Whose Picture is That?

If I took the picture, does it belong to me? If you’re in the picture, does it belong to you? It’s a common question, but the answer may vary depending on the circumstances. I’m certainly not a lawyer, but as a photographer, it’s important for me to have a basic understanding of how to answer that question. If you’re a bride-to-be, it’s also important for you to understand the issue as well, since photographers vary in how they handle the issue.

Models and shadows

First, a little background, then we’ll look at what it means to me, as a photographer, and to you, as a client.

In very simple terms, when I take a picture, the copyright belongs to me. In other words, I “own” the right to make copies of that photograph or digital image. But, that doesn’t mean I can do anything I want with it. As individuals, we all own the rights to our own name and likeness, and have some say as to how, and by whom, they can be used. So, if I take a picture of you, we both have some rights, and some say, as to what happens to the image.

Starting with a very simple example, suppose I take a picture of a cloud. Since nobody owns the cloud, it can be considered to be in the public domain. And, since I took the photo, I own the copyright to the image. I can publish the photo, or I can choose to let someone else use the photo for their own purposes. Maybe a company wants to use that picture of a cloud in an advertisement, so they will pay me a fee to use that photo. The usage agreement could be exclusive, meaning I won’t let anyone else use that same photo, or it could be non-exclusive, meaning I’m free to license others to use the same photo. Since I own the copyright, I get to decide who can make copies of the image.

Now, suppose I make a poster of that photo of a cloud, and you buy a copy to hang in your office. You didn’t buy the rights to the photo, you only bought an instance of the photo. It’s your poster, so you can hang it up, you can give it away, you can throw it away. You can even sell your poster to someone else. But, you can’t make copies of it, since you don’t own the rights to the image.

But, what happens if I take a picture of you? As the photographer, my rights are the same as above, but with one big exception. You have rights as to how your likeness is used. So, I own the copyright to the image, but I’m limited in what I can do with it without your permission. If that same company as above wants to use the picture of you in their ad, they still need to license the photo from me, but now I need explicit permission from you, the model, to use that photo for commercial purposes. In this example, I would need a signed model release that clearly states how I can use that photo. As the model, you may or may not be paid. You might grant unlimited usage, or you might only allow for one particular use. The terms of the model release can be whatever we agree.

By the way, editorial usage (think photos in a newspaper) has different rules. If I take a picture of you winning a 10K race, I can sell that photo to the local newspaper, and they can use the photo as news coverage of the race. That’s editorial usage, and they would not need a model release. However, they could not use that same photo in an ad for running shoes unless they had a model release from you, and every other person in the photo who could recognize themselves.

So, what does that mean to us as photographers and clients? If you pose for a portrait session, we expect that you’ll want to buy copies of the image, but you probably wouldn’t expect me to sell copies to anyone else. Weddings are more public, so you might expect others to be able to buy copies of photos from your wedding. In either case, you certainly wouldn’t expect for me to license the photos to someone else for an ad campaign. You have rights to determine how your likeness is used.

As the photographer, I own the copyright to the images. In the “old days” it was quite simple, Photographers always retained the copyright, and clients were not allowed to make copies. Today, photographers take a variety of approaches. Some photographers will retain all rights, others will give the client unlimited usage rights to the photos. There isn’t a right or wrong way to do it, just different ways.

As a bride-to-be, it becomes especially important for you to understand how your photographer views these issues. You’ll especially want to discuss DVD’s and online web galleries. If you have an online gallery, do you want other people to be able to buy prints? Do you want a the web gallery to be accessible only through a password? If you receive a DVD of images, will they have the photographer’s logo on them? Are you allowed to make your own prints and distribute copies?

I would also urge you to be realistic about your intentions. Since some photographers will allow unrestricted usage of the images on the DVD, many couples decide that they’ll just make their own prints and album. There’s nothing wrong with that, but do you really have the time and tools to follow through? Remember too, most photo lab and consumer ink jets prints and DVD’s all fade over time, sometimes in just a year or two. In a few years, you may not have any photos from your wedding. It’s not uncommon to spend thousands of dollars on a wedding dress that’s worn one time, but then skimp on the photos that should last a lifetime.

About Craig

I have a passion to create, and I'm fascinated with the tools and technologies of creativity. I strive to produce images that are graphically simple and technically precise in order to render beautiful photographic fine art prints. I work with a variety of digital transformations to create a finished image that reflects my artistic interpretation.
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