Copyright in Photography

(Article original published on PurplePort. Reproduced with permission from Andy Lewis Photography)

In this article I will try to cover the basics of copyright and common misconceptions. This is not meant to be the definitive answer to all situations. Copyright law in some cases can be a very complex. If you feel any part of this article is factually incorrect the please contact me directly.

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a legal concept which exists to allow the original creator of a piece of work to be allowed exclusive rights to the piece of work. This piece of work can be a Photograph, a motion picture, a piece of music, a poem, choreography, sound recordings, computer software, graphic design and so on. For the purpose of this article I will be referring to copyrights relating to photography.

When does copyright exist?

Copyright exists as soon as the photograph is taken regardless of it being on film or digitally.

Who owns the copyright?

Copyright is held by right by the photographer who creates the image. In the case where the photographer is an employee then the copyright goes to the employer unless some other agreement is in place. In photography the copyright is held by the photographer who takes the image. Any parties involved in creating the shot, set designers, clothing designers, make up artists etc. and any models who appear in the photograph have no rights whatsoever to the copyright.

How long does copyright last?

Copyright in a photograph usually lasts 70 years from the end of the year in which the photographer dies. This is not automatic as the copyright holder may have left the copyright in his/her will.

Can the copyright be transferred?

The copyright or part of it can be transferred or reassigned to another party freely or for compensation.

For example a photographer taking an image but does not have the ability to mass produce the image, and the means to market and sell the image, may transfer copyright of the image to a company that specialises in that area. The photographer negotiates their own compensation, i.e. a one off payment. Copyright is then transferred with the photographer having no further rights to the image.

In the same situation the photographer may not wish to transfer the copyright but may wish to assign license instead. This gives the company rights to mass produce and sell the image in the same manner. In this situation the company are probably going to negotiate a better deal for themselves. They may not give an upfront payment, they may offer a lower percentage per sale or they may simply refuse the offer as being the copyright owner you are able grant other companies use of the image thus lessening its value to them. It is up to the photographer and the company to decide the terms and conditions of the deal.

The photographer could retain copyright and grant exclusive license to the company, allowing them to mass produce and sell the image in the knowledge that they have exclusive rights to do so. The photographer would usually in this case negotiate a payment for each image sold. The photographer would retain the copyright but would not be able to make the image available to anyone else.

The copyright owner may also state that any works is royalty free granting anyone free use of the image

Copyright infringement

There are many ways in which you can infringe upon copyright some of which are more obvious than others. If you see an image posted on any part of the world wide web you must assume that it is copyrighted unless it is specifically marked as not copyrighted or royalty free. Examples of copyright infringement include but not exclusive to

  • Altering the image or part of the image in any way
  • Passing the image off as your own work
  • Printing a copyrighted image and selling it on
  • Cropping the image
  • Pasting the image into part of a larger image
  • Taking a photograph of a photograph to recreate it.

Common copyright infringements

This list is not exhaustive and is only representational of the usual infringements found on a website such as this.

  • Taking an image from a photographers portfolio and using it on your own portfolio or other website without their consent.
  • Editing an image given to you by a photographer.
  • Cropping any image given to you by a photographer.
  • Removing or attempting to remove or cover a watermark on any image.
  • Allowing an image you have been given to be used for commercial gain.
  • Selling or permitting use for publication any image given to you by a photographer without their consent.

Common misconceptions

My tutor said he/she owns the copyright to an image I took while under instruction is this true?

Unless it clearly states this in the terms and conditions of the training course then the answer is no. The tutor may set the shot up, arrange the lighting, meter the shot, tell you what camera settings to use and so on but if you press the shutter, you own the copyright.

I worked on a tf with the photographer so I have equal rights to the image

Wrong. The photographer owns the full copyright to the image. He/she may grant you permission to use the image for your portfolio or in any other way agreed. You may not sell or allow the image to be used for any other purpose without the express consent of the photographer.

The photographer tagged me in the image so I copied it from his portfolio

Wrong, unless the photographer granted you usage rights to the image you may not use the image on your portfolio or anywhere else. In the case of a TF shoot you will have or should have been given usage rights to a specified number of images from that shoot, if you subsequently see another image from that shoot it does not give you any rights to use it without permission.

The photographer did not deliver the images from our tf shoot so I took them from his/her portfolio

No you have no rights to take them from the photographers portfolio. This scenario should never really happen but in the unfortunate event it did you did not receive the images you must contact the photographer for the images. If the agreed number of images do not get sent to you, please report this to admin.

I did not like the shots the photographer gave me so I had them re-edited

Any editing, cropping or altering of an image may only be done with permission of the photographer. Altering any images given to you without permission is not only bad manners and likely to cause upset, it is also in breach of copyright.

What should I do if I see my image being used wrongly?

If you find your image being used in breach of your copy right you can choose to ignore it and leave it be or you can choose to persue it. If you choose to persue it you should take a screen shot of the website hosting the image and a note of the website address itself. In the event of it being in a newspaper or other publication, keep a copy of it. You should then contact the person who you feel has breached the copyright. In the event of a website you can usually contact them in their contact section or find the registered owner of the domain name from You can either send them an invoice for the usage of the image and or request they remove it. To get a guide to how much your invoice should be for you can find some information on

Copyright – a reminder…

Recently I’ve had to remind a couple of people about the way copyright works.

It’s all too easy these days to post an image on Facebook or a blog that you found somewhere, but it’s important to remember you need permission from the person that owns that image to do so..

It doesn’t matter if you’re in the picture, and yes that includes if you’re a model on a photoshoot (paid or TF makes no difference), the copyright belongs to the photographer.

You can’t ignore this stuff, it’s important!

Here’s an interested blog article about the issue:

You should probably read this too: UK copyright Law Fact Sheet


An extract from the UK Copyright Service website:

Fact sheet P-16: Photography and copyright

Who owns the copyright on photographs?

Under law, it is the photographer who will own copyright on any photos he/she has taken, with the following exceptions:

  • If the photographer is an employee of the company the photos are taken for, or is an employee of a company instructed to take the photos, the photographer will be acting on behalf of his/her employer, and the company the photographer works for will own the copyright.
  • If there is an agreement that assigns copyright to another party.

In all other cases, the photographer will retain the copyright, if the photographer has been paid for his work, the payment will be for the photographer’s time and typically an allocated number of prints. The copyright to the photos will remain with the photographer, and therefore any reproduction without permission would be an infringement of copyright.”


As you can see, that’s really quite clear.  In all cases, the photographer, or photographic company own the copyright.  It doesn’t matter who’s in the image, the person who took the photo owns the rights unless there is a signed agreement to transfer the copyright.



It is the photographer’s right to be credited as the author of the photograph, and you should always do this unless they specifically tell you otherwise.

If images have a watermark or logo on, this MUST be left intact.  To remove or mis-attribute a photographer’s copyright is a very serious issue, and will be treated as such. For example,  I caught a national newspaper using my images without permission once, and it cost them a  LOT of money.

To give you an idea how serious this is, for a small image used on a website you could easily end up paying in excess of £1000 per image in penalties.   I know this as I sent the bill to the newspaper and they had to pay it.

One UK photographer was awarded more than £5,000 in damages for the use of a single image, and there are cases documented online where photographers have received tens of thousands in compensation (example). In one famous case a photographer was awarded $1.2 million when a company used photos they had posted on Twitter!

Here’s my page with my licensing / copyright information, I have asserted my rights to be identified as the author of all my photographs,  I expect to be properly credited where any photograph is used, and I expect anyone I work with to read this page!


Useful Links:


Credit doesn’t pay the bills..

Obviously I’m always pleased when someone likes one of my photographs and wishes to use it on their website etc.  For personal sites and non-commercial use all I ask is that someone is polite enough to ask first and to credit me properly with a link to this site.  The important thing here though is personal use by a private individual on a non-commercial site.

This week I received another (all too frequent) email from a company who would like to use one of my images for promotional purposes. But they ‘can’t use the low-resolution web image so could they please have a high resolution copy?’.  Part of that message said “of course we’ll credit you when we use it”.

Oh really, how very gracious of you!

I guess I’m supposed to be flattered and grateful that someone wishes to use my photo.  It was after all a good photo that a large international company thinks is good enough to use for promotional purposes, whilst apparently placing a value of ‘nothing’ on it.

Maybe next time I go for a nice meal they’ll give it to me free if I promise to mention them on my blog, or perhaps I can get my car serviced free if I say how nice the mechanic is on Twitter?

Let’s be very clear: Getting credit for my work isn’t compensation.  If I created the image the right to credit is automatic, it is not something that someone does for me as a favour.

Credit doesn’t pay bills. I spent thousands of pounds on my photographic equipment, insurance, training etc. And years learning how to use it.  No amount of ‘credit’ will reimburse me for that investment, and it certainly won’t pay my electricity bill or council tax!

The work of an experienced photographer isn’t free.  I don’t expect you to do your job for nothing, please don’t expect me to to mine for nothing either.

If you’re interested in licensing my images for use in any commercial context you will need to obtain a commercial use license.  You can find more information about this on my sales and licensing page.