Thursday, December 03, 2009

Who owns the photo, and how can it be used?

The ownership of photos is a point of frequent confusion among new models and photographers alike. There's even more uncertainty about how photos can legally be used, either by the photographer or by the model.

United States laws are very clear: Photos are exclusively and wholly owned by the photographer. The person who takes a photograph owns that image, including an automatic copyright which exists from the moment the photo is taken. Appearing in a photo does not give you any ownership to it at all.

As a quick example, suppose you take a point-and-shoot camera with you for an afternoon in the park. While you're enjoying the park, you snap photos of the trees, the water, and people walking and playing in the sunshine. Do the people who happened to be walking in the park own the photos you took that they appear in? Absolutely not; you took the photo, and it is entirely your photo. They have no claim to the photo, no ownership, and no rights over it.

Photographing a model is no different. Appearing in a photo does not give you any legal ownership of the photo. By United States Law, photographs are completely and solely owned by the photographer.

But don't worry; the people who appear in photos -- whether they're models or not -- are protected by the law.

Photographers can not use a photograph of an identifiable person for commercial purposes unless he has a signed release from the subject. He can use the photograph in his portfolio and display it on his website without a signed release and without permission of any sort. But he can not sell the photo, publish it commercially, or offer it to a stock-photography business unless he has a signed release.

Let's go back to the example where you took photos of people in the park. You can post those photos on your flickr.com account, on photobucket, myspace, facebook, your blog and so on. Likewise, you can make prints and put them in your photo album.

But you can not publish the photos with identifiable people in them in a book, you can't put the photos on istockphoto.com or Getty Images, you can't offer shirts or postcards of the photos on Cafe Press or Lulu -- you can not make any money from those photos of people, nor can you give them to somebody else so that they could make money from the photos. Not unless you track down every person in the photo and get a signed release from them first.

The photographer does have exclusive copyright and full ownership off all the photos he takes, but he's very limited in how he can use those photos without a signed release from the models.

But how can you, the model, use the photographs that you appear in? That depends on what the photographer allows. In the great majority of cases, photographers are very happy to allow you to post the finished photos on your own websites, photo accounts, and social networking profiles.

You may or may not be able to make prints of the photographs. Reputable printers will not reproduce a professionally-taken photograph without a written note from the photographer granting permission to make prints, so if you want one, ask the photographer for one. You might get one, but serious professional photographers often sell their photos, so you might have to buy prints from the photographer.

Although it's more of an ethical issue than a legal one, you should not ever edit or alter a photograph without permission from the photographers. Some photographers are very open about allowing models or other artists to Photoshop, crop, and otherwise alter their photos. But many photographers view themselves as artists, and altering his work in any -- even simply cropping it -- can be offensive to the photographer. Photographers do talk to each other, and you don't want photographers spreading bad word-of-mouth about you. So before editing any photographs, ask the photographer for permission.

In summary:

1. Whoever takes the picture has full and exclusive ownership of the photograph...

2. ...but a photograph of an identifiable person can not legally be used commercially without a release signed by all the people appearing in it.

3. Find out from the photographer what you are allowed to do with your photos, since it varies from one photographer to another.

We've covered a great deal in the first big post on Foundation. I'm sure we'll be following up on these topics, as there are some special exceptions, elaborations, and related topics to touch on.

Please feel free to leave questions or comments below, or email them. I'll try to address them here in future entries.

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