A Photographer’s Guide to Copyright

A Photographer’s Guide to Copyright


There are many instances when the law can either help or hinder the achievement of your objectives.  Copyright is an area of law, often misunderstood, which can be particularly helpful for a photographer.  Whether you are an independent photographer, a freelance photo journalist, a staff photographer for a newspaper, a partner in a high street studio or an international studio employee, the law of copyright ultimately affects your job.

In this article, we explain the nature of copyright: what it is; what it protects; how you obtain copyright; how to protect copyright and how to exploit copyright.  We also briefly discuss the use of other people’s work in your photographs and the concept of “fair dealing”.

The Nature of Copyright

Copyright law was developed over two centuries ago, originally to protect written works.  The modern law of copyright extends, among other material, to the protection of photographs.  Copyright law protects photographs against unauthorised exploitation, including copying or unauthorised publishing.  It grants the owner of the photograph the exclusive right to copy the photograph and to “make copies available to the public”: this includes any form of publishing of the photograph.

Form rather than Content

Copyright protects a photograph as the expression or recording of an original idea.  Copyright only protects the idea as recorded (i.e. the manifestation of the idea), not the underlying idea itself.  For example, if a photographer takes a photograph of some overhead powerlines and superimposes it onto a photograph of a stately- home, he will own the copyright in the resultant work.  However any other photographer can take two similar photographs and use them to create a similar superimposed image, without breaching the copyright.  This is because copyright protection does not extend to the concept behind the image, but only to the resultant image itself.

The standard of originality in copyright law is low.  Nearly all photographs will be original as you will be recording your effort and creativity in respect of your choice of film speed (or pixel sensitivity), aperture, lighting, composition of the subject matter, development of the image and any digital manipulation.  In the example above, each of the superimposed images would be “original” even if the two overlaid photographs were similar – provided that the other variables listed above had not been copied.

An International Right

Copyright is an international right principally governed by two international Conventions: the Berne Convention[1] and the Universal Copyright Convention[2].  These Conventions ensure that certain minimum levels of protection are reciprocally given to copyright owners throughout the countries which are members of a Convention.  For example, if you are the copyright owner in the United Kingdom, you can take action to protect your copyright in the USA, France and in any other convention country.  Similarly the copyright owner of a foreign country within one of these conventions can take action to protect his copyright in the United Kingdom.  Most of the countries of the world, including all industrialised countries are in one or both conventions.   There are countries such as Iran and The Seychelles which are not in either convention.  Citizens of these countries do not then enjoy any copyright protection.

[1] Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, 1886
[2] Universal Copyright Convention (or UCC), adopted at Geneva in 1952

How to obtain Copyright

Copyright exists automatically.  Contrary to popular belief, there is no need to register Copyright in your work, nor do you have to affix the international Copyright symbol © to every piece of work you wish to protect. However, the main advantage of inserting the symbol ©, the year and name of the author (i.e. the photographer) is that those facts are then assumed to be true in any subsequent court case.  It also indicates to third parties that you are aware of your rights in the photographs.  In the United Kingdom, copyright lasts until the end of the seventieth year after the end of the year in which the death of the photographer occurs.

Authorship and Ownership

Copyright is given to the author of the photograph.  This is a term used by the legislation in respect of copyright, although it can be misleading when applied to photographs. For example, one person may direct another to take a photograph or be responsible for setting up the scene to be photographed or even just be responsible for the lighting.  The case of Creation Records Ltd v News Group Newspapers Ltd[3] determined that the author of the photograph is the person who takes it – i.e. the person who presses the shutter release.  The only exception to this is perhaps the photographer’s apprentice, where a photographer sets up the scene to be photographed (the position and angle of the camera and all the necessary settings) and directs the apprentice to press the shutter release at a moment chosen by the photographer.  In this example, it would be the photographer and not the apprentice who would be deemed to be the author.

The photographer, being the author, is said to be the first owner of the copyright in a photograph.  However, ownership of copyright is a different concept to that of authorship.  Ownership can be transferred while the authorship (or creation) remains with one person and can never be transferred.  That transfer can be by way of a sale or it may be by operation of law: for example when a photographer dies, his estate will inherit ownership of the copyright in his photographs.

[3] Creation Records Ltd v News Group Newspapers Ltd [1997] EMLR 444 (Ch)

Copyright and Employment

Most employment contracts expressly provide that the copyright in any work created by an employee in the course of their employment is owned by the employer.  Even if the contract does not explicitly say this, the law effectively states that this is the case, unless otherwise agreed.  So, for example, if an employee of a newspaper takes photographs of a celebrity which are worth a lot of money, it is the newspaper, not the photographer who becomes the first owner of copyright in the photographs, due to the operation of this rule of copyright law.

The rule that the employer owns copyright does not, however, extend to photographs created outside the course of employment.  So a photograph taken outside working hours, particularly one which does not use the newspaper’s photographic equipment, would be owned by the photographer not his newspaper employer.  There is still some debate, however, as to what effect the use of the employer’s equipment would have on the ownership of copyright in these circumstances.  Much would depend upon the exact situation, the seniority of the employee and his precise job description.

Joint Ownership

It is possible to have joint ownership of copyright in law.  However, unless the joint owners agree otherwise, neither joint owner is permitted to publish the photograph or to licence a third party to copy the work without the consent of the other.  Therefore, where a photographer and a commissioner agree to own copyright jointly neither party will, in the absence of an agreement with the other party, be permitted fully to exploit the photographs without the consent of the other party.  The commercial reality, therefore, is that joint ownership of copyright does not provide an easy solution.

Moral Rights

These are separate rights owned by the author of a photograph.  Moral rights are always owned by the author and can never be transferred.  For instance, when a photographer sells a picture to a photographic agency (as opposed to merely granting a licence to use the photograph) the photographer would still retain the moral rights in the photograph.

One moral right is the right to be identified as the author of the photograph whenever it is published.  This moral right must, however be asserted before it comes into operation.

A second moral right is the right to object to any derogatory treatment of the photograph.  Derogatory treatment means any “addition, deletion, alteration or adaptation which amounts to distortion or mutilation of the work or which is otherwise prejudicial to the honour or reputation” of the photographer.  This right would extend for example to any digital manipulation which alters the photograph in a substantial and derogatory manner without the author’s permission.  However a critique of a work by another photographer does not constitute an infringement of moral rights.

Although moral rights cannot be transferred, they can be waived.  For instance, the purchaser of a photograph may require that the moral rights are “waived” by the author.  This then prevents the author of the photograph from enforcing those moral rights at a later date.

Exploitation – Common Misunderstandings

As has been seen, it is a breach of copyright to make a copy or distribute a copy of a photograph without the consent of the owner of the copyright.  A copyright licence is nothing more than a permission from the owner granting the right to make a copy.  The licence can be limited in a number of ways: by geography; by time; by the media on which the copy is made.  So, for example, a photographer could grant a licence allowing someone to make and distribute CD-ROMs containing his photographs in the United States for a period of ten years.

Confusion sometimes surrounds determining who is the author and the fact that ownership can be transferred, while authorship cannot.  This becomes especially important when a photographer is exploiting (making use of) his copyright by publishing or having someone else publish his photographs.

A Commissioned Photograph

For example, take the following scenario: a library commissions a photographer to take some photographs of some historic buildings and also some pictures of a newly constructed building designed by a famous international architect.  There are three issues in this scenario; first, what rights will the photographer have in the photographs, what rights will the library have and what rights will the architect have?

The answer to the first question is, simply, whatever rights the photographer does not give to the library.  The photographer, will be the author and initial owner of the copyright in the photographs.  Copyright is a form of property and, as mentioned earlier, it can be transferred to someone else – this could be outright ownership or merely by granting a licence to use the photographs.  The photographer may want to give the library (only) a licence to hold copies of the photographs for reference or to use them in a limited number of publications but not, for example, to include them on the library’s Internet site.

Similarly the library would obtain only the rights expressly transferred or licensed to it.  The library may want the photographer to relinquish all his rights and transfer the ownership to the library (for a fee, of course) so that it becomes free to use the photographs in any way it chooses – for example, in promotional material, advertisements, catalogues as well as on its Internet site.

The moral rights in the photographs would always remain with the photographer.  If the library did not want them to be exercised and the photographer was agreeable, the most that the library could achieve would be a waiver of the moral rights i.e. an agreement by the photographer that he would not exercise those moral rights.

From what has been said, a photographer may think that he need not worry when he is employed on a commission basis, since the photographer would always own the copyright in the photographs.  Experience indicates otherwise.  Although, in theory, a written assignment is necessary to transfer the copyright, the courts have been more liberal in their practical interpretation of the law.  In practice, if the commissioner can show that, in the circumstances, it is proper for the commissioner to own the copyright or to have an extensive licence in the copyright to use the photographs, the courts will enforce such rights in favour of the commissioner.  In reality, the only way to avoid such an argument is to have a written contract to delineate precisely which party is to own the copyright and, more importantly, what rights, if any, the party who is not to own the copyright has to reproduce the photographs.  The contract does not have to be in writing, but it is more sensible if it is.

On a number of occasions the courts have implied into the contract a transfer of the copyright where it has not been mentioned by the parties, however this is only usual when there has been a well established trading history between the person giving the commission and the photographer.  This is particularly likely to occur where the photographer has not shown any objections to the commissioner using his work for other purposes previously.  In practice, both photographer and commissioner should closely scrutinise the terms and conditions they are contracting on before the photographs are taken and if necessary take advice – it could save a great deal of time and money later on.

The remaining third question, namely what rights does the architect have, has a straightforward answer.  The copyright an architect holds is primarily in the plans of the building on paper, (so you cannot copy those without permission) and in the physical building itself – so you cannot construct a copy of that building without permission.  Almost certainly, taking a photograph of the building does not infringe the architect’s rights.

Copyright Protection

What happens when someone else copies or publishes a photograph without the permission of the owner of the copyright?  This is an infringement of copyright law.  Primarily, however, it is up to the owner of the copyright to take action himself to enforce copyright.  He can seek an injunction to prevent future publication and seek damages.  If the copying is done in the course of a business, it will also amount to a criminal offence – punishable by up to ten years imprisonment and an unlimited fine (see section 107 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988).

Even a straightforward copyright infringement can therefore amount to a criminal offence.  This principle was established in the case of Thames & Hudson v Design and Artists Copyright Society Limited[4].  The case concerned copyright in a photograph.  The parties were in dispute over the extent of a licence granted to use certain photographs in a book.  The defendant claimed that the licence did not extend to use of the photographs in the second edition of the book.  In order to put commercial pressure on Thames & Hudson, the Design and Artists Copyright Society initiated proceedings in Bow Street Magistrates court against them.  A case was then brought by Thames & Hudson Limited to stop those criminal proceedings as an abuse of process.  The court rejected Thames & Hudson’s argument that the criminal provisions of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1994 was intended only for “pirate” organisations.  The court held that the statute did not limit the nature of the offender and therefore the criminal proceedings against Thames & Hudson Limited could proceed.

[4] Thames & Hudson v Design and Artists Copyright Society Limited. [1995] FSR 153

Fair Dealing

A possible defence is for the infringer to argue that he falls under the “fair dealing” exception.  The “fair dealing” defence is however, quite limited in English law.  The only circumstances in which it applies in commercial circumstances is where there is “fair dealing … for the purposes of criticism or review”[5].

A high profile case in this area is that of Banier v News Group Newspapers Ltd[6].  The case involved an attempt by a newspaper to claim the right to publish a photograph without the owner’s permission.  A picture of Princess Caroline of Monaco was published by the Times under an exclusive licence.  The Sun, having been unable to obtain a similar licence, published the photograph regardless.  It was argued by the Sun that it was industry practice to publish photographs before obtaining a licence when the photograph had already appeared in another newspaper and that a licence would then, in normal circumstances, be obtained retrospectively.  The court stated that although many newspapers may have adopted this practice in the past it was, nevertheless, “plainly unjustified and unlawful”.

It was further argued by the Sun that the concept of “fair dealing” applied.  The court held that the concept of “fair dealing” extended only to the purposes of criticism or review and provided that sufficient acknowledgement is given to the author.  Furthermore, there is a specific exception in that the concept of “fair dealing” does not apply to photographs used in news reporting – the reporter always needs permission.  The Sun could not therefore take advantage of the “fair dealing” defence in these circumstances.

[5] Section 30 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act. 1988

[6] Banier v News Group Newspapers Ltd [1997] FSR 812]

Breach of Licence

One of the most common breaches of copyright is where an agency uses a picture for a different purpose to the one which the photographer believed he or she licensed the photograph for.  This often occurs when there is no written contract.  The common assumption in practice is that where a photographer grants a licence it is for use of a photograph once in one territory and on one medium.  If there is to be further publication the photographer must agree to grant a further licence.

Theoretically this is good news for a photographer.  However the practicalities of proving that a photographer only granted a licence to use the photograph once (without a written contract) can be time consuming and expensive.  This is the reason why much unauthorised use goes on – regardless of the fact that breach of a licence in the course of a business is also a criminal offence.[7]  In practice, it is often simply not worthwhile or cost effective to take action for copyright infringement.  Having a written contract often tips the risk – benefit equation over to make it worth while to take action for infringement.

[7] See the discussion of the case of Thames & Hudson v Design and Artists Copyright Society Limited above.

Copyright and the Internet

The Internet is notoriously difficult to police.  In practice, once you put copyright – protected material on the Internet, there is nothing to stop someone copying it.  Two solutions present themselves: (1) don’t put photographs in which you wish to enforce the copyright on the Internet; or (2) if you need to advertise that you have certain photographs, put only poor quality copies that are not worth copying on the Internet.  Hopefully, then people who want a good quality copy will contact you and pay for one!

There is a third solution, which is by the inclusion of a watermark.  However, all watermarks can be removed given sufficient time.  Nevertheless, a complex and intricate watermark may prove an effective deterrent given the effort required to remove it.

Conclusion – Practical Steps for Photographers

These few practical steps should help a photographer protect the copyright in his photographs:

  • When granting a licence which allows someone to use the photographs, use a written contract which details as precisely as possible what the licensee is allowed to use the photograph for, stating that they must contact the photographer to agree a separate fee for any other use.
  • When taking photographs on a commission, do not rely on the legal assumption that the photographer will own the copyright in the photographs. Remember that this is only a starting point.  Always record in writing that the photographer is to retain the copyright and expressly state what the commissioner may do with the photographs.
  • Do take the time to check your employment contract and determine what rights you have in the photographs you take.
  • If you want to be named as the author of the photograph, say so before you grant the licence.
  • If you are creating a virtual library on the Internet, don’t put photographs on the Internet that you don’t want copying. Only put “tasters” on – copies which aren’t good enough for commercial publication.
  • If in doubt, take legal advice. Remember that ‘a stitch in time’ really does ‘save nine’!