Several times a year, someone getting married calls me to ask if they get the photo copyright to their wedding photos. They reason they’re interested in owning the wedding photography copyright is usually because:
They want the option to print their own wedding photos
They want to insure they have their original wedding files because they don’t want to depend on finding out if I still have them some time in the future
They’re so good looking Vogue magazine called them offering five million dollars to use their photo on their next cover.
Ok, so I made that last one up.
But the first two are very valid, very legitimate reasons why many wedding couples would like to own their original high resolution wedding files (or as they’re sometimes referred to, “digital negatives”).
But there’s this misunderstanding and confusion out there over wedding photo copyrights. And that’s what I’m going to clear up for you now and show you what it means to you.
According to the Copyright Act, whoever takes the photo is the creator of that photo, and because they’re the creator of that photo, the copyright goes to them. That copyright is assigned at the moment of capture. In other words, at the moment the trigger’s clicked.
So what does having a copyright mean? Copyrights were established to promote creativity by giving people legal ownership of their creations. It gives the creator of the photo certain rights they wouldn’t ordinarily have otherwise to use their work. For example, it gives them the right to further develop their work, display their work, advertise their work, publish their work and sell their work.
So when couples ask wedding photographers if they get the photo copyright, understandably, the photographer sees this as being asked to forfeit the rights to the work and not be able to use it further. And not too many wedding photographers wish to do that.
“Do we get the copyright to the wedding photos?” is the wrong question to ask.
Now this is where a lot of people get confused because they don’t understand, if it’s a photo of themselves, how could someone else have the ownership of it? But that’s because we’re talking about the legal ownership of the work itself, not the the ownership of whose likeness it is. Obviously, these are two very different things.
For instance, you could take a photo of the Empire State Building next time you’re in NYC. Then you’d be the creator of that photo. You’d also be the copyright owner of that photo and have full rights to that image.
Even though it’s someone else who owns the Empire State Building.
“But hang on a sec,” you say. “I’m hiring the wedding photographer to take photos of me! Certainly in that case I own the copyright!”
And you’d be correct about that – if you actually hired your wedding photographer. When you hire someone, you’re the owner of whatever works they produce as a result of what they were hired to do in your employ.
But chances are you’re not technically hiring your wedding photographer. If you did, you would be employing them. You’d be their Employer and they’d be your Employee. And then you’d have to withhold their federal income tax, social security tax, state and local taxes, and send in those payments to your employer account with the respective authorities. You’d be paying their disability and unemployment insurance. You’d have the authority to tell them how they should do their job and when they should do it. You’d probably also have to make available vacations, medical insurance, sick pay and all sorts of HR policies.
In short, because they’d be your employee, you would be required to do everything an employer would be under legal obligation to do with an employee.
Instead, you purchased the services of an independent business. You commissioned the photographer to do work for you. But technically, legally speaking, you didn’t hire them.
So being your wedding photos aren’t legally a “work for hire” – the wedding photographer retains the copyright to them.
But wait! There’s more. And it’s good news.
You don’t need to own the copyright to make copies from the digital negatives.
What you want is actually the printing rights to legally make copies. That’s really all you want to do with them, right? Make copies?
And many wedding photographers are happy to oblige their wedding couples by assigning printing rights to them so they may do just that.
If your wedding photographer is willing to provide you with high resolution digital negatives of your wedding photos that’s pretty much a given that you also get the printing rights assigned along with that. Make sure to get it in writing just in case you need to show you have that permission wherever you get them printed.
So you don’t have to try to get the wedding photography copyright. All you have to do is ask for the printing rights.
**G.E. Masana (portrait artist and Huffington Post contributer) As Seen In HUFFINGTON POST | MARTHA STEWART WEDDINGS | THE KNOT | NEW YORK MAGAZINE | BRIDAL GUIDE | BRIDES | STYLE ME PRETTY | ELEGANT BRIDE | GRACE ORMONDE | WELLWED | TOWN&COUNTRY **
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