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What is photography copyright and how does it affect my photography business?

One issue that image-makers will come up against is photography copyright ownership. In recent years it has been added to the list of things to ask your potential wedding photographer for. I feel quite strongly about this and have been disheartened to see so many photographers giving their photography copyright away to clients. And a little surprised – which generally leads me to believe that many photographers really don’t understand what copyright is and the issues involved.

A professional photographer should never hand over copyright to the images.  I was once asked to hand over the photography copyright to the images of a wedding where Mick Jagger was present and I flatly refused which could have resulted in me losing the client.  Interestingly the family were commercially involved with music licensing and so when I explained the situation in their terms they really couldn’t argue.  Clients may well ask you so it is best to assume that they don’t really understand the difference between the copyright and a usage license.  In order to understand the details better here is a brief overview:

What is (photography) copyright?

It is actually a complex piece of legislation which is constantly evolving. It exists to try and protect photographs against unauthorised copying and also allows photographers to permit images to be copied or used for payment. The system is in place to try and guarantee respect for the photographer’s economic and moral rights.

Copyright is part of a group of rights known as Intellectual Property Rights and refers to something that can be owned. There is no system for registering copyright in a photograph in the UK and according to the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 it exists automatically from the moment the image is created plus 70 years.

“If the photos are of me why don’t I own the photography copyright?”

In recent years clients have started to argue that having paid the photographer to take the images, they own both the photograph and the copyright in it.

In essence what they are paying for is the photographer’s skill, creativity, for their time and expenses and the right to use the photographs. It is important to note that the ownership of the photography copyright is quite separate from the ownership of the actual physical work.

When you commission a photographer the end product is known as the ‘goods’ – whether this means a print, a digital file, framed image or finished album.

Some photographers will provide a USB of images for the clients own use whether for a wedding, a portrait or a commercial shoot. Supplied with the images should be some form of usage license. Depending on the type of shoot the terms of the licence can vary tremendously but must be set out clearly in a signed contract.

What is a photography usage license?

Whilst less important in social or consumer photography a usage license is essential in the advertising and commercial world and it is very important to find out from a client how they intend to use the images.  These are considered to be the most important factors that affect the final usage license agreement:

  • Duration/Time – how long will the image be used internally or externally by the client?  The phrase ‘in perpetuity’ is often used and this basically means ‘forever’.
  • Media – where will the image be used – what form of communications.  This can be anything from an annual report to a billboard in Piccadilly Circus.
  • Audience – who will see the photographs – the list is very extensive and covers consumers, B2B, Government etc
  • Territory – where will the images be circulated – just London, the UK or Globally?

A licence that states ‘personal use’ does not allow the client to put them into the public domain – think Facebook or similar online networks. By doing this they are publishing or distributing the photographs and opening the door for them be taken and used for economic gain without anyone’s knowledge. This is why many photographers supply watermarked screen resolution files for use on social media.

If a photographer does decide to assign their photography copyright then they will have no further interest in, or control over, their work and there may be no further opportunity to earn income from it. It means that a bride could sell her wedding images to her wedding venue, florist or dress designer for profit.  Or a commercial client can continue to earn money from your work on an ongoing basis. Or even reassign the Copyright themselves.

It can be very difficult to know where to start when asked to provide a usage fee for your photographs –  Getty Images have a very useful calculator which can certainly provide a starting point for conversations with commercial clients.

If you would like more information you can visit the website developed by Sal Shuel, a former administrator of the British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies: offers a comprehensive guide to what can and can’t be done.

Critically I hope that you now understand that a photographer should never give away their photography copyright and instead provide a usage agreement that is agreed between both parties and in line with their clients needs.

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