Skip to content

Copyrights Explained: Everything You Need to Know About Photography Copyright

As a photographer, you will need to know about copyright. Copyright is the law which says who owns a piece of art, an idea, a melody, or so on. In our terms, it decides who has the rights to a particular photograph. This is very important when it comes to selling images, whether as art or as commercial prints, and even when sharing them online. Here’s everything that you need to know.


Who owns your work?

Many people are under the impression that if you don’t have a copyright notice for your images, they aren’t protected under the law. This means that anyone can use them for free without even having to ask you. You also have to apply for your copyright on your works individually, which takes a lot of time and effort.

Actually, this is no longer true. In the USA, almost everything “created privately and originally” after April 1, 1989 is copyrighted to the creators. In other words, if you took the photograph, you own it. This is the case in most countries around the world.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, however. For example, if you have a contract with your client which says that the copyright reverts to them after the images have been created, then you no longer hold the copyright – they do. This is something to watch out for with commercial clients, as you should be charging a great deal more if they want you to hand over your rights.

You also have to check the content of your images, bizarre as that may sound, before you know who owns the full rights to sell them.


What about the content of your images?

Here’s one of the main sticking points. It’s possible for your image, which is copyrighted to you, to contain something that is copyrighted to someone else. All of these things can belong to another person:

  • A logo
  • Private property (but only when shot from the private property, in most cases: if shot from public land, you may be fine)
  • Photographs, artwork, or other creative items such as sculptures (for example, if hanging on the wall behind your subject)
  • Human faces

If you have any of these things in your image, it’s best to get permission before you use them. This is why we have model releases for our subjects to sign, and you can also get property releases for private property. In that case, you should ask the legal owner of the land to sign the document.

You are less likely to get permission when you include creative endeavors or logos in your photographs. For example, if you took a photograph of a famous sportsman who gave you permission to sell the image, you might still get in hot water with the sponsorship logos he wears on his shirt.


Isn’t it fine if I don’t sell the images?

So, all of these things only matter if you’re selling the image, right? Well, no. Actually, you can be asked to take an image down from your website or social media page – and if you don’t, you could be open to a lawsuit.

Generally speaking, most photographs are fine to share online. Logos might be seen as free advertising for the companies, for example. But you will need to be careful if you take photographs of a person and then share them online without their knowledge or permission.

The rules here can differ depending on the country – for example, in some places you can sell images for journalistic purposes or if taken on public land – but it’s usually better to be safe than sorry. Above that, you might also consider it to be common decency to take down an image if the subject is uncomfortable with it being shared.


What is fair use?

Now we’re getting on to a more complicated part of the subject. You can use an image that is copyrighted to someone else – so long as it is fair use.

So, what does fair use entail? It includes commentary, parody, news reporting, research and education, in the US at least. This means you could use an image or a copyrighted idea if you were making a joke about it, researching, or reporting on something. Let’s take an example. You could have a model dress up as Link from the popular video games, including items bearing the Triforce logo, and take photographs of them. This would be fine as it comes under fair use. However, if you try to sell those images, you might have to explain yourself to the owners of the copyright.

What you absolutely can’t do is make copies of the Triforce logo and sell them – for example, if you created cosplay outfits for sale – without permission from the copyright holders.


How can I use images for free?

There are a few cases in which you can use photographs by other creators for free. This is really useful for practicing your Photoshop editing skills, for example, when you don’t have enough of your own material to work with.

A Creative Commons license means that the copyright holder has chosen to allow you to do what you like with the image. Watch out for non-commercial and commercial licenses. If it has a Creative Commons commercial license, you can use it for whatever you like and even sell it later. Some websites have stock images under this license.

You can also use images where the copyright has expired, putting them into the public domain. There are even some images which were in the public domain to start with, for what could be a variety of reasons.


Now you know more about copyright, you will be able to use images from others and market your own properly. You will also know that your rights are worth something – don’t give them away to clients for free! If you have any more questions about copyright, make sure to leave them in the comments section below.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *