otherwise, you need do nothing to assert your ownership of copyright - it's yours automatically under law. The principle is broadly similar in most countries worldwide, although there are minor differences in how the law is applied.
For a simple explanation of UK copright law, see here. And in the meantime, here are some common copyright myths, busted:
1. If I take a picture of someone, that person owns the copyright
False. For images that will be used commercially, it's often a good idea for the photographer to ask the subject to sign a model release form. But this simply indemnifies the photographer and their client(s) from any damages or claims by the model arising from use of the image. The photographer owns the copyright.
2. Buildings and private land are copyright and I can't photograph them without the owner's permission
Copyright doesn't apply in the same way to buildings, sculptures or views (for example), so don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Whilst an architect may own the copyright in the original plans for a building, the physical form itself is on public display and may be freely photographed. If you're standing on public land - for example a public highway - there's nothing anyone can legally do to prevent you from using your camera. If you're on privately owned land, the landowner is entitled to impose restrictions on certain activities. This will often include photography, and is more likely to be enforced if the rent-a-cop mob think you're using a 'professional' camera. They can ask you to stop and / or leave, but that's about it.
3. I have to say that my picture is copyright, otherwise it doesn't apply
Nope. Your pictures are your copyright, regardless of whether there's a copyright symbol attached to them or not. You pressed the button, you own it. Simple.
4. Pictures on the internet are in the public domain and are fair game
Nuh-uh. Remember the principle that whoever pressed the button owns the copyright? Just because there's no copyright symbol or name attached to an image, it doesn't mean that it's available for free use. Always assume the opposite - unless clearly invited to make free use of an image, the copyright belongs to somebody. Personally, I'm a great believer in 'do as you would be done by' in these cases. Don't steal other people's images - next time it might be you!
5. If I commission a photographer to take some pictures, I own the copyright
Not unless there's a written contract stating that the photographer transfers ownership of copyright. And even then, most photography buyers don't need copyright, they just think they do. This is where licensing comes in. A license gives the image buyer rights to use the photographer's image(s) in certain circumstances, which can be agreed by both the photographer and the buyer. But by retaining copyright, the photographer keeps the right to control use of his images, including the right to use them in his own portfolio or for promotional purposes. Rule of thumb for aspiring pros: don't relinquish copyright, even though many clients will insist on it. They probably don't need it... but you most certainly do.
If you don't earn a living from your pictures, you may not see the point in understanding how copyright applies to you. But consider this. The explosion in dSLR ownership along with the growth of microstock and photo-sharing sites means that almost everyone with a camera has the potential to earn money from their photography: the boundaries between pro and amateur are blurring. Blue-chip companies have taken to trawling sites like flickr looking for imagery that they can use. And they do so because they know they can obtain it cheaply or for free, partly because so many photographers are ignorant of copyright and how it applies to them.