Copyright Law: Photographs and Intellectual Property

A. Let’s say you’re a freelance photographer hired to do a wedding photoshoot. Do your photos then belong to the happy couple? Or do you retain Copyright ownership over the photos? 

B. Or, you Volunteer at an Animal Shelter and for your own enjoyment take photos of the animals there. You then publish your photos to your own Social Media platforms. The Shelter taps you on the shoulder and claims that as the animals are owned by them, so do your photos. The Shelter says that they have the right to take and publish your photos or use them in any way they like. Who is the correct Copyright owner of those photos?

C. Or, you are employed by said Shelter and as part of your job you take photographs of the animals there. Then you leave, and months later you see the photos that you took whilst employed by the Shelter being used on their social media without crediting you. Can you sue the Shelter for infringement of copyright?

Here are the answers:

A. The person who presses the camera shutter, i.e the Photographer, owns the copyright to the photos, not the wedding couple. The photographer does not sell the photos to his clients, he merely “licenses” them to keep or distribute to their friends and family. The photographer retains the right to copy, distribute, make derivative works of the photos. An exception would be where the photographer and the client have drawn up a separate contract which specifically states that the photographer is relinquishing all rights to the client, for a sum, and this document is legally binding in a court of law should there be a dispute.

B. Animals are classed as objects, possessions or chattel, and have no rights to privacy or publicity. The Volunteer who took photos of the Shelter’s animals therefore is the original Copyright owner, NOT the Shelter. Just because the animals are owned by the Shelter, does NOT follow that photographs of the animals, taken by Volunteers or members of the public, also belong to the Shelter. Imagine the legal nightmare if a Zoo tried to restrict or claim copyright of photos of its animals taken by its visitors! Copyright remains with the photographer. The only exception to this is if the photos were taken for the Shelter as part of a written contract of employment a.k.a “Work made for hire”. Or, if the photographer, as the Copyright owner, specifically and explicitly signs away his rights to the Shelter. 

3. In this case, the photographer’s photos taken for the Shelter as part of his employment fall under the “Work made for hire” remit. The Shelter therefore, as the Employer, owns the copyright to the photos and reserves the right to copy, distribute or make derivative works from them. 

I’ve researched this topic under US, UK and Australian law, and for the most part, the majority of it is essentially the same. Certainly, the 3 scenarios outlined above concur across all three jurisdictions.

My advice to anyone faced with questions such as the above, would be to first do your research. You may wish to contact various organisations in your own country, for further clarification. Depending on your own case and circumstances, it may be prudent to contact a lawyer who specialises in Copyright or Intellectual Property. 

Do not be afraid to be right, even if you’re up against a well-known or popular establishment, and do not allow yourself to be browbeaten or strongarmed into submitting to unfair or even illegal practices! Know your rights, and stand up for them!

This post and the articles and screenshots below, sourced from the internet, do not in any way constitute legal advice. They are merely pointers in the right direction. I strongly recommend that you please seek your own legal advice first, before taking any formal action to deal with your own case.

Arts Law Centre Australia

News Media Works

Photo Secrets (US)

And this interesting article by Alpine Internet. (Click on the link to get to the site).

(The image above was taken from Google Images and is part of an interesting infographic by Clifton Cameras. The infographic itself talks about whether an animal can own copyright to selfie photographs, as a crested black macaque did to nature photographer David Slater). 

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