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Copyright 101 for Photographers

written by: Mayflor Markusic•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 8/20/2009

If you sold a picture, have you given all your rights to it? If you took the picture, are you allowed to practically do anything with it? What are the limits of copyright on your photos? Find out.

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    Copyright Basics

    Photography copyright laws are similar to those that also protect music, movies, sculptures and other works of arts, and books and other written materials. The photographer's copyright is his or her right to display, distribute, copy, and create derivatives of photos. Learn the ins, outs and exceptions below.

    Ownership of Copyright

    The easy part about the copyright law is that there is no procedure to take in order to own the copyright to a photo. The moment that a photographer takes the photo is the moment that he/she owns the copyright to that photo. However, when that photo was taken to specifically fulfill a work-for-hire agreement, the photographer essentially gave copyrights to his/her employer. But this does not mean that the photographer has lost his/her rights to that photo. The company or employer simply has copyright to the photo and other photos taken by the photographer during the period of employment.

    Copyright of Clients

    The work-for-hire agreement does not apply to freelance photographers and their clients. No agreement between the photographer and a client meant that the client owns the right to every photo taken by the photographer because the freelance photographer is an independent contractor and not an employee. If the client wanted copyright to the photos, there should be a written record of the transfer of copyright. A copyright transfer also means that the photographer relinquishes his/her copyright to the photos and the client now owns the right to reproduce and display the photos without informing or asking the photographer. If the photographer wanted to keep the copyright but also wanted to give the clients the right to use the photos in certain specific ways, such as in creating a personal calendar, then there should be a limited licensing agreement.

    Limitations of Copyright

    Owning the copyright to photos does not imply blanket authority. There are limits to the things that a photographer can do with the photos, especially when the photos contain images of people and properties. The person in the photo has a right to privacy. This is why the photographer should first obtain a model release form from the person in the photo. Read more about other legal documents that a photographer needs. The ownership of the copyright does not last forever. It lasts only 70 years after the life of the photographer. Beyond that, the photo can be copied by anyone at anytime without committing any copyright infringement.

    Copyright Infringement

    Sharing your photo with someone else without that person giving you photo credit does not automatically mean a copyright infringement, unless there was a written agreement that specifically required that someone give you a photo credit. If the written agreement demanded a photo credit and the person who used the photo did not comply, then there is copyright infringement.

    If another person, without your permission, used your photo but gave you credit for it, copyright infringement may still occur, especially when there is a copyright symbol and notice that specifically requires written permission before using the photo. But with today's advance technologies, it is far too easy to copy photos and difficult to protect copyrights to the photos. This is why photographers are advised to place watermarks on photos that are published on the Internet.






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