There has been quite a bit of debate recently about copyrights and who needs them, so I thought I would address it here. I will start by defining usage rights and copyrights so we are all on the same page. Usage rights are rights granted to an individual by an artist to use something for a specific purpose and for a particular period. Ok, now that that legal definition is out there, what does this really mean for your pictures?
Photographers who print your pictures typically give you usage rights in the form that you are allowed to own and display the picture for your own personal use, but nothing more. Photographers who offer digital images with your pictures are about the same, you can display it and have it for personal use only. Photographers who offer digital images and allow you to print offer you a bit more. There are a ton of variations to rights, far too many to cover in a blog post, so I will go over what we offer with our digital images.
Our digital images come with unlimited reproduction rights, or print rights. This means that you can print and give away as many as you like to friends and family for as long as you like and you will not have to pay us any more money. You can post the pictures on your Facebook ©, Myspace ©, Linkedin ©, blog, Flickr, etc. and do not need to seek permission first. The one restriction we place on our digital images is that you cannot use your pictures for personal/commercial gain, such as entering the pictures in a contest or selling them to a magazine, etc. For most people, they wouldn’t dream of using their portraits or wedding pictures this way, so it will never be a big deal. What we as the photographer keep is the ability to use your photo to advertise our business, such as in a gallery on our website or on our brochure.
Also, by keeping the general copyright, the photographer is the one who will deal with copyright issues such as a picture being stolen off the internet. So, for example, if you put your pictures up on the web and someone downloads your picture and uses it in an advertisement, then you would let the photographer know and it would be their responsibility to legally go after the person who did it. If you owned the copyright, then it would be your dollar being spent to sue the person/company who did it.
And therein lies the biggest difference between securing usage rights and copyrights (besides the large cost difference to you). If you wish to obtain the copyrights, then it is your responsibility to say who, where, when, and how your photos can be used, and it is also your responsibility to seek legal action if your rights are violated.
While this may be an appropriate option for a few people, most of you will not want this hassle. It would mean that every time your photographer wishes to use your photo, you would have to sign another contract giving them the ability for what they want to use the photo for. For the average person, this means a call from your photographer at least 5 times per year, one for each bridal/photo show they go to where they would like to display your picture, a call when it is time to print new marketing materials, a call each time they wish to show your beautiful photos to a potential client…the list goes on.
If the photographer gains permission to put your photo on their website, or you put it up on the web, it also means a call to your lawyer and possible court costs if and when you or your photographer notice someone has used your picture on their website without your permission, all on your dollar because you are the copyright holder. It would also be your responsibility legally to respond to each and every one of these calls because it is (usually) in the contract that you will respond in a timely manner. Also, expect to pay 2-10 times what you would pay typically for prints or a digital image if you want the copyrights. This is partially because of registering the copyrights with the federal government. This has varying costs depending on how you do it, so be prepared to add this cost in as well.
So, as stated earlier, securing copyrights is usually the right option for very few, as most people do not want all the hassle that copyrights come with. For the majority of people, knowing they can show off their pictures and, in purchasing the CD, can print as many as they wish to give away to friends and family is all they are looking for. Typically, the average user will not use their photos in a way that would cause problems if the copyright is held by the photographer so it is unnecessary for you to take on the added cost and responsibility unless you have special circumstances.
I believe where most of the push for copyrights has come from is people who run into not so professional photographers who do not give a courtesy call when they want to do a big advertisement. My brother ran into this when his senior picture was plastered, poster-sized around our local mall and he only found out when some of his friends started complementing him on his picture. While there really was no harm done, and I am sure the photographer meant none when he did it, it angered my brother enough that he called the photographer. The photographer apologized and took down the pictures to be nice.
Most reputable photographers (which this photographer was, he is still one of the premier photographers in our area for senior pictures, proving even the best make mistakes sometimes) will call clients before using their photos in such a large way. It is just good customer service. One more reason it is good to find a photographer you like and build a relationship with them. It then keeps their records up to date if they should ever need to contact you, helps you and your family relax when you need photos done, and opens the door for more communication so misunderstandings don’t happen as often.