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A Quick Explanation of Copyright

I get this question a lot from clients, other photographers, friends, parents, etc. Who owns the copyright?

And it’s a very touchy subject–because a lot of times, clients think that it’s a studio’s policy to not release a copyright or to retain it. In actuality–it’s not our choice. It’s the law…it’s just the way it is.

My understanding of the laws (which I’ll admit, even for ALL the research I’ve done, I still learn something new everyday) is that the person who creates the art, be it painter, sketch artist or photographer, owns the copyright. In copyright terms, it doesn’t matter that the photograph is of you–it matters that I am the one who took the photograph.

And it doesn’t quite work as easy as “releasing the copyright” to another person. The only time I’ve ever heard of that is in a work for hire situation in which case the pay is very, very high. However, there is an option to allow printing rights on images–this is what most photographers do. But it’s still not the same as releasing a copyright. With this license, you have the ability to print your own images, however you could not turn around and sell that image to Coca-Cola and make a profit off of the photographer’s work.

For this reason, be cautious of the photographer who is easily willing to “release the copyright” of all their images to you. It’s likely that if they’re doing this for little or no money, they probably don’t understand the business that they’re in very well. When I just began my business, I did allow printing rights for all the images, but I’ve quickly learned that you can’t earn a living that way. Like I said, I’ve been doing this for years and there’s still a lot that I don’t understand. I even WORKED in a licensing department at both a publishing house and a television studio and I still don’t have as firm a grasp as I’d like on copyright. It’s such a complicated system.

So, to sum up:

1) Copyright belongs to the photographer. The “release” of said copyright is not a single studio’s or photographer’s choice–it’s simply the law.

2) This copyright allows the photographer to use any and all images taken to be used on their websites and in advertising (but not necessarily sold, ie to stock agencies)

If I’m incorrect on any of these points, let me know! I’m constantly trying to learn and hopefully this helps us all have a clearer idea of the laws.

3 Responses to “A Quick Explanation of Copyright”

  1. WordVixen Says:

    That sounds very much like copyrights for books (which I believe is the same law?). The author retains the copyright, even if all rights are sold to the publishing house. A photographer should be able to sell all rights to the client if they want to (and command a very hefty fee for it), which means that the client could do anything they want with the photo. But, the photographer would still be the holder of copyright, and presumably could still use the photos themselves.

  2. Jeannie Says:

    I work in higher education publishing. We have to clear rights on all images (usually stock photos, but not always) before they can be used in books and we must always cite the source. We even avoid using Microsoft clip art images because we have to get permission from Microsoft. (I have an author who wants to use clip art all the time and I have to keep removing it. Why she wants to dumb-down a college-level text with that type of garbage is beyond me).

    Some don’t undersand how to use of public domain content. In the case of written material, public domain means is you can use the material without contacting the author/owner, BUT you still must cite the origin/source of the material. sometimes I feel like I’m banging my head against my desk when dealing with rights & permissions issues and authors’ lack of knowledge in this area.

  3. Colleen Says:

    Yeah, stock images are a totally different story…like, I couldn’t for example use a photo of the baby eating cake (above) in a stock site unless I had a model release from his mother.Because I can’t make extra money off of it without her permission (and if a company chooses to buy that image, sometimes they ask for all model releases, but most assume that you know enough to protect yourself and have one). But using the images as advertising on blogs, websites, etc is within the photographer’s rights as owner of the image.

    There’s just so much to know and like I said, it seems like parents should be right….”I mean, it’s a photo of me…isn’t it natural that I own it?” But, it’s so hard to explain. And a good 50% of the time, they don’t believe me and try to fight it. Oy.

    Word - What you’re saying sounds exactly right (again, to my knowledge). The two industries must be pretty similar.

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