Copyright – What is it and what it means to a photographer.

This can be a touchy and heated subject.  With the advent of digital photography and the ease of duplicating a photo.  Clients and other photographers and printers can easily run into copyright infringement.

First let’s get the definition of Copyright established.

Copyright is a legal means of protecting an author’s work. It is a type of intellectual property that provides exclusive publication, distribution, and usage rights for the author. This means whatever content the author created cannot be used or published by anyone else without the consent of the author. The length of copyright protection may vary from country to country, but it usually lasts for the life of the author plus 50 to 100 years. –

In the photography industry this means that the person who created the image is the copyright owner by default until 70 years past their death or they release or sell those rights.

When does the photo become copyrighted?

The moment the shutter clicks and the image is affixed to a media.  In film days it was as soon as the image is created on the film negative.  These days it is when the camera stores the image.

But I paid the photographer for the photos, aren’t they mine to do whatever I want with?

Not usually, you paid for the photographer’s time shooting, editing and creating the image, and for a physical product.  Unless you had negotiated with the photographer ahead of time for the full rights, you probably do not get them.

The exceptions are when the photographer is a second shooter or employee of the company and the terms are spelled out in advance that they will not be the copyright holder of the images.  Often in the case of the second shooter, the agreement is that both parties have the rights to use the images, with the primary having the right to sell the images to their client.

There isn’t a © or anything that says Copyright, so it must be OK to use, right?

WRONG! The use of a copyright notice is no longer required under US copyright law, although it is beneficial to use it.  You would want to mark your images with a notice as it does make it harder for the infringing party to deny they knew it was copyrighted work.

Simply put unless you have a statement from somebody that a work is Public Domain, or have license to use it – then it is safe to assume that it is copyrighted work and you need permission.

What is Copyright Infringement?

Examples of copyright infringement include:

  • Claiming the work as your own
  • Any manipulation (including editing, adding filters, removing watermarks,etc) that is not done with permission.
  • Scanning a photo.
  • Reprinting or reproducing a photo in any manner
  • Bypassing the copy protection that is on or in the presentation of the image (screen shots, shooting the image on the screen, etc).
  • Misuse of the license you have been given.  This could be using the images for commercial work when you were given a non-commercial license to make personal reprints.