Copyright protection is provided to authors of original works of authorship by Title 17 of the US Code. Original works of authorship includes not only written text but also includes photographs. It applies to both published and unpublished works. Section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of the copyright the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the following:
To reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords;
To prepare derivative works based upon the work;
To distribute copies or phorecords of the work to the public by sale or transfer or ownership, or by rental, lease or lending;
To display the copyrighted work publicly, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work.
Copyright protection begins at the time a photograph or other work is first created. The copyright of the work immediately becomes the property of the photographer or author who created the work. Only the photographer, author or those deriving their rights from the photographer or author can legally claim copyright.
The mere ownership of a copy of the work or a photograph does not give the possessor ownership of the copyright. The law provides that the transfer of ownership of any material object that embodies a protected work does not itself convey any rights to the copyright.
The copyright is secured automatically upon creation of the photograph or other work. The way in which copyright protection is secured is frequently misunderstood. It is no longer necessary to register the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office in order to secure the copyright. In the case of photographs, the copyright is secured automatically when the photograph is created.
The law no longer requires the use of a copyright notice, although it is often still helpful to use it since it informs the public that the photograph is protected by copyright, identifies the copyright ownner and usually shows the first year of publication or use. When a copyrighted work or photograph is infringed upon, if a notice of copyright appears anywhere on the published copy or copies to which a defendant in a copyright infringement suit had access to, then no weight shall be given by the court to the defendant’s claim of a defense based on innocent infringement in mitigation of actual or statutory damages.
A photograph or any other work that that was created for the first time on or after January 1, 1978, is automatically protected from the moment it was created and for a period of time enduring for the photographer's or author's life plus an additional 70 years after the photographer's or author's death.
Any or all of the copyright owner’s exclusive rights or any part of those rights may be transferred, but the transfer of exclusive rights is not valid unless the transfer is in writing and signed by the owner of the rights conveyed or such owner’s duly authorized agent. Transfer of a right on a non-exclusive basis does not require a written agreement.
The penalty for 'innocent infringement' of a copyright (where the violator proves that he or she was unaware of the copyright) the minimum statutory fine is $200 for each violation. For each 'willful infringement,' the statutory fine ranges from a minimum of $750 to a maximum of $150,000 for each violation.
If you are interested, you may further research the U.S. Copyright Law at The U.S. Copyright Office website or by reviewing Title 17 of the US Code.