First, let me point out that a copyright to your images is not what you are looking for. More than likely what you want is a print release (more about that below). And also let me point out that I am NOT a lawyer. If you have any questions about any of this, you should seek legal counsel.
I don’t know how many times a week I get asked if a copyright release is included with my portrait sessions. I blame this question, not on you the consumer, but on the pop up “photographers” that have no idea what they are talking about. Which makes me wonder about their other business policies and practices as well, but that’s not really my concern.
First of all, let me explain what a copyright is and why a legitimate professional photographer will not release this to you without a very heavy fee associated with it (I am speaking thousands of dollars PER image). Then I will explain some of the licenses that most photographers offer (for a fee, usually already included in the digital negative price you are quoted) with their digital negatives.
What is a copyright?
Per the United States copyright office: “Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.”
A copyright holder holds these exclusive rights: (1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords; (2) to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work; (3) to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending; (4) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly; (5) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly; and (6) in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.
There is a lot more and you can read the full version the United States Copyright Office website.
Basically, what it states is that when you create an original piece of work, such as a painting, poem, anything in written form, or in our case a photograph, that the creator (photographer) owns all rights to that piece of work. We have the right to do as we wish with that piece of work, whether it be to edit it, sell it, etc… Now, this doesn’t mean that a photographer can take a picture of you in his/her studio and then sell it to someone else unless of course, you have signed a model release. That is a different topic altogether for a different day. So let’s take an author who writes a book for example. The author writes the book. He owns that work. He is able to sell it to whomever he wishes and at the same time means that blow Joe down the corner can’t take his work and sell it as his own. Obviously, there is a lot of legal mumbo-jumbo, but this should somewhat “paint you a picture”.
Would you ask an author for the copyright to his book, when what you really want is to just read it?
Most consumers really only want print rights to their photographs, so they are able to make as many prints as they want, whenever they want. Just like when you go to the bookstore to buy a book. All you want the book for is to read it, would you ask the author of that book for the copyright as well? No, you wouldn’t, especially now since you know exactly what it is that you are asking for!
Could you imagine if Stephen King (one of my favorite authors by the way) got asked if he would hand over the copyright to one of his books, every time he sold a book? Sounds a little insane now, doesn’t it? The fact is, if he did hand over the copyright to a book, then legally the new copyright owner could say he wrote the book and now Mr. King would never ever receive another penny from the sale of that book, which is probably why I would assume he would only sell the copyright for what I would assume would be millions of dollars, otherwise he would be one “broke” author! Same goes for any artist (yes photographers are artists)!
Ok ok ok ok, I just want the print release, but why the fee for it?
It’s much like the author scenario above. Once you are given a print license, what’s the chance that you will come back to me for prints? Granted my prints will look better and last much longer than any print that you can get from a consumer lab, plus mine won’t come out with a green or orange tint and cropped off limbs. However, I do understand that as a consumer you want to make prints for say scrapbooking, etc… and don’t want to have to come to me every time you need another small print. But my actual profit and how I support my family relies on the profit I get from selling prints. The session fee really only covers taxes and the cost of doing business. So this is where the fee for a print release comes in. It is there to make up for the lost profit that I would have received if you had bought those images as prints (or at least helps). However, I actually give high-resolution files with a print release for FREE once you have purchased a certain amount of prints.
So if you run across a photographer and they are advertising a $150 portrait session that includes a copyright release, you better make doggone sure that in the contract it states that they are handing over the copyright and not just a print release. Most of the time they will advertise it as a copyright release (because they have no idea what they are talking about) but then just hand you a print release. Which by the way, $150 and handing over a print release, they won’t be in business long, well unless they aren’t paying taxes or running a legitimate business. See what the actual cost of doing business for a professional photographer is by clicking here, then do the math yourself!
So what other kinds of releases or licenses do photographers typically offer?
By no means is this a complete list, but typically depending on the type of services the photographer offers, you have print releases (also called print license), commercial use license (typically this is for photographers that take pictures for businesses and they will be using those images for commercial use), limited usage license allowing you to display your images online, and full rights license (this typically isn’t seen very often, but there are those out there that offer them). So what does each one mean?
Print Release – This was described above. This is a license that will allow you to print your images elsewhere for personal use only. Each Photographer chooses the terms of the license such as how many you can print, if you can print for something other than personal use, and how big of a print you can make. So it’s very important to read your print release carefully.
Commercial Use License – This is typically for those photographers that take headshots for businesses or take pictures for a commercial purpose such as those who take pictures of homes for a Real Estate company. Basically, if the image will be used for commercial purposes (used to make income).
Limited Use License – Mine is actually referred to as a low-resolution agreement and is included with the low-resolution images that are part of my session fee. However, this license can be used for anything. Mine simply allows you to display your low-resolution images on the internet for personal use only (yes you need a license in order to display images from your session online, otherwise you could be sued for copyright infringement). But a limited use license can be used for so many things. Such as allowing you to use only one certain image from a session for such and such, etc….
Full rights license – This is typically only used between photographers when they are trading services, but some might offer it to their clients as well. It allows the client to edit the images, print the image, make derivative work, use for commercial purposes, etc… But the actual ownership (copyright) of the image stays with the Photographer.
I hope this has helped you clear up the type of licenses that may be available for purchase from your photographer. If ever in doubt, please remember to always ask. If you find that a photographer is offering their copyrights included in the session fee, you might consider that a “red flag”. At the very least, you should at least clarify what exactly it is they are offering.