Photography and copyright

Fact sheet P-16

Issued: 16th March 2005
Last amended: 22nd June 2022
Fact sheet P-16: Photography and copyright

Protecting your workExploring copyright issues in photography, registration advice and specific considerations that apply to photographers.

  1. Who owns the copyright on photographs?

    Under law, it is the photographer who will own copyright on any photos they have taken, with the following exceptions:

    • If the photographer is an employee of the company the photos are taken for, or is an employee of a company instructed to take the photos, the photographer will be acting on behalf of their employer, and the company the photographer works for will own the copyright.
    • If there is an agreement that assigns copyright to another party.

    In all other cases, the photographer will retain the copyright, if the photographer has been paid for his work, the payment will be for the photographer’s time and typically an allocated number of prints. The copyright to the photos will remain with the photographer, and therefore any reproduction without permission would be an infringement of copyright.


    • If Bill Smith asks Peter Jones the photographer to photograph his wedding. Peter Jones will normally provide a single copy of the prints as part of the fee, but any additional prints Bill or his family and friend want must be ordered via Peter as he is the copyright owner and controls who can copy his work.
    • If Bill Smith engages the services of XYZ-Photos for the same job, and Peter is an employee of XYZ-Photo who instruct Peter to take the photos, XYZ-Photos will be the copyright owner and control how they are used.
  2. Copyright registration
    • Why register?

      The purpose of registration is to ensure that you have proper, independently verifiable, evidence of the date and content your work. This ensures that if another party steals your photos you have solid evidence to prove your claim.

      Without registration it can be very difficult, and often impossible, to prove your ownership if another person claims the photo belong to them.

    • Protect whole collections for a single fee

      It is possible to submit a great many photos within a single registration, and only pay a single registration fee.

      For advice on registering photographic works, please see our fact sheet P-24: Registering photographic work.

  3. Using the work of others

    As with all copyright work, you should first obtain permission from the copyright owner before you use the work of someone else.You should also be prepared to pay a fee, as many photographers will charge you for using their work.

    Only the copyright owner, (or their authorised representative), can give permission, so you should contact the photographer, or his/her company, directly for consent. For images published on the Internet, it is typical to contact the webmaster of the site in the first instance, unless the site provides contact details for the owner of the images.

    The copyright owner has no obligation to allow you to use their work, and can refuse permission for any reason.

  4. Marking your work

    The two primary reasons for marking your work are to ensure that those accessing your images are clear that copyright exists and that they know who to contact to obtain permission.

    • Contact information

      We often receive enquiries from individuals and organisations wishing to use specific photos, but who are unable to trace the owner. It seems that many images are marked as ‘copyright image do not reproduce without permission’, but that the photographer omitted to include their contact details. This is frustrating to the person wishing to use the image and also means that the photographer may miss out on reproduction fees and exposure.

    • Copyright notices

      We do recommended that you mark your work with a copyright notice, as this makes it clear that copyright exists, and helps to deter infringement. Please see our fact sheet P-03: Using copyright notices for information on wording you notices.

      For traditional prints, it is customary to use a stamp to mark the copyright notice and the copyright owners contact details on the back of the print

      If you display your photos online, you may choose to use photo editing software to place a simple copyright notice across the image, (typically this will appear in the bottom corner). Ideally it should include the address of the web site so that it is clear where to go to find contact details.

      For electronic images, it is also possible to include the copyright/contact details in the file properties. Under Windows for example, right clicking on a image will allow you to bring up the properties dialogue where you may enter details about the file, (though this will only work with certain file types). More typically, your image software will provide a way to insert comments into the file; this is preferred as these are harder to remove.

      Watermarking may be worth considering if you have a lot of valuable images on your site.

  5. Model release forms

    An individual has certain rights to control the use of their image. The specific details will vary from one country to another depending on national legislation, although the general rule seems to be to protect a person against defamatory or offensive use of their image.

    If you intend to sell or distribute images that include people, then it is worth getting your subjects to sign a model release form as this will protect you against any comeback.

    A search on Google for ‘Model Release Forms’ should reveal a number of example documents that you can use.

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This fact sheet is Copyright © Copyright Witness and protected under UK and international law.
The use of this fact sheet is covered by the conditions of a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works License.
This fact sheet is intended only as an introduction to ideas and concepts only. It should not be treated as a definitive guide, nor should it be considered to cover every area of concern, or be regarded as legal advice.