Copyright Law

If you understood all the rules of Copyright, privacy and libel you would probably never take or use another picture for publication in your life! Did you know the lights at night on the Eiffel tower are subject to copyright and if you published a picture of your girlfriend on your web site with that in the background you are at risk of breach of copyright?

Copyright is an enormously complicated business especially as all the rules have been different throughout the world. But in 1998 the UK revised its’ copyright laws in an attempt to harmonise with the rest of Europe but these changes are still based on laws that started as early as 1862.

In this article I only skim the surface of the law and anyone with more in-depth interest with regard to Copyright and the art of photography would do well in acquire a copy of the ABC of UK photographic Copyright published by the British Photographers’ Liaison Committee and can be obtained from the British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies web site at .

For the photographic commissioner the first important fact to understand is that the author of the digital image/photography is the first owner of the copyright on any image. By law you are not supposed to use an image without the permission of the author. Nice and simple!

Now immediately we can see this would make the commissioning of photography impossible if there wasn’t either further negotiations between the commissioner and the photographer on the conditions of use or a softening of the position generally by the author. At this point it’s worth noting that there are as many ways negotiated between buyers and photographers, as there are photographers in the world!

So when commissioning photography it is vitally important to be clear with your prospective photographer what you want to use the images for and that his standard terms and conditions fit suitably with your needs. If not you have two choices either another photographer or negotiate.

If you are buying from a picture library you will need to know the exact usage of any image and often dependent on size, quantity production and geographical area a publication will cover will depend the exact price. Some photographers’ work in the same way, others will happily give you permission to use their images wherever or whenever you like.

Generally with commissioned photography, especially with events, PR or Industrial and especially product images this will not be a problem. You will often find that the photographer though maintaining ownership of the copyright will grant the client full usage of the image for promotion of their business included in their commissionable fee. But if you do not confirm that fact prior to commissioning you only have yourself to blame if that turns out not to be the case!

What about if you are commissioning a designer, PR or advertising agency to organise your photography? Have they negotiated and/or confirmed your rights to use an image? Are they the owner of copyright after commissioning? Are you going to have to pay further for reproduction rights to the intermediary?

With the advent of digital imaging we have opened a further can of worms so large that actually most people probably break copyright rules everyday without even realising it. Copying digital images supplied? Emailing images to your colleges for approval? What about retouching images? It all would infringe copyright if the author decided to be strict with their ownership.

As an example of the complication of copyright it is not illegal for a photographer to photograph anyone in a public place doing what ever they do. However if you publish that image in a context that suggests that person may be involved in something totally unrelated to the original images scenario then the publisher could be subject to the laws of libel.

Although in Britain we have no specific legislation on the infringement of privacy as in the States there are safeguards of privacy in commissioned work for private and domestic purposes.

As I said at the start, the law on copyright is hugely complicated and in many areas not even tested in law since the 1998 changes. So for the peace of mind of the average buyer discuss with your commissioned photographer just what you are buying, a one time use, total usage rights worldwide? The rights to copy their material and redistribute it?

If you are sure of your ground with your supplier you only have the rules related to privacy, libel etc of your subject matter to worry about on the production side! And if all this has frightened you then you might do what 99.9% of the population do and totally ignore all the rules and work on the old newspaper adage “Publish and be dammed!” That being a statement of fact rather than a recommendation though!

By Brian Russell

BRD Associates