The Facts about Photographic Copyright

Planning to take that new collection of family portraits to your local big box store for prints to pass out to the world?  Or maybe you’re more eager to add those bright smiles to your social media feed.  Well, before you post those pics, you may want to brush up on the ins and outs of photographic copyright laws.

Copyrights are the rights given to creators for their literary and artistic works.

Often times, we associate copyrights with what we see on TV, in magazines or other nationally published work.  What does your family photo or headshot matter in the grand scheme of things?  No one is going to care if you make a couple copies of that family photo for grandma, right?  Wrong!  There is one person who cares and that is your photographer.  Remember, those prints you’re picking up from the drug store represent us and our work.  It is our calling card.  Although drug stores and big box stores offer great sales on candy and toiletries, they don’t offer the best quality on the prints you plan to display in your home.  And for what you spent on the session, why go to the lowest bidder on the final outcome?  By law, any lab you use to print your images must first be given a copy of the photographer’s image release.  It may be easy to run off a few copies or post an image, especially if you were given the digital file(s). However, unless you have a signed release from the copyright holder—it is still illegal.

Things to remember about copyright:

  • Copyright is a property right.
  • Just because you buy a session, file or print does not mean you have purchased the copyright.
  • Under the Federal Copyright Act of 1976, photographs are protected by copyright from the moment of creation.
  • Photographers have the exclusive right to reproduce their photographs (right to control the making of copies).
  • Unless you have permission from the photographer, you can’t copy, distribute (no scanning and sending them to others), publicly display (no putting them online), or create derivative works from photographs.
  • A photographer can easily create over 20,000 separate pieces of intellectual property annually.
  • Professional photographers are dependent on their ability to control the reproduction of the photographs they create.
  • It affects their income and the livelihood of their families.
  • Even small levels of infringement—copying a photo without permission—can have a devastating impact on a photographer’s ability to make a living.
  • Copyright infringements—reproducing photos without permission—can result in civil and criminal penalties.

Put copyright in perspective:

  • 65% of photographers are self-employed photographers relying exclusively on photography as their primary source of income.
  • 47% of photographers rely on prints as a profitable source of income.
  • Most photographers encourage you to post your favorite photos on your social media feed. It’s a huge compliment and helps promote their business.  But, there are a few things to remember before you post anything:
    • Post images that are watermarked with the photographer’s logo.
    • Always give photo credit, i.e. “photo credit: Lisa Marz Photography”
    • If you can link the photo(s) to the photographer’s website or social media page, do it!

How to get legal (and the best quality) copies of professional photographs:

  • Contact the photographer/copyright owner. Most photographers are happy to discuss options for reproducing photos with you.
  • Check both the front and back of a print for a copyright notice. If it is a school, sports or similar type photo, you may want to contact the institution where the photo was made.


“Understanding Photographic Copyright” – Professional Photographers of America,