© Copyright. Yours or mine?
In the world of digital photography, the question of who owns the rights to a photo is more hazy than it was in the days of film photography. And because there are numerous photographers, millions of photographs are floating around on hard copy and on the Internet.
The law says the "author" is the owner of the copyright. The author of a photo or image is usually the person who snapped the shutter or created the image. If you took the photo, you own the copyright. If a professional photographer took the photo for you, then he or she owns the copyright. If that photographer is an employee of a studio or other person in the business of making photos, then his or her employer is considered the author. (www.kodak.com/cluster/global/en/consumer/doingMore/copyright.shtml)
I am not a lawyer, but I have been reading up on copyright laws and how they relate to photographers to make sure that I understand my rights.
When photographers used film, they most often kept the negatives, and clients would need to order prints from the photographers. But these days, with digital files, customers tend to ask to buy the digital files and make prints themselves. Photographers who have been around for a long time don't usually want to do this for a few reasons. Once the images are released, a client could get images printed anywhere, such as at a big box store or a drug store. Sometimes the prints look fine; other times they look downright terrible. When your name and appearance are on the line, we prefer to ensure the client will receive a high-quality image. I work with 2 professional printing companies. My computer is calibrated to their printers so I know what the results will be every time.
Photographers are in the business not only to enjoy their work but also to make money. Most of us love what we do, but it is time-consuming work that requires a financial investment, so the main goal is to sell our work. We could potentially make more money selling prints than digital files.
Many photographers put their logos or watermarks on prints and digital files. This is usually to prevent people from scanning or downloading the images and having them printed without the photographer's approval. It is illegal for a business to make prints that show a photographer’s logo without permission from that photographer.
I have had clients take my images and edit them with crazy colors or text and either print them out or, even worse, upload the images to Facebook or other social media. At that point the images are not representative of my work anymore, but people who see the product with my logo or watermark don't know the images were not how I intended them to look. I like it when clients have low-resolution copies of my work on Facebook or other social media, as long as they leave the watermark on and don't edit the image (it's fun for them and advertising for me). And yes, I do legally own the images. They are my creation. In certain situations, such as business portraits, I do a print release, which allows clients to print the images anytime they would like (for business cards, brochures etc.) but I am still the owner of the images. If you release the copyrights, then the photographer no longer owns them. It is rare for a photographer to give up the rights to images.
These are my main issues, but I know other photographers who have had images “obtained” and then sold or used on a site not affiliated with the photographers. Essentially, this is stealing. It's like downloading music without paying for it. The artist or photographer then loses out on potential income as well as control over the images they have created.
Photographers can also register their photographs with the U.S. Copyright Office. This can be rather tedious because photographers have to register each image individually, but it does give photographers more leverage if they ever see justification for filing lawsuits over copyright infringement.
But does that mean I can use an image of you for anything I want? Even though I own the photo depicting your image, it does not mean I can make a billboard out of your image. I do need to get permission if I want to use your image for advertising or resale. I ask clients when I photograph them if I can use their images in promotional materials for my photography business. Even more legal and appropriate is to use a model release form. Most people enjoy having their images displayed, but once in a while someone says they would rather not. And that is perfectly fine.
What if there is no logo or watermark on the digital image? That gets even trickier. If an image does not show a watermark of the owner, it is still copyrighted by the person who created it, but it can be more difficult to find out who that is.
So please respect photographers as business owners and artists. We want you to enjoy and share your images. When most people are given the copyright details, they understand why we are adamant about the logos or watermarks remaining on the image. If you truly appreciate photography and the skill a professional photographer brings to creating your images, it all makes sense. For many of us, this is our main profession, and we have spent years on education and training to do the best job we can.
Edited by Jan Feeney
One of my images with watermark.