What You Need to Know About Copyright and Digital Imagery

With so many people creating, selling, and buying digital files these days, the issue of copyright has become a really important one.  I admit that ten years ago, I didn't think much about the photographs I saw on the Internet, including who owned them or what other people could do with them.  

Nowadays, though, because we see images everywhere online, we all need to know more about copyright - not only out of respect to those who create the work, but also to protect ourselves.  I don't ever want people to break the law accidentally, because they didn't know better, and end up knee-deep in a lawsuit because of it!

What is copyright, and what do you, as a consumer of digital imagery, need to know about it? Well, here is a handy list of important points regarding copyright as it pertains to the digital images created by your portrait photographer.

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What is copyright?

Very generally, copyright is the exclusive right of a person to control the use of his or her own intellectual property. In the case of my photography, copyright refers to my ownership of my work, and my right to decide how, or if, my images are used, displayed, distributed, reproduced, or altered. When a person violates copyright, by using, copying, or changing a photographer’s image without permission, that person is breaking Federal law (see The Federal Copyright Act - U.S.C. Title 17) and is subject to civil and criminal penalties.

It’s actually a really big deal!

When does copyright begin and end?

According to Federal law, copyright belongs to the photographer the moment the photograph is taken. Copyright lasts for the life of the creator plus 70 years. So, 70 years after I die, my images are in the public domain.

If I hire the photographer, and buy the digital files, don’t I own the copyright, then?

No! This is where a lot of people get confused.  

The photographer owns the rights to his or her work. If that photographer transfers the rights to you in writing with a signed, legal document (usually for a hefty additional fee), then you may own the rights. This is NOT the same as a print release, though! A print release gives you permission to print pictures, and is to protect you so you don't get in trouble for violating copyright.  (Most reputable print labs will ask if you have a print release, or some kind of permission from the photographer, to print professional photographs. That is their legal duty.) 

Paying the photographer for a session and/or digital images does not mean you own the copyright.  But if you buy digital files from me, you DO get permission to make unlimited numbers of prints, and you can post them online and share them to your heart's content.

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So, I can’t play with the pictures you take of me in photoshop? I can’t scan my prints and use them online, or make more prints with the scans? Can I take screenshots from my proofing gallery or from your blog and share them?  But what if I “credit” the photographer?

No, no, no, and no. Sorry. Those things are illegal. Really! They are.

You shouldn’t alter your purchased digital files in any way, except to crop them to the correct aspect ratio for printing. (You MAY ask me if certain edits and retouches are possible, and if they are, I will do them for you.)

You may not scan that 8x10 you bought and then use it online or make more copies of the picture.   Scanning and then making copies and using those scans is stealing from me: stealing my work AND stealing the income that I am owed for those images.  (You MAY buy a digital file, though, and post it, or make as many prints as you want from those!)

You should not take screenshots from your proofing gallery, or lift images from my blog or social media.  That, too, is stealing.  (You MAY share a link to your proofing gallery, blog post, or social media image!)

Giving me credit is nice, but it’s not the same as copyright transfer or paying to use the images legally.

The contract that all my clients sign when booking my services outlines all these things in detail; it is important to me that everybody understands this at the very beginning of our relationship.   My clients have all been wonderful about reading this and respecting my copyright.  I am very lucky that way!

Can the photographer/copyright owner do anything he or she wants with pictures that I am in?

No! Just because I own my images doesn’t mean I can stick your face up on a billboard, or sell T-shirts with your likeness, for example. That is why I have a model release built into my contract.  (And, for the record, all I ever do with client images is use them on my website and blog, and sometimes on social media ads, printed studio samples, brochures, or business cards.  That's it.  I won’t ever sell T-shirts, calendars, or mugs with your likeness on them!)  If you would prefer I not use your images, you may refuse your permission and you are protected by that model release. I always honor my clients’ wishes about using their likenesses - it’s very important to me that I abide by your preferences.


Does an image need to be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office or marked with a copyright symbol in order to be protected?

No. Federal law states that copyright automatically rests with the photographer, the moment the image is taken. It does not need to be registered or marked for this to be true. Registering and marking are good ideas, though.

What if I want copyright so I can do whatever I want with my pictures?

Well, you can ask me about copyright transfer, and if you are serious about it, I’ll consult my lawyer and have a legal document drawn up, and invoice you for transferring copyright from me to you. Generally, copyright transfer for portrait photography runs people up into the thousands of dollars.  

I'll be honest, though - I prefer to retain copyright to my work, and I'd rather avoid a copyright transfer situation.   I don't do work-for-hire arrangements for portrait photography at all.

However, if you are looking to use your images for just a few, specific, commercial uses, ask me!  I can usually work something out.  I do want you to be able to use the pictures as you wish.  Headshot clients know that their images are available for printing in programs, concert advertisements, and more.  I will not come after you for that kind of thing.

What if someone steals your photographs and tries to pass them off as his or her own work?

Oh, don’t get me started! This is theft. It is illegal, unethical, and downright dirty.  And if it happens I will contact the thief directly, issue a Federal DMCA takedown notice, and probably have my lawyers draft a Cease and Desist letter. I may end up taking things further and file charges. People who steal are crooks, plain and simple. And I take this seriously, because it’s YOUR likeness that may end up on a thief’s website, and I will not let that happen to you or your child. Your trust and your image are of the highest value to me!

Luckily, this is becoming rarer and rarer with copyright issues becoming more widely known and thieves exposed. I have had a few things stolen but managed to get them taken down relatively quickly before anything went viral. I stay on top of this stuff so you don’t have to. So please - don’t worry!


So, if I find an image using Google image search, I can’t take it and do something with it, like add a quote or verse and post it online, or use it on my blog or website?

No! Please don’t do that. This is another area where people get confused, and end up in deep trouble because they didn't understand copyright.

Google is a search engine, not a gallery of free imagery. If you need an image, make one of your own, hire a professional photographer to take one for you and work out commercial use rights legally, or purchase a stock image from one of the many stock sites out there. That’s what stock images are for!  Sadly, a lot of those inspirational or funny memes you see on facebook are done with stolen images.

I hope you found these points useful.  I don't intend to wag fingers here, or get preachy... most of the time people simply don't know what's involved in copyright, and I've heard so many horror stories about people being sued or billed for lots of money, simply due to ignorance or to making a mistake.  

And when we see so many beautiful pictures online, sometimes we forget that that someone worked very hard to create those images.  Someone who uses that work to feed her family and pay her bills like everyone else.   And we also forget that those are real, live people in the images.   It's good to consider and respect them, too.

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