COPYRIGHT ::: Why we protect our images (c) 2010

Sometimes people get bothered when a photographer takes the time to protect his/her images with a copyright logo and/or watermark. There is a reason for this... its not done just to annoy you, I promise. iA, I'll explain what copyright law is and what it means for photographers and visual artists.

Copyright is a form of protection, authorized by the United States Constitution, that gives photographers, artists, authors, musicians, etc the exclusive right to use, reproduce and control their works. Copyright owners can also authorize others to use their works.

A copyright originates at the moment a work is created. For a photograph, the copyright is created as soon as the image is developed. If a photograph is taken with a digital camera, the copyright originates at the time the image is saved. So you do not need to register your work with the library of congress since it is copyrighted automatically. Its not like a patent or trademark which need to be registered to be legally binding. However, your work will need to be registered if you need to file a lawsuit for copyright infringement. The unauthorized reproduction of a copyrighted work even if taken off the internet is still an infringement.

When a photographer sells a photograph they are not selling the copyright to the work. They are licensing the photograph to a buyer for a specific or unlimited term usage (depending on the contract). So, if you buy a photo or painting, you do not own the right to reprint the work unless explicitly stated in the licensing contract.

Copyright infringement is the unauthorized use of a copyrighted work. Even just photocopying an image without permission can be an infringement. A photo is still copyrighted even if no image or written copyright appears on the work itself. The use or copying of any work without permission from the owner of the copyright is a violation of the United States Copyright Act.

Fair use law is a bit vague and is determined on a case by case basis. Fair Use permits the the use of copyrighted materials for specific purposes. For example, a newspaper can publish copyrighted works for purposes of reporting news and commenting on it, and a teacher can make multiple copies of certain works for classroom use without risking infringement. One must determine how much of the copyrighted work is used and the impact this use will have on the potential market for the copyrighted work. If large portions of a copyrighted work are used or if the use lessons the potential market for the work, there will be infringement. Photographs are more difficult with Fair Use because its difficult to just use portions of a photo. With video or music its much easier to use just a small portion of the work for the purpose of journalism or education.

So, that is what copyright law is and what it covers. But it doesn't really explain why photographers go to such great lengths to protect their work. The reason is very simple... assets. Many people assume that a photographer makes his/her money by charging a fee for a photo shoot. Although this is true (meaning.. there is a creative fee for conducting the shoot, there is also a licensing fee for use of the photo once its developed. And photographer sell their photos to a variety of sources (magazines, newspapers, stock photography sites, single use, flyers, websites, advertising, promotional campaigns, etc). Remember that the person who took the photo still owns the copyright.

Lets look at wedding photography as an example. A professional wedding photographer will charge creative fee for a single day shoot at a wedding (the fee depends on the reputation and demand of the photographer). Some professionals charge up to $10,000 for the shoot (such as Gary Fong). However, that is simply the creative fee. Once the photos are developed there are other charges that the happy young couple will need to consider. An 8x10 photo can be priced between $50-$100 per print. Oftentimes the couple will choose about 10 or 15 of the best photos as prints and the photographer will sell them the rest of the hi res photos on a CD (with a print release license) and the couple can then print the others on their own. So, a wedding can easily cost $5,000+ total for the shoot and prints. This is typical and folks that understand the industry know this going into it.

The same goes for a private photo portfolio shoot. Say a musician wants a particular photographer to do a photo shoot for an album cover or promotional material. The same business practice applies. The photographer will charge a creative fee (usually a day rate or hourly rate for the shoot). Then once the artist looks at the proofs and chooses the shot they like.. they will then pay a licensing fee to use the photo for their specific purpose (again remember the photographer always owns the copyright). So they will license the photo to the artist based on a predetermined set of guidelines. For example.. a photo that will be used on the cover of Vibe Magazine will be much more expensive to license than a photo used in a local newspaper. The important thing to get from this is that there are typically two fees involved in a photo shoot. The fee for the taking of the photo and the fee for licensing the photo. Some photographers incorporate both fees into a single fee but either way... both fees are being accounted for.

Because photographers needs to be able to license exclusive photos to their clients (individuals, organizations, magazines, etc)... they need to be sure that the photo hasn't been utilized for commercial use previously. It is this reason that photographers go to such great lengths to protect their assets. A photograph is like stock on the shelf of a grocery store. If you take something off the shelf and eat it before paying for it... the store owner can no longer sell that product. If you take a photo and post it/print it/use it without permission.. you are taking that photo off the shelf and the photographer can no longer sell it. You are essentially stealing product off the photographers shelf.

I hope this helps us understand what copyright is, why we have it, and what it means to infringe on it... both legally and personally to the photographer.

(Took this great entry from Mustafa Davis