A Copyright Primer

Copyright is the legal bedrock upon which your photography business is built. It gives you the sole right to decide who can use the work you create. These simple basics will change the way you think about your images.

  • You create it — you own it. Your copyright comes into existence automatically when you capture an original image.
  • Any person or business must have permission (a license) from you to publish (reproduce) your images in any medium, physical or electronic. The specifics of what permissions you grant and how you go about granting them are detailed on the following pages.
  • You do not have to register your work with the Copyright Office to acquire your copyright. However, the legal protections available to you are limited if the photographs are not registered. Those limitations can translate into lost income.
  • Your name and/or the copyright symbol do not have to appear on or next to your image to have copyright protection. There are practical business reasons for labeling your work, but you do not lose your rights if that label is removed or was never present.

Exceptions to these copyright truths:

Work Made for Hire (W.M.F.H.) Agreements (sometimes called Work for Hire) — These agreements state that the copyright to any work created for a specific project (as outlined in the contract), belongs to the commissioning party, and not to the creator of the images. Photographers who sign a Work Made for Hire Agreement supplied by the client relinquish their rights to the photographs and any future income from those photographs.

Even when photographers specify the usage rights, it is not unusual for clients to attach W.M.F.H. agreements to purchase orders and editorial contracts, so read carefully any document you are asked to sign.

The term Work for Hire gets used freely, but the legal definition is very specific. For complete information on this complicated topic, see the WFH page in ASMP’s copyright tutorial.

Employees — If you are an employee, your employer most likely owns the copyright to the images you create as part of your job description and duties. Check your employment contract to be sure or, in the absence of a contract, speak to the Human Resources Department or an attorney.

Transfers of Copyright — If you sign a transfer of copyright, you relinquish all your rights to the specific photographs designated in the agreement. Then, without the new owner’s permission, you cannot display or use the photographs in any way.