Who Owns Your Photos: A few points on photography copyright law and how to use it.

Flo Ojeda
4 min readApr 19, 2021
Brandon Erlinger-Ford — Unsplash
Brandon Erlinger-Ford — Unsplash

How many times have we as photographers heard from our clients, “but if I’m paying you for the photoshoot, then I own the photos…”? This is a matter that all too often brings professionals to their knees when it comes to being paid properly (or sometimes at all) for their work..

So, when you hire a photographer for professional photo work, who owns the photos, you or the photographer?

First of all we need to understand what Copyright is and how it works.

1. What is Copyright?

Over two centuries ago, copyright was created to protect written work but as time went by, copyright law extended to other types of work such as music and, yes…photography.

2. Who does it protect, and from what?

Copyright law grants the photographer the exclusive right to make as many copies as the professional desires and to make them available to the public in any form of publishing of the material.
This law protects photographs against unauthorized exploitation, including copying, unauthorized publishing and or distribution by others, including clients.

3. Is it valid everywhere?

Copyright is an international right. Two international Conventions* ensure a minimum level of protection reciprocally given and respected for copyright owners throughout the member countries of the convention. This means that if you, the copyright owner, live in Spain and see your photo being used in U.S.A you can still take action to protect your work.

4. Do I need to register?

You don’t need to register Copyright for your work, it exists automatically (how great is that!). Also, contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to put the © symbol on the photo to be protected.
Having said that, though it is not necessary, having the © symbol followed by the name of the photographer and even the year is a good habit, as it lets people know that you know your rights when in comes to your work and it will strengthen your case in court should you need to take that measure. Keep in mind though, that if you want to file a suit the registration is a must (read more here).

5. Does it last forever?

A copyright is not eternal. The “expiration date” of the Copyright depends on many factors, i.e what sort of work are we talking about, (music, film, photo), the first date of publication (if it got published), amongst others. But the general timeframe is 70 years.

6. As a photographer, can I give my copyright to anyone?

All of the owner’s exclusive rights can be transferred. But for this transfer to be valid, it must be done in writing and singed by the owner. Of course, you the photographer would want to be compensated to consider transferring/selling your copyright.

7. I paid a photographer, don’t I own the photograph?

Actually, no. When you hire a photographer for a photoshoot, the photographer will be the owner of the resulting photos, unless an explicit agreement states otherwise (see point 6 above). The professional may grant you an unlimited license for the photos but the ownership stays with the photographer unless, as stated above, he or she transfers this in writing.

8. The photo license is for you.

This means that the photographer granted you, the person that paid for the photos, a permission (license) to use the photos. Licensing agreements can range from very simple to very complex. However, licensing and owning are two different things. You also do not have the right to give the photo to a third party to use (unless a signed agreement explicitly states to the contrary in writing).

as this extract from alpne.io explains it:

Say you’re an architect, and you paid a photographer to shoot your latest custom home, and you received a very open license to use those photos. A magazine calls and asks if they can use your photos in a story they’re running about you. The answer is a big NO. While you could use those photos in a print ad in said magazine, the magazine becomes the user of the photo when they are using it for their own editorial. So they should be negotiating their own license with the photographer. In the same example, if the builder who constructed your beautiful custom home asks for copies of those photos for his portfolio, the answer is also NO. The photo license is for you and you only.

Photography can be a very rewarding field in which to work, but it can be challenging when it comes to protecting one’s work. The best course of action is to know your rights as they relate to your work and make sure to clearly communicate these to any client you are working with.

*Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, 1886
Universal Copyright Convention (or UCC), adopted at Geneva in 1952

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Flo Ojeda

Vlogger, photographer and serial entrepreneur. Contributor to Surged Media, Regione Toscana, Souplesse Sport, and many more