What should you know about copyright and photographs?

Either you are a photographer or someone who wants to use such works for commercial purposes, it is a good idea for you to know the bare minimum about the copyright protection that every image has.

Why is this so important?

The brief answer is that this can save you from all sorts of legal conflicts especially if you want to use photographs for your business.

Many people regard copyright law as something complex appropriate only for lawyers. But that’s not the case. The copyright basics are easy to be understood and can be quite helpful for every one of us.

So without further ado, what are the main characteristics of the copyright protection of photos:

  1. Copyright protection over images arises automatically – this happens at the moment when a photo is taken, provided that all criteria necessary for receiving protection are fulfilled, that is to say the photo is original, and it is fixed on a medium – print, digital etc.
  2. Who owns the copyright over a photo – this is the photographer that took it. However, in case the photo is made for hire or  in the course of employment, then the copyright can belong to the Commissioner or the employer ( in most of the countries this means mainly that the commercial rights for use of the photo belong to the employer or the Commissioner, the photographer remains the author of the work and keeps some of the moral rights).
  3. What copyright does a photographer have? – these rights are separated into two groups
    • Economic rights – these are rights for commercial exploitation of the photo. This means that every time someone wants to use a photo commercially, permission from the author is required. These rights include:
      • reproduction of the photo in various forms, such as printed publications etc.;
      • to distribute copies of the photo to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
      • public display of the photo;
      • broadcasting or other communication of the photo to the public including transmission over the internet etc.
    • Moral rights – they are recognizable in most of the countries around the world including in the US where, however, moral rights are possible only for visual art. Their scope can vary in the different countries but we can summarize the most essential of them such as:
      • the right to claim authorship;
      • to prevent any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that photo etc.
  4. Fair use of photos – some uses cannot be prohibited by the photographer which means that the relevant photo can be used for free. This includes:
    • Use of photos for non-commercial and private study;
    • Use for non-commercial research;
    • Criticism, quotation, review, and reporting current events;
    • Teaching;
    • In case of supporting disabled people;
    • Parody and caricature;
  5. Duration of copyright over photos – in most of the countries around the world copyright duration over photographs is the life of the photographer + 70 years when his/her hires can benefit from these rights.

That’s it. It wasn’t so bad. Of course this was only some of the most essential moments but nevertheless knowing them is a good first step to avoid potential legal disputes especially from a business point of view.

In case you want to learn more and to be better prepared you can check this new Udemy course: Photography & Copyright: A Complete guide for photographers.

It discusses all the above and even more, topics such as how to license a photograph, what is a Creative Commons license, what photographers should bear in mind when taking pictures and how they can enforce their rights if needed.


One thought on “What should you know about copyright and photographs?

  1. You should clarify that “work for hire” doesn’t exist in most of the world. It is mainly a US doctrine but other countries such as the UK have a similar concept. Never the less employees own copyright in works including photographs in much of the rest of the world. The commissioning party may only get a license to use the photo. Not ownership.

    Even a work for hire agreement may not be valid if certain criteria are not met such as a written agreement with the actual words “work for hire”. Thus, a verbal or online agreement is not a valid work for hire agreement.


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