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Copyright and Licensing Photographs

Updated: Dec 8, 2021


“Who owns the photo after it is taken?”

According to the Copyright Act of 1976, the photographer owns the image as soon as the shutter is released. The copyright of the image takes effect immediately, regardless if the image has been registered with the copyright office. Otherwise, the only way to transfer the copyright of an image is if the photographer, physically, signs over the rights.

“You mean I pay you and I don’t own it?”

Photographs are the intellectual property of the creator. Much like software, a book, etc, which you can purchase the rights to use, the creator still owns the material. Because of the Copyright Act of 1976 the photographer owns the rights to their images. However, by writing a license agreement they can grant you the right to do whatever you need with the image.

What does “licensing” have to do with photography?

In photography, copyright and image licensing plays a huge role in how images are used. If you are not familiar with licensing or would like more information, you may find some of these questions helpful.

“What is photo licensing?”

A photo license is like a contract between the photographer and client; where the client is granted a license to use the specified image in a certain way.

For example, a client may want to use an image for their website and social media for a two year period. With a constructed license they are able to use the image on their portfolio and social media. However, since the license does not cover advertising, they could not use the photo in a TV ad; even though they have the image on file. At the end of the two year period, the client either removes the image from their website or they negotiate another license agreement with the photographer.

In other words, a license grants permission to the client to use the image for a specified use. A client has the right to purchase an all-inclusive license (where the image can be used anywhere), but this generally will require a higher fee.

“Why do you need to know how I am going to use the photographs?”

Photography licensing comes is many size packages. Depending on how you are going to use the images can determine which licensing package you will need for your project. For example, if you would like to use an image on a card that you send out to your top 100 favorite clients, then the usage is low and the price is also low. However, if a photographer is delivering an image for a large corporation running a global campaign, the usage will be greater and the fee will reflect upon that.

It is important to know the usage so that way you are not paying more than you need to.

“I do not want to come back to you each time I need to use these pictures.”

A photographer will listen to your needs and will be happy to license a package of rights for the images. By tailoring a licensing package, a photographer can make sure that you are not paying for uses that you do not really need. If you are concerned about future usage fees, you may be able to arrange a fixed pricing structure for the future. The licensing agreement would include this so that way you know exactly what you will be paying; should you require further usage.

Additionally, you can request a lifetime use of the images. This way, you do not need to worry about renewing the images every couple of years. However, the fee for this options will be greater than a two year license.

“What type of licensing do I get for Real Estate?”

Typically a Real Estate licensing package allows the agent to do whatever they need, for the purpose of marketing the listing, for as long as the listing is active.

“You cost more per hour than my attorney.”

Freelance photographers rarely charge by the hour, this is because much more time goes into a full project before and after the photo shoot (onsite). For example, a photographer’s fees will be based on the creative fee, production fee (what is required to photograph the project), and the license terms varying on the usage of the images.

“I do not want someone else using my images.”

If you do not want anyone using the images of your project, a photographer may be able to provide you a licensing package for exclusive rights to the images. However, since this license prohibits the photographer from generating any additional income, the fee will significantly increase the cost of the project. Though, another option is to compromise the extent of the limited exclusivity on the images to six months, for example. This gives you the premiere rights to the image, but does not restrict the photographer from acquiring additional income in the future.

For more helpful information on copyright as it relates to photography and business, I would encourage you to visit The United States Copyright Office website at:

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