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  • Writer's pictureArmando Salas

Whose Photo Is It Anyway?

Updated: Feb 22, 2019

Have you ever hired a photographer to take photos at an event, only to realize you didn't get to keep the photos? You only got copies of the photos after you ordered them from the photographer. Why is that? Those are your photos aren't they? You paid for them! Come on moms, think of those yearly school photos. You get to keep your wonderful child's photos after you order the entire package.

For the most part, under copyright law, the creator of the original work, in this case the photographer, is the holder of the copyright for a limited time. The law grants the holder of the copyright exclusive rights to use and distribute the work. But the photo is of you and your beautiful daughter, shouldn't you own it? Yes, you own that copy of the photo, but unless your contract with the photographer clearly states that upon payment, he will transfer his copyright to you, you are out of luck. Please note that owning the work (in this case the photo) is not the same as holding the copyright to it.

What do you think would happen if a photographer would transfer his copyright upon payment? He would charge a lot more money just for the photo shoot! Everyone knows that wedding photographers make their money on additional orders of the photos. They can do that because they hold the copyright. If you held the copyright to the photos, the photographer couldn't sell them. He would be infringing on your copyright and you could sue him to stop. That is how paparazzi make their money. They take photos of celebrities and sell the good or interesting ones to the tabloids. They make the money, the celebrities don't, even though the photos are of them.

Let's look at the example below. I took this photo, so it belongs to me. Now, what if I decided to make a lot of photos and sell them? Could I? Yes! What if the person in the photo (Louis Easton: producer/director/writer) didn't let me? Well, guess what? He couldn't stop me. I hold title to the copyright. 

What if the photo became so popular that I decided to duplicate the t-shirt? Could I do that? No, because I don't hold title to the copyright of the design of the t-shirt. What if the holder of the copyright of the design wanted to make copies of the photo because it had her design? Could she make copies to sell? No, because the designer ONLY created the design on the t-shirt and I created the photo. Is it starting to make sense now?

It's not that difficult but there are exceptions to the general rule. So, please keep that in mind when you hire a photographer. Without a good contact, you may wind up on the short end of the deal.

The content in this blog is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide formal legal advise. There is no client-attorney relationship created,  expressly or implied, by subscribing, reading or participating in this blog post. If you are in need of legal services please contact a legal professional in your area.

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