Understanding Copyright & Licensing | A Guide to the Ownership & Usage of Your Photos


Let’s talk about this little guy: ©

Photographic Copyright can seem really complicated upfront - & unfortunately, a lot of the confusion surrounding the nature of Copyright exists because there is a lot of misinformation out there pertaining to copyright law & to who/what it protects. What even is Copyright? Who owns the copyright to my photos? Who should own the copyright to my photos?

If you’re hiring a photographer to take photos of you, your products, your kids, your pets, your wedding, etc., it’s important to understand the basics of Copyright - especially if you are intending to use your photos for marketing or promotional purposes. Boring as it may be, by understanding Copyright rules & protections, you can ensure that your photographer/client relationship remains positive & that everyone stays happy with the photographs & their agreed-upon use.

So let’s chat about & how copyright & licensing works for you, the client.

Disclaimer: I am not a legal expert, nor am I qualified to give legal advice - all of the information contained in this blog post comes directly from the sources linked at the bottom of this post. I encourage anyone who is in need of legal counsel to speak to a lawyer who specializes in Copyright Law, Intellectual property law, &/or entertainment law.

What is Copyright?

A Copyright is a legal device that gives the creator of a literary, artistic, musical, or other creative work the sole right to publish & sell that work. Copyright owners have the right to control the reproduction of their work, including the right to receive payment for that reproduction. An author may grant or sell those rights to others, including publishers, individuals, or companies. Violation of a copyright is illegal & is referred to as “copyright infringement”.

So - who owns my photos?

Here in the United States, the person taking the photograph owns the copyright immediately upon pressing the shutter. Photographers are protected by Copyright law from the moment of creation according to the Federal Copyright Act of 1976. Copyright is automatically granted to a photographer from the moment the image is created, & only belongs to a client if exclusive buyout rights are given & outlined within a contract signed by both parties.

To give an example, this means that if a person hires a photographer to take pictures of a wedding, the photographer will own the copyright to the photographs unless the copyright in the photographs is transferred to the client in writing & is signed by the copyright owner.

Can I ask My photographer to give me the copyright to my images?

Occasionally, a Photographer will agree to transfer the Copyright of the images they took to you, the client, via something called a “Copyright Transfer Agreement”. However, in doing this, the photographer would be giving you unlimited permission to profit from the photographs & to alter them as you see fit, & would therefore be relinquishing any ownership or control over the use of the images they created. It is standard for Photographers to charge an extra fee for transferring the Copyright of their images to you, & in many cases, this transfer fee is quite expensive. Most of the time, people confuse “copyright” with “unlimited usage” - many people simply just want the license to be able to use the images from their session however & wherever they like without restrictions.

Do I need to own The copyright of my images?

In commercial photography, it is standard for the Photographer to keep copyright ownership & to grant their client a specific license to use the photos for whatever purpose they intend. In most cases, a client does not need to own the copyright of their images, but all clients do need an image usage license from the photographer (either for personal or commercial use) that outlines the way in which they can use their images.

If you have hired a photographer for branding or product photos, of course you will want the right to use them for marketing, promotional, and advertising purposes. You’ll want to be able to post them on your social media, website, & wherever else your market your business. A proper License will give you the right to legally use your photographs for commercial purposes, but it will restrict you from reselling them or giving them to third parties for their use or for other economic gain. 

What is an “Image License”?

Image licensing refers to the practice of outlining & selling a specific license to use an image in a specific way, rather than selling a photo or set of photos outright to a client. Your photographer gives you an image license to use those images under whatever terms they’ve set or you’ve negotiated with them. When you commission a photographer, you will automatically be granted some rights to use the resulting photographs. This is usually included as part of the quoted fees and is known as ‘licensing’ or a ‘license to use’. It is the industry-standard method for selling photos for editorial, commercial, & advertising use.

Photographers who photograph families, weddings, newborns, & general portraits often include a “Personal License”: Most of the time a Personal License will give you everything you need – the ability to print your photographs as many times as you like, send them to friends and family, and share them on the internet.

However, if you intend to use your photographs for business & commercial purposes (for profit), a more detailed license is required. A commercial license will outline things like whether you intend to use images for print &/or digital marketing, the location(s) where the images will be used, the length of time the images will be used for, etc. The fees for commercial licenses vary greatly depending on the scope of the project, the size of the company commissioning the images, etc.

Do I have permission to print & share my photos?

When you purchase digital images from a photographer, they will usually give you permission to print and share the photographs & will have the specifics outlined in their contract. If you are planning to print & share your photos for personal use, you will often be provided with something called a Print Release. A Print Release is simply a document from your photographer explaining that it is ok for you to reprint images, share images publically, or pass out copies of the images for personal use.

Can MY Photographer Use Photographs Of Me To Advertise Their Business?

Although your photographer does own the copyright for your photographs, they should not use your photographs publicly for marketing purposes without first asking your permission. Most photographers include a clause or a “model release” within their contract that outlines the way they intend to use any final photos from your session - usually purely for advertising purposes: to post on social media, use in their blog, print out for studio samples, etc. You can certainly ask your photographer not to share any of the images from your shoot - this is a common request for sessions like boudoir or family photoshoots where the images are personal in nature & a client may not be comfortable with their images being posted publicly.

Copyright & LIcensing + Miranda Kelton Photography

My standard practice for all portrait & personal branding clients is to include the following:

 “The Licensor (Miranda Kelton Photography, LLC) grants to Licensee (client) an EXCLUSIVE license for the final purchased Photographic Materials for digital commercial usage (Digital Use: Specific Usage for Photographs in digital mediums and platforms (Website, social, email, blogs, paid online ads, etc.). A non-commercial Print Release shall be delivered to the client via email upon their download & receipt of any print-size imagery - this print release allows the client to reproduce their purchased images for personal use & shall be provided to their print lab of choice upon request.”

Should a client need something beyond digital commercial use (printing out billboards, book covers, signage for storefronts, etc.), I will draw up an additional custom commercial license that outlines the extra usage & the specific fees associated with said usage. Every photographer handles copyright & licensing differently, so be sure to communicate with your photographer & always read their contract to be sure you fully understand the image rights you are receiving.

Disclaimer: I am not a legal expert, nor am I qualified to give legal advice - all of the information contained in this blog post comes directly from the sources linked at the bottom of this post. I encourage anyone who is in need of legal counsel to speak to a lawyer who specializes in Copyright Law, Intellectual property law, &/or entertainment law.


Interested in Booking A shoot?
Click below to Learn More & to schedule your Complimentary consultation!

Miranda Kelton Photography Bend Oregon Portrait Photographer.jpg

Meet miranda

Hello! I’m a Portrait, Branding, & Headshot Photographer based in BenD, Oregon.