Boring stuff – but important!

Basic Guide To Photographic Copyright

Knowing the legal position on how and when images can be used is essential.

When you commission a professional photographer to take some pictures or you buy an image from a stock library you are entering a legally binding contract, with rights and responsibilities on both sides. One important, but often misunderstood, aspect of this contract concerns copyright of the images made. Many clients seem to be under the impression that all rights to the image belong to them but this is not the case.

The law on copyright changed fundamentally with the passing of the 1988 Copyright, Designs & Patent Act. Before then it was the person or company who commissioned the photography who owned the copyright. The photographer had no enduring rights to his own work.

The 1988 Act reversed the situation, granting photographers the same rights as had long been enjoyed by authors, painters and other creative individuals. The copyright of the photograph now belongs to the person who took it – the only exception being employed photographers, where it is his/her employer who owns the copyright unless they have a contractual agreement to the contrary.

Copyright lasts for 70 years after the end of the year in which the author dies, offers protection against unauthorised reproduction of the photographs and entitles the owner to economic benefit from it.

As well as these legal rights, the photographer also enjoys certain moral rights which include the right not to have it falsely attributed, and the right not to have the work subjected to derogatory treatment.

What all this means in practice is that clients may only use the photographs taken by a professional photographer in ways that have been agreed at the time they were commissioned or licensed. If further uses are later required then permission must be sought from the copyright holder and an additional fee agreed.

For this reason it is essential that clients specify (preferably in writing) the uses to which images will be used when briefing the photographer and requesting a quotation. This agreement then forms part of the contract. It should cover how the work will be used, where (geographically) it will be used and for how long it will be used.

Although these issues have always been important, the development of new equipment such as colour photocopiers and desktop scanners, capable of reproducing images inexpensively and altering them out of all recognition, make these now crucial matters for both clients and photographers.

The internet too, raises further questions as once images are placed on a website they can be downloaded at will by anyone who visits it.

It is in the interests of all parties to know what is being agreed, so there is no unnecessary bad feeling at a later stage — and clients must be prepared to act honestly and recognise the right of photographers to copyright in their work.