More Information on Copyright

Below is a quick and simple summary of copyright law and how it applies to photography and a photographer’s work.


U.S. Copyright Law states that the initial copyright in a work belongs to the author of said work under 17 U.S.C. §201(a) — in this instance, the photographer. This copyright automatically comes into being the moment the work is created — no other document, contract or other formality is required for the copyright to vest in the photographer.

As the sole copyright owner of the work, the photographer has the exclusive right to reproduce the work, prepare derivative works from the original, to display the work publicly and to distribute copies of the work by sale or other transfer of ownership.

Moreover, the sale of a photographic print or file does not create a transfer of the copyright from the photographer to the purchaser as noted in 17 U.S.C. §202:

“Ownership of a copyright, or of any of the exclusive rights under a copyright, is distinct from ownership of any material object in which the work is embodied. Transfer of ownership of any material object … does not in of itself convey any rights to the copyrighted work embodied in the object…”

Any transfer of the copyright from the photographer to another party must be made in writing according to 17 U.S.C. §204, which states:

“A transfer of copyright ownership, other than by operation of law, is not valid unless an instrument of conveyance, or a note or memorandum of the transfer, is in writing and signed by the owner of the rights conveyed or such owner’s duly authorized agent.”

In short, the clear provisions of the current Copyright Act establish that:

A copyright comes into existence automatically the moment a professional photograph is created.

  • By law, that copyright belongs to the photographer or the photographer’s studio.
  • A customer who commissioned and purchases the photograph does not thereby obtain ownership of the copyright.
  • Any assignment transferring ownership of a copyright to a customer must be in writing.

Simply stated, someone who purchases a professional photograph is in much the same position as someone who purchases a book. They own the physical book, but they do not own the copyright, and they do not have the right to have additional copies made or use the image for other purposes.

If you wish to confirm any of this information for yourself, refer to Title 17, U.S. Code §§102, 106, 201(a), 201(d), and 202.

If you desire more information on the duration of the photographer’s rights, please see §302, and for a discussion of the penalties for violating the rights of the photographer see §501 through §506.

The U.S. government makes copies of the Code available free online.  It can be downloaded at

Be advised, Congress has been clear that copyright infringement is very serious business. In addition to providing criminal penalties for willful commercial infringement, the Act also authorizes private lawsuits to recover damages, legal fees, and injunctions. And the Act permits the Court to award up to $150,000 per infringed work in “statutory damages.”

The highest awards are made where the infringement is willful, but even inadvertent infringement may lead to awards of up to $30,000 per photograph, plus legal fees.

This information confirms that copyright ownership is not governed by one’s personal opinions, but is instead a matter of federal law.

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