Understanding Photographic Copyright

“Copyright” describes the rights given to creators for their literary and artistic works.

But we often don’t consider copyright when we look at our family photos, or go to get them copied. Even though it is so easy to copy an image—with scanners, photo-quality printers, and copy stations—it is still illegal.

Things to remember about copyright:

  • Copyright is a property right.
  • Just because you buy a print does not mean you have purchased the copyright.
  • Professional photographers are the smallest of small copyright holders.
  • 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). Copyright
  • 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 PPA photographers are self-employed photographers relying exclusively on photography as their primary source of income.
  • 47% of member studios rely on reprints as a profitable source of income.


How to get legal copies of professional photographs:

  • Contact the photographer/copyright owner. 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.
  • Contact PPA’s Service Center for help finding photographers to obtain photo-copying permission.
  • Use the Photographer Registry Web site to locate a photographer/copyright owner at www.PhotographerRegistry.com, so you can obtain reproductions or permission. With a few pieces of information about a photographer (i.e., they did portraits in Anytown, USA in 200X), a search can be conducted to find the copyright owner.
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