By Andrew Hudson Published: August 17, 2011 Updated: June 25, 2016

“If creativity is a field, copyright is the fence.”
John Oswald, Canadian composer, 1985

Copyright is the right to copy. This sounds simple but it quickly gets complex, because the law has many quirks.

“Only one thing is impossible for God: to find any sense in any copyright law on the planet.”
Mark Twain, American humorist, 1903

What is copyright?

Copyright is a legal concept, provided in most countries, that gives artists the exclusive right to publish, adapt and license their work for financial benefit.

“Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship …”
U.S. Copyright Office, FAQ

Where does it come from?

The rules of copyright date from 1557. At this time, a British printers’ guild prohibited members from printing books originated by other members. In 1662, England passed the Licensing of the Press Act “… for preventing the frequent Abuses in printing…”

Individuals first gained copyrights from Britain’s Statute of Anne (1709) which addressed the problem of “… Printing… Books… without the Consent of the Authors… to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their Families.” Across the pond, Americans secured federal protection in 1787 with the Copyright Clause of the United States Constitution and rights were further defined and globalized in 1886 with the Berne Convention

“Monopolies may be allowed to persons for their own productions in literature and their own inventions in the arts…”
— Thomas Jefferson on the Bill of Rights, 1789.

Why have copyright?

Copyright is designed for you — the artist. Without copyright, people would be free to use your artistic work without payment, and you’d have little financial incentive to create art.

“[Copyright] restrains the spontaneity of men where but for it there would be nothing of any kind to hinder their doing as they saw fit.”
Justice Holmes, White-Smith v. Apollo, 1908

With copyright, someone who wants to commercially use your work has to get your permission first. They have to license your work, and perhaps pay you real money. Now you can be a “professional” photographer, and buy a nicer camera.

How do I get copyright?

Automatically. The law protects your artwork upon mere creation.

“Copyright exists from the moment the work is created.”
U.S. Copyright Office, FAQ

“Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created …”
U.S. Copyright Office, FAQ

“Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.”
U.S. Copyright Office, FAQ

Do I have to register, publish, or add a notice?

No. Those were requirements in the U.S. before 1976 but they were omitted to conform with the Berne Convention.

“[Copyright shall] not be subject to any formality.”
Berne Convention

“Publication is not necessary for copyright protection.”
U.S. Copyright Office, FAQ

“In general, registration is voluntary.”
U.S. Copyright Office, FAQ

What is the actual law?

In the U.S., the federal Copyright Act is Title 17 of the U.S. Code, which includes the Copyright Act of 1976 as amended by the DMCA and other laws. The law stems from the U.S. Constitution.

“The Congress shall have Power … To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”
U.S. Constitution, Article I §8, adopted 1787

In most other countries, the basic laws are similar due to an international copyright agreement known as the Berne Convention.

“The United States has copyright relations with most countries throughout the world, and as a result of these agreements, we honor each other’s citizens’ copyrights.”
U.S. Copyright Office, FAQ

U.S. Code Title 17

What can get copyright?

Most tangible artworks are covered, including paintings, murals, statues, TV shows, music, and photographs as “pictorial … works.”

“Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. Works of authorship include … pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works.”
17 USC §102

Who owns the copyright?

The person who presses the shutter-release automatically owns the copyright to the photograph.

“Copyright … vests initially in the author …”
17 USC §201(a)

The one exception is when the the photographer is a full-time employee, then the employer owns the copyright as a “work made for hire.”

“In the case of a work made for hire, the employer … is considered the author …”
17 USC §201(b)

This does not apply to part-time, volunteer, or contract (e.g. wedding) photographers. A photographer owns the copyright unless they explicitly sign it away in writing.

“A transfer of copyright ownership, other than by operation of law, is not valid unless an instrument of conveyance … is in writing and signed by the owner …”
17 USC §204(a)

Models (and other people in a photo) do not own copyright; they own their likeness, as publicity rights. Likewise, property owners have property rights.

Who Owns the Copyright?
IndividualIf you take a photo for yourself, you own the copyright.ownership
EmployeeIf you take a photo as part of a full-time job, your employer owns the made for hire
ContractorIf you are a wedding or event photographer; a volunteer for a school paper; or you get hired as an independent photographer, you own the copyright unless you sign it away in a written made for hire
ModelIf you are a person in a photograph, the photographer (not you) owns the copyright, unless agreed otherwise in writing.models
PainterIf you paint a photo, or you photograph some artwork, you own the copyright in your work but not in the underlying work, so you may need permission to sell your work.derivative work

copyright ownership

What rights do I get?

As a copyright owner, you control who can copy, adapt, license and publicly display your photos, particularly for profit.

“Subject to sections 107 through 122, the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following:

  • (1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies …;
  • (2) to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;
  • (3) to distribute copies … of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending; …
  • (5) … to display the copyrighted work publicly

17 USC §106

As a photographer, you get to be the only person to:

  1. make and sell copies of your photos;
  2. create other art using your photos, such as paintings or Photoshop variations;
  3. publish your photos on the Internet and in books;
  4. license usage of your photos to other people in exchange for money.

In a sense, copyright doesn’t give you anything, it just takes something away from other people, saying what they can’t do. Thus it’s an “exclusionary right” or a “negative right.”

“Copyright is the legal protection extended to the owner of the rights in an original work that he has created. It comprises two main sets of rights: the economic rights and the moral rights. The economic rights are the rights of reproduction, broadcasting, public performance, adaptation, translation, public recitation, public display, distribution, and so on. The moral rights include the author’s right to object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification of his work that might be prejudicial to his honor or reputation.”
— World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), Collective Management of Copyright and Related Right

copyright rights

What do I not get?

Copyright is not an absolute right; there are over 20 exclusions, limitations and exceptions. These include:

Copyright does not apply to facts, since these are universal not individual. Factual dates and figures can’t be copyrighted, but text expressing those facts may be. Similarly, works with no originality or creativity (such as “slavish copying”) cannot gain copyright.

Copyright covers form but not idea. It applies to the tangible artistic result — known as the “form of material expression” — not the underlying concept. So your photograph has copyright, but not the idea or viewpoint behind it. For example, if you take a great photo of some natural thing, such as a beach or Yosemite Valley, you can’t stop other people from taking the same photo.

Many artworks are no longer protected by copyright (they are in the “public domain”) and are free for everyone to use. This includes artworks published before 1923; copyrights that have expired (complex); and public property such as written laws.

Copyright can expire. In the U.S., the duration is lifetime plus 70 years.

Copyright does not prevent resale. In the U.S., after the “first sale”, the owner can resell a work as-is.

Fair use is permitted. This is for purposes that benefit the public interest or that are private, non-commercial and do not affect potential revenue.

“… there are several limitations of the exclusive rights of the copyright owner. The copyright law provides exemptions from infringement liability by authorizing certain uses under particularized circumstances.”
U.S. Copyright Office, FAQ Infringement

fair use, limitations, originality

Does anything overrule copyright?

Copyright can be superseded by other rights, such as trademark or privacy. When laws conflict, a balance test is made and one takes precedence.

“Copyright is a personal property right, and it is subject to the various state laws and regulations that govern the ownership, inheritance, or transfer of personal property as well as terms of contracts or conduct of business.”
U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 1

Rights that can subordinate copyright
RightU.S. law
Freedom of speechFederal constitutional law
(First Amendment)
Trademark, trade dress, unfair competitionFederal statute, Title 15
Trade SecretsFederal statute, Title 18
PatentFederal statute, Title 35
Public propertyFederal and state law
Private propertyFederal and state law
PrivacyState law
PublicityState law
Also: Contract law, defamationLocal

privacy, trademark

How long does copyright last?

Life plus 70 years for individual photographers in the U.S.

“Copyright in a work created on or after January 1, 1978, subsists from its creation and, except as provided by the following subsections, endures for a term consisting of the life of the author and 70 years after the author’s death.
17 USC §302 (a)

What about that © symbol?

The © symbol, or any other marking, is not required. It was necessary in the U.S. before 1989, but adoption of the Berne Convention removed this requirement, as copyright is now automatic. However, a copyright notice is still optionally used as means of identifying the copyright owner, along with the date of creation. You don’t have to include the © with your photo, but the addition of “© 2006 Joe Bloggs” tells everyone that Joe Bloggs hereby declares copyright ownership of this photo since 2006.

Making the © symbol

copyright notice

Copyright is automatic?

Yes, thanks to the Berne Convention. At the moment of creation, when the artwork is “fixed” in some tangible form, copyright applies automatically. For a photographer, when you press the shutter release you are making a photo and gaining copyright to that photo at the same time. You don’t have to declare copyright or file any paperwork. It is yours to keep until you explicitly give it away or you die (copyright expires after you do, the duration in the U.S. is the author’s lifetime plus 70 years).

Will people steal my photos?

Generally no, as publishers live by copyright law and usually have established rates which they gladly pay. A more likely problem is that publishers may not know that you are the copyright owner, which goes back to that “©” symbol and watermark.

If you put your photos on the Internet, you may find them appearing on amateur websites, but usually not on professional websites or in printed media. Pictures on the Internet are too low in resolution to use in print. By the way, putting photos on the Internet may make them publicly available but does not (in the legal sense) put them in the public domain.

protect photos online

Why should I register?

Registration is required to be able to file a lawsuit. If you registered your work before an infringement (or within three months of first publication), then you can sue for statutory damages of up to $30,000 (or $150,000 for willful infringement) PLUS attorney’s fees. Otherwise you will still have to register it before commencing a suit, but you can only get actual damages and no attorney’s fees, which makes a lawsuit uneconomical.

“…no civil action for infringement of the copyright in any United States work shall be instituted until preregistration or registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title.”
17 USC §411(a)

“You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work.”
U.S. Copyright Office, FAQ

“Registration is recommended for a number of reasons. Many choose to register their works because they wish to have the facts of their copyright on the public record and have a certificate of registration. Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney’s fees in successful litigation. Finally, if registration occurs within 5 years of publication, it is considered prima facie evidence in a court of law.”
U.S. Copyright Office, FAQ

register copyright

How do I register copyright?

You can apply online. An unlimited number of photos can be registered as a group for one fee of $35 (as long as they have the same author and registration year). Just put your JPEG photos in a single zip file and upload them here.

“You can apply to register … an unpublished collection of photographs with one application and filing fee …”
U.S. Copyright Office, FL-107

“A group of published photographs can be registered on a single form with a single fee …”
U.S. Copyright Office, FL-124

register copyright online

More questions

For more information, continue to the next page: Copyright Basics.

Next: Copyright Questions »

Copyright questions from Nov 2011 to August 2012 have been moved to Copyright Questions.


This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

Next page: Limitations


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Reply by Anonymous

July 15, 2017

I recently spent months preparing a batch of photos to submit to the copyright office, but after reading the great information on this site, I believe that I must prepare the batch again.

I assumed that I could add all my images over the last four years together, but after reading a few responses it seems that I must do a batch for each year.

The batch is almost 1,000 photos, this would be quite a job to redo.

Do I submit as is or file different batches according to the years the photos were taken?

I really appreciate the information.

Reply by East Ellis

May 31, 2017

I have created a design that promotes a municipality (town), of which I am a citizen. The design includes the town’s name. Could I copyright the design and enlist a marketing company to produce items for sale?

Reply by Anonymous

March 14, 2017

Andrew, thanks so much for your wonderful article! I have a question. I am an independent contractor. I am hired to go into various organizations to instruct. Many times the organization wants to take my PowerPoint and publicly post it on their website so it can be used as a reference later. My PowerPoint contains purchased images. If I give permission to post my PowerPoint, am I or the organization in possible copyright violation for disseminating the images beyond the original intent by allowing my PowerPoint to be posted?

Reply by Anonymous

February 16, 2017

I have a book "Invasion" published by LIFE Magazine and copyrighted by LIFE in 1944. I have the original LIFE magazines printed on June 19, 1944 which contain the photographs of D-Day by Robert Capa, who was employed by LIFE. I want to use these photographs in my D-Day project but I am getting conflicting information from Magnum Photos that state they hold the copyright. I can only find two entries in the US Copyright office for a "compilation of photos" which looks as if the estate put together and now claim ownership of the photos, even when LIFE clearly had the copyright. Is this really in the public domain now?

Reply by Anonymous

January 18, 2017

What are rights of photographer who gives you the pics (not a professional) and never stated that you couldn’t use them. Can you use in article that makes no money but is there to raise awareness?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

January 18, 2017

When someone takes a photo, they automatically get copyright, which is the exclusive right to copy (reproduce/publish) the photo. So the rights that a photographer has is copyright. The photographer does not need to be professional, and the photographer does not need to state anything.

For you to use the photo in an article, you should get permission from the photographer. There are exceptions to copyright such as “fair use” (for the public benefit) and “de minimis” (too trivial to concern the law) which your use might fall under. But photographs in articles are usually licensed (paid for) so you should get permission from the photographer (or use some other licensed photo) before publishing the article.

Reply by Anonymous

October 23, 2016

Hi, I have a family portrait that was taken about 1968. There is only one photograph as that is all my mom purchased. There is nothing on the photograph to identify who took the picture, photographer or studio, my mom doesn’t remember where it was taken. What copyright laws would apply as several family members want a copy of the photograph. How can we make copies, not for sale but for the sole purpose of having this picture of our family when we were little children. I am almost 51 and I was about 2 1/2 in the photo. Me and my siblings would like our own copy of the photo.

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

November 15, 2016

Hello person with a 1968 family portrait,

I am not an expert in this but it might be that the photo does not have copyright. Photos taken and sold before 1978 in the U.S., get copyright protection from the 1909 Copyright Act, which requires registration and copyright notice. Since the photo you have does not include copyright info, it may be that the photo does not have copyright. Thus you would be free to make a copy for any purpose.

Even if the photo did have copyright protection, it does not appear that copying the work for private use would affect the market for the photo (since there is no market and no photographer to capitalize on the market), so your use may be considered fair use.

Reply by Anonymous

September 18, 2016


I own a flower shop. I have an employee who was given a camera from her mother who was a photographer during her employment. She started taking photos of my flower arrangements and posting them to my Facebook business page. Now she says she has. Them copyrighted and us the owner of my photos and is adding her name to my photos. Are the photos mine according to the copyright law work made for hire?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

November 15, 2016

Hi flower shop owner,

Generally, if the person is a “regular, salaried” employee, and the photos were “prepared by an employee within the scope of his employment”, and you provided the time, tools and direction, then you own the copyright. As you note, this is known as “work made for hire.”

Works Made for Hire — In the case of a work made for hire, the employer or other person for whom the work was prepared is considered the author for purposes of this title, and, unless the parties have expressly agreed otherwise in a written instrument signed by them, owns all of the rights comprised in the copyright.

17 U.S.C. §§ 201

“The rule has long been established, both under the common law and under the statute, that the rights in a work produced by an employee in the course of his employment are vested in the employer.”

— 1961 Report of the Register of Copyrights on the General Revision of the U.S. Copyright Law.

Since the camera was provided by the photographer rather than the employer, that may be an issue. But if she was a regular employee, taking the photos as part of her regular work for you, then this likely qualifies as work for hire.

“The closer an employment relationship comes to regular, salaried employment, the more likely it is that a work created within the scope of that employment would be a work made for hire. However, since there is no precise standard for determining whether or not a work is made for hire under the first part of the definition, consultation with an attorney for legal advice may be advisable.”

— U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 9

For works-made-for-hire, the employer (you) automatically owns the copyright. If she has added her name and/or a copyright symbol to the photos, then you could ask her to remove those since this is likely your property.

This is not specific legal advice and I am not a lawyer. Consult a local attorney for legal advice.

Reply by Pam

June 15, 2016

I made a polymer clay sculpture, copied from a rare photo of a flower on Pinterest. Is it ok? Is it ok if I sell the item?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

June 16, 2016

Hi Pam,

Yes, it is probably OK. The photo itself may not have copyright protection for how the flower looks, since this is a natural item. So it may be possible for anyone to make their own image of the flower. Additionally, your sculpture is probably sufficiently transformative to qualify as fair use.

This is a general opinion, not legal advice; for specific advice, consult an attorney.

Reply by Anonymous

May 25, 2016

I just started a photography business and I saw a picture on Pinterest and copied to use on my website as an example of the kind of wedding photography I would do. I didn’t see a watermark, so I thought it was free to use. I never claimed the photo was taken by me. Was I violating the copyright law?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

June 7, 2016

Yes. I’m not sure how Pinterest gets away with it, but copying a photo for public display without permission is generally violating copyright law.

You can license (fairly cheaply) images from microstock sites such as Shutterstock.

Reply by Picture Architect

May 4, 2016


If I purchased original slides and negatives from the public auction or estate sale can I license the images to the stock agency by scanning them? If so, under what name since I wasn’t the one who took them and photographer is unknown and most likely newer licensed them.

Or what other way to have those images published or be used for documentaries? (by editors for example).

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

June 7, 2016

Can I license the images to the stock agency by scanning them?

Probably not, as you are not the photographer and therefore you do not own the copyright.

Photos either have copyright or they don’t. If these photos have copyright, then you are not the copyright owner. If these photos do not have copyright, they are said to be in the “public domain” and anyone can copy them.

If you just want to make the images available, you could set up a website and allow the images to be copied and used for free. If you want to make money, you could display low-resolution images with a watermark on a website, and offer high-resolution scans for a fee.

For specific information, contact a local copyright attorney.

Reply by Anonymous

April 6, 2016

I want to hire a photographer to take pictures of various homes in an old city. He said he could sign the rights over to me, but I can’t use the photos commercially unless I get the owner of each home to agree. Is this true? Or is your outside photo of your home considered free domain or public?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

June 7, 2016

This is debatable. I believe that there is not a law or landmark case that says you need to get permission to use photos of the exterior of private property for commercial purposes. So, you might be able to proceed. If you are using the photos just to show nice houses in the old city, or something else descriptive, then you might be OK. However, if you are making money from images of houses that are identifiable, it is possible that an owner could try to sue you. What law (if any) they could use would depend upon where the old city is, as privacy and property laws are often local laws.

Contact a local attorney for specific advice.

Reply by Anonymous

March 31, 2016

I recently inherited photos from my father who was a competitive amateur photographer (showed and won prizes at photo contests, fairs, etc.).

All his other possessions were inherited by me, his only child and sole heir. If I were to sell prints of some of his more acclaimed photos, as limited edition items, do I need to register my own copyright or one in his name?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

April 4, 2016

If the photos were taken during or after 1978, then they received automatic copyright protection. You would now own that copyright as part of your inheritance. You do not need to register the copyright, but you could if you want for additional protection.

If the photos were taken before 1978 (and no copyright was registered at the time), then unfortunately for you there is no copyright. (The works are available for anyone to use, called “in the public domain”). You can still sell prints. Lack of a copyright would probably not affect your business.

Note that I am not a lawyer and this is not a legal opinion — consult a local attorney for specific advice.

Reply by Anonymous

March 26, 2016

I am writing an article in my magazine about a man who played sports before 1980. He is being inducted in the Hall of Fame this year. May I include some of his photos that were taken years ago on the cover of my magazine?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

March 28, 2016

When were the photos taken?

Photos taken from 1978 onwards have automatic copyright (regardless of notice or registration). Photos taken before 1978 only have copyright if a copyright notice was given, and the copyright was registered, and the registration was renewed. If all those three things occurred, then the photos have copyright and you need permission from the photographer (or agency). If all those three things did not occur, then the photos have no copyright and are free to use by anyone — they are “in the public domain.”

As for the man, I am not aware of a privacy/publicity law that would hinder publication of sports photos for news purposes

Note that I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. Consult a local attorney for specific advice.

Reply by Anonymous

March 6, 2016

Hello. I’m photographing my collection of vintage cameras. I’m planning to print them on T-shirts, prints or other items to sell as novelties. Am I infringing copyright buy selling the images with the brand names? Thank you very much.

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

March 14, 2016

The issue here is probably trademark rather than copyright. Using images of trademarks or trademarked products on T-shirts might be considered infringement if it implies endorsement by the trademark owner. Car companies and celebrities have won similar cases. However, the case law is somewhat mixed. Here are some opinions in your favor:

“[the photographer’s] paintings, prints, and calendars do not violate [trademark law] because these artistically expressive objects are protected by the First Amendment.”

— University of Ala. Bd of Trustees v. New Life, Inc, 09-16412 (11th Cir. 2012)

”An artistically expressive use of a trademark will not violate the Lanham Act ‘unless the use of the mark has no artistic relevance to the underlying work whatsoever, or, if it has some artistic relevance, unless it explicitly misleads as to the source or the content of the work.’”

— Judge Robert Lanier Anderson, University of Ala. Bd of Trustees v. New Life, Inc, 09-16412 (11th Cir. 2012), June 11, 2012.

“[Not used as trademarks as] The insignia were a prominent feature of each item so as to be visible to others when worn, allowing the wearer to publicly express her allegiance to the organization. [Publisher] never designated the merchandise as ‘official’ ... merchandise or otherwise affirmatively indicated sponsorship.”

— Job’s Daughters v Lindeburg, 1984

Also see Fleisher v AVELA (Betty Boop), 2011.

“[T]he trademark laws do not give the New Kids the right to channel their fans’ enthusiasm (and dollars) only into items licensed or authorized by them”

— New Kids on the Block v. News Am. Pub., 1992.

Reply by Anonymous

February 18, 2016

Hi Andrew,

If a photo that was taken in the U.S. in the last few years is found in a Google search and it has no copyright symbol or watermark on it, is it okay to use it as a background photo on a social media account?


Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

March 14, 2016

No. All photographs taken in the U.S. in the last few years have copyright. The use of a copyright symbol or watermark is not necessary.

“Posting copyrighted content without permission might be a violation of the law.”


You can license images for this purpose. Shutterstock currently offers two images for $29. Or you can use a photo that you take — that’s free!

Reply by Anonymous

February 17, 2016

Hi Andrew,

An amateur photographer took photos of a band and sold what looks like the copyright under a photo license agreement. Now the purchaser of the copyright wishes to sell the copyright and negatives again. Reading your article I understand that the original amateur photographer does no longer have the copyrights as per the law dicated below:

This does not apply to part-time, volunteer, or contract (e.g. wedding) photographers. A photographer owns the copyright unless they explicitly sign it away in writing.

“A transfer of copyright ownership, other than by operation of law, is not valid unless an instrument of conveyance … is in writing and signed by the owner …”

— 17 USC §204(a)

May the purchaser simply sign away the copyright without going back again and asking permission from the amateur photographer?

Very informative site. Thanks you

Reply by Anonymous

February 17, 2016

Hi Andrew,

An amateur photographer took photos of a band and sold what looks like the copyright under a photo license agreement. Now the purchaser of the copyright wishes to sell the copyright and negatives again. Reading your article I understand that the original amateur photographer does no longer have the copyrights as per the law dicated below:

This does not apply to part-time, volunteer, or contract (e.g. wedding) photographers. A photographer owns the copyright unless they explicitly sign it away in writing.

“A transfer of copyright ownership, other than by operation of law, is not valid unless an instrument of conveyance … is in writing and signed by the owner …”

— 17 USC §204(a)

May the purchaser simply sign away the copyright without going back again and asking permission from the amateur photographer?

Very informative site. Thank you.

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

March 14, 2016

There are likely two separate issues here — copyright, and the tangible photos (negatives, copies).

Copyright: The photographer probably still retains copyright to the images. A typical license agreement (unless stated otherwise) does not transfer ownership of the copyright, just allows the other party to use (license) the images.

Tangible photos: The purchaser of the photos owns those photos, and can resell them without permission from the photographer. This is called the “first sale doctrine.”

“an individual who knowingly purchases a copy of a copyrighted work from the copyright holder receives the right to sell, display or otherwise dispose of that particular copy, notwithstanding the interests of the copyright owner (17 U.S.C. § 109).”

Hope this helps.

Reply by Anonymous

February 14, 2016

Can I use images on the internet for personal documents, like PowerPoint documents, etc.?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

March 14, 2016

Technically, this is copyright infringement. But if this is just for personal documents (with no public publication), this might be fair use and/or “de minimis (too minor for warrant legal action).

Reply by Anonymous

February 8, 2016

I have the opportunity to purchase US government aircraft recognition slides from the Vietnam War. My intention is to create and sell photos made from those slides. There are a few marked “Restricted” which is what we know as “Classified.”

Am I legally allowed to do this?

Reply by Anonymous

February 2, 2016

Hello, I recently won 1000’s of celebrity 35mm slides of actors/singers/celebrities from the 1990s and 2000s. They were won at a bankruptcy auction where the photographer relinquished all rights. It includes actors like Mel Gibson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Brooke Shields, etc. I am not making reproductions of these, but am I allowed to sell these slides individually on my own website or on 3rd party platforms like eBay? Or are there privacy laws that circumvent me from selling these, let’s say a photo of a celebrity where they are yawning or scowling, so it doesn’t put them in a nice light? Thanks for any advice.

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

February 3, 2016

Yes. You can sell something which you own, in this case the slides. Copyright is only an issue if you make copies of the images, which you are not. Privacy is only an issue if you publish the images, which you are not.

Reply by Anonymous

January 29, 2016

Digital painting.

Hello. If I paint a picture of a photo taken by myself years earlier, which year should be used for the painting? And is that possible to give license to individual buyers just for their personal use and not resale?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

February 1, 2016

Year: The year of the painting.

License: Yes. You can specify whatever terms you like. A license can just be sentence on the invoice, such as “For personal use only; not for resale.”

Reply by Anonymous

August 29, 2015

I know my question is a bit off the topic but I am forced to ask by my mind :) as I haven’t got this answer anywhere, please help me deciding a good stock photography camera within entry level budget.

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

January 12, 2016


You can use any camera from a well-known brand, such as Nikon, Canon and Sony. You can often get a package with one or two lenses to get you going.

Reply by Anonymous

August 29, 2015

Hi Andrew,

Thanks for such valuable informations I got here. I am a beginner in lense artistry. Am struggling to one good DSLR option within $900 budget. I have seen almost all variations and most of professionally taken photographs from Nikon D5200, D5300, D5500 but haven’t found them sharp and crisp to that level of satisfaction. I haven’t found it giving really a true 24 MP quality anymore. I may be wrong but I tried with many lenses but seems it’s not much capable as the Nikon 800 or other expensive models can?

Can you please guide me if the Nikon D5200 is really capable to handle those valuable lenses that send image details to camera sensors to capture accurate image quality and depth with details they are known for?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

January 12, 2016


Well I have a Nikon D5100 and it works well enough for me. (Note the latest model is D5500 for $800). Certainly the D800 (now D810) is a better camera, but it is $3,000. The new D500 looks great, but it is $2,000.

Sharpness is often due to the lens, especially for long lenses (e.g. 200mm +).

Reply by Anonymous

August 25, 2015

Hi, recently I won a spot in a credit union calendar. The photo release I am supposed to sign gives them the “absolute right and unrestricted permission to copyright, use and re-re-use, publish, and republish etc.” Is that permission to copyright akin to me signing away the copyright of my picture? Thanks for your answer

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

January 12, 2016


No, that permission is not akin to you signing away the copyright of your picture.

This is typical legal stuff and does not affect your copyright.

Because you own the copyright, anyone that wants to reproduce your photo (such as this credit union) needs written permission to do so. This is called a photo release. There is likely a phrase that says “non-exclusive use”, which means that they can use your photo and you are not limited, i.e. you can still do whatever you like with the photo.

Reply by Worn Jeans

August 22, 2015

In a photo release I am asked to sign, they ask for: the absolute right and unrestricted permission to copyright, use and re-re-use, publish and re-publish and use as stock footage, the image and my name.......etc for a calendar photo I submitted. What do they mean by permission to copyright? I understand that they would copyright the calender, but why would they need to copyright my photo when they will already be granted permission to use it. Thanks

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

January 13, 2016

Hi Worn Jeans,

I don’t think they exactly ask for that. They probably ask for “non-exclusive unrestricted use”, which means that they can use your photo in the calendar (and elsewhere). You retain the copyright of your photo, and you can still do whatever you like with the photo.

This is standard practice and you probably fine, but if you don’t like the terms don’t submit your photo.

Reply by Benjamin

August 13, 2015

I made an image out of two different images taken from Internet and I know that one of them is already copyrighted under name of a big company. But my image was a mixture of two images. Can I still use that image on my domain. Actually I just got a notice regarding the copyright of image which I made out of two images. Now I am confused what to do. Can I get copyright of image which I made from two images?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

January 13, 2016

Hi Benjamin,

This is called derivative work. You can get copyright for your original artistic contribution, but the incorporated images retain their copyright, so commercial use would require permission. If you significantly change the purpose of the images, then this may qualify as “transformative” use, which is a type of fair use and does not require permission.

Reply by L Vorel

August 7, 2015

I recently purchased old glass negatives from an auction house. Can I now print and sell photos made from these original negatives?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

January 13, 2016

Probably yes. Photos taken before 1923 do not have copyright protection (and photos taken before 1978 may not have copyright protection. For more info, see old photos.

When photos do not have copyright protection, anyone (including you) can print and sell photos made from the original negatives.

Reply by Anonymous

July 10, 2015

If a photo from year 1944, in the US, is found online today, can it be copied and used without regard to any copyright that may apply to the party that posted it in the first place?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

January 13, 2016

No. You should consider copyright.

The photo may not have copyright, in which case you can copy and use it. This may be the case if the photo was taken by the U.S. Government, or no copyright notice is present.

If the photo does have copyright, you may be able to copy and use it for personal situations, or public-interest situations, as fair use. But commercial and public use would probably require permission.

Note that copyright belongs to the photographer, or the employer of the photographer. If the party that posted the photo in the first place is not in that category then you probably do not need permission from that party, just the copyright owner.

I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.

Reply by Anonymous

June 3, 2015

Thank you. Much appreciated.

Reply by Anonymous

May 28, 2015

My brothers and I inherited many photographs from our family’s business that were taken many years ago. It is our desire to share these historic photos with the public on a website. Since we did not click the shutter can we still copyright the photos? The original photographers are long deceased.

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

May 29, 2015



No, you cannot copyright photos that you did not take or commission. But you can probably share the photos on a website, if the photos are in the “public domain (see below).

If the photos were taken before 1923 (in the U.S.), then they do not have copyright protection, a status called being in the “public domain” and anyone can use them for any purpose.

If the photos were taken between 1923 and 1977 and copyrights were not registered or renewed at the appropriate times, then they are in the public domain.

If the photos were taken after 1977, then they are protected by copyright which is owned by the photographer, unless the photographer was a full-time employee of your family’s business in which case the copyright is owned by the business (as “work made for hire”). Only in this last case can you register the copyright.

Reply by Anonymous

March 26, 2015

Question: Some 40 odd years ago, a friend and I collaborated on a series of photos. I was the photographer, my friend the model. There was no model release executed, we were both in our teens or early twenties and it never occurred to us. I possess the negatives. My friend has, over the years, become a celebrity and public figure. They perform, are featured in national ad campaigns, etc. May I sell or publish the photos? If I do, is my friend due compensation? (The photos contain nothing lewd or salacious.)

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

May 29, 2015


From a copyright perspective, you own the copyright and can do what you like with the photos.

However, your friend may have privacy/publicity rights. This is state law (in the U.S.) so research the law in your area. If there is no privacy law, then you can probably sell or publish the photos without permission or compensation.

Reply by Jan

March 16, 2015

Here’s a question for you...I had a professional photographer for my wedding 15 years ago. At the time I did pay to get all of my proofs and I got a letter from them stating it was okay to reproduce the photos. Since that time the letter has been lost, the company is out of business (all 3 locations.) I want to get a few of my wedding photos blown up to frame and put over our bed. Will anyone do this???

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

May 29, 2015

Hi Jan,

It is a shame that the letter has been lost as that was your license to copy the photos.

Without written permission, many professional places may decline to copy the photos for you. This is due in part to a landmark case on this topic in 1991, called Basic Books v. Kinko’s.

Reply by Anonymous

March 3, 2015

Very informative. Thanks.

Reply by Anonymous

January 30, 2015

I have lots of old magazines (circa 1909 to 1937) and I was wondering if I photograph covers and pages from the magazines, can I sell them online as original (and possibly retouched) photos of vintage print arts? Most of the artists are dead and the publisher is no longer in business.

Thank you for your opinion.

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

February 6, 2015

Hi magazine-person,

Anyone is free to photograph and sell images of artworks that have no copyright, a status known as being in the “public domain.” Under U.S. copyright law, the publication date has a bearing on public domain status.

Before 1923

Under U.S. copyright law, artwork before 1923 is in the public domain. So the magazines from 1909 to 1923 are good.

After 1923

Between 1923 and 1977, a copyright © symbol has to be displayed, and the copyright has to have been registered and renewed. So if there is no copyright symbol then you’re good. If there is a copyright symbol, ideally you would research the copyright registration status at If you believe that the copyright owners are dead or out of business, and thus are not likely to sue you, you could take the risk and proceed.

For specific advice, contact a local attorney.

Best wishes,


Reply by Alexander

January 23, 2015


I’m a fashion and beauty photographer. I have a collection of images that I’d like to have copy written, but to do all would be very timely and expensive. Can I somehow copyright them all at once or any other secondary options?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

January 27, 2015

Hi Alexander,

You can register all your copyrights in one application online, and for one fee ($55 I think). Start at

Best wishes,


Reply by Dolph

December 4, 2014

Thanks Andrew, thats a big help.

Your efforts are appreciated!

Thanks again,


Reply by Anonymous

December 3, 2014

If I take a photo in 2012, it sits on a hard drive, then in 2014 I print and sell it and want to indicate it is copyrighted should I use 2012 or ’14.

Then if I actually copyright and register the image in 2015 which date should I use?

Also, when submitting for copyright are all the images copyrighted for the submission date or do they have to be grouped by actual capture date for submission?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

December 4, 2014



The copyright year of a photo is when the photo was taken. (Copyright exists when art is fixed in a medium).

If the photos are unpublished, you can submit them all as one group, regardless of capture dates.



Reply by Anonymous

October 10, 2014

Awesome article! I’m helping my sister in her entrepreneurial photography ventures and this has been a fantastic help. I’ve learned a lot from what you’ve written, as well as in the comments/answers section. Thank you!

Reply by JN

October 9, 2014

I’m not sure where to begin. I have taken some beautiful unique close up photos of flowers. Stunning! I know if someone saw them, they would definitly want to buy them or publish them. Where do I go from here. And how would I go about finding people who are interested in buying my photos?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

October 10, 2014


Stunning photos of flowers are always popular.

To start selling them, read Sell Photos Online.

Good luck!


Reply by Shally

October 5, 2014

Does it matter how small the font is like size 8 and hardly noticeable for copyright with my name on the photo, and do I need to hide it and make it impossible to find, except for myself to know where its at?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

October 8, 2014

Hi Shally.

The font size is not mandatory. In fact, you don’t need to add any copyright notice, as copyright is automatic. A copyright notice is useful to show people that you own the copyright. It sounds like you’re using the copyright notice as a secret marker, which is fine.

Microstock agencies may reject images with noticeable added text (such as copyright). But your secret marker text might pass inspection.

Best wishes,


Reply by Anonymous

September 27, 2014

I bought at auction the life works of a famous photographer (who has passed away) after his son failed to pay his storage bills for 10 years (been in storage for 15years) lawyers tried to get payment to no avail and 13K in legal expenses. So I now own the physical asset (300,000 negs, 40,000 prints and also Contact Sheets and a lot of pre-Columbian art) can I display my physical asset in a museum?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

October 8, 2014


Wow, that sounds like quite a find!

Yes, you can display, in a museum or elsewhere, the physical assets that you own.

Best wishes,


Reply by Martha

March 26, 2013


I had some boudoir pics taken to give to my husband as anniversary gift. I liked many do I went ahead and purchased them. The photographer tried to convinced me of buying an album, I told I was not interested. Three months later I’m surprised to received an album in the mail made with my pics! The photographer then sends me a text message asking if I got the album and telling me that if I like it I could buy it for a certain amount. I answered and explained my confusion and discontent with receiving something I did not request and to have something very private printed out and that I was not interested in buying....., he’s now insisting to have it back....

What are my rights???

Thank you!

Reply by Myra

March 21, 2013

Hi Andrew! Thanks for your article. It was really informative and very interesting. My question is, I’ll be sending photos of my daughter (she is 15 months) to various modeling agencies to possibly get her signed and get work as a model. Do I need to, or would you advise I, put the copyright symbol on the photos I send to the agencies?

Reply by Cindy

March 21, 2013

I’m writing a memoir on another person and have gotten verbal permission to use all documents, journals, letters, and photos from their private collection in my book. Some of these pictures I believe have been published before; however, my client does not know who the photographer(s)were. She believes she owns the pictures, but has no copyright that I’m aware of. She has allowed me to photograph all the documents and photos from her collection with my digital camera and has given me permission to use them in our joint venture, which she will profit from as well.

Is this legal? To complicate the matter, I’m writing the book in France, for publication in English in the USA. How can I cover all my bases legally?

Reply by Josh

March 15, 2013

Hello I recently googled a cool picture and photoshopped a car infront of it (I am a detailer) I posted this on my FB page, is that legal?

Reply by Naomi

March 6, 2013

Years ago (10) I had some pix done in a studio. I am writing a book and want to use one of the photos. I was going to write to the photographer, but have discovered they went out of business 2 years after I had these taken.

Understanding the lifetime+70 yrs piece, how would I go about getting permission to use the photos if the studio no longer exists?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

March 6, 2013


Hi Naomi:

This is a common problem, trying to get permission from a photographer who you can’t reach.

Legally, you generally need permission from the copyright owner to reproduce photos for profit. But who is the owner when the studio has gone out of business? The photographer? The business receiver? And would this owner sue you for your use? Perhaps your use is not for profit or fair use (in which case permission is not required) or de minimis (too minor to warrant court action). Even if this results in a court action, perhaps your diligent attempt to reasonably find the photographer would aid in your defense.

These are some ideas — for specific advice contact a lawyer. Sorry I can’t be of more help.


Reply by L Good

March 5, 2013

I want to sell the copyright (or share the copyright)of a photograph to a company. They want to print it onto mugs, glasses, t-shirts, souvenirs etc.. How do I charge for this and should I put any restrictions on it?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

March 5, 2013


Hi L,

What you want to do is license your photo. You can charge whatever you like. As for restrictions, that is up to you but you could limit the usage just to the purposes discussed.

For example, you could grant a non-exclusive license to print your photos on mugs, glasses, t-shirts, souvenirs only, up to 5,000 copies, for one year.

The terms are whatever you can negotiate and feel comfortable with. But certainly get the arrangement in writing and signed, so that both parties know what is and is not included with the fee.

Best wishes,


Reply by Becky

February 24, 2013

I have some friends wanting me to do family pictures and they said they’d pay me for it. I was just wondering if it’s legal to do that or if I need to get a license or perment. I enjoy taking photos and I don’t want to get into any kind of trouble with doing photography. I also take photos of nature (birds, water falls, rivers, ect ect) and people was wanting to buy them from me. HELP!!! I don’t know what to do!!

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

March 5, 2013


Hi Becky,

Go ahead! You usually do not need a license or permit to take and sell these types of photos.

Some cities, counties or states require a business license to conduct business. Check with your local governments to see what they require (and what they define as business). Some locations require permits for commercial photography when you are on their property. Such locations usually prominently state this on signs and/or entrance tickets.

Best wishes,


Reply by Cris

February 5, 2013

I have a question about what is considered publishing, regarding registering unpublished images for copyright. If I "publish" a photo on my website or Facebook does that mean that I can no longer register for copyright protection?

Also can I register a photo after several years after I shot it?

thank you!

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

March 5, 2013


Hi Cris:

You can register copyright for published and unpublished photos, and for old photos. So putting a photo on your website or Facebook, or waiting several years, does not prevent you from registering your copyright.

“The definition of publication in U.S. copyright law does not specifically address online transmission. The Copyright Office therefore asks applicants, who know the facts surrounding distribution of their works, to determine whether works are published.”

— U.S. Copyright Office, FL-107

Publication: the distribution of copies or phonorecords of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending.”

— 17 U.S.C. § 101

“[The definition of ‘publication’ under copyright law] does not specifically address online transmission.”

— U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 66

“Neither the Copyright Act nor its implementing regulations explain the … definition [of ‘published’] to internet works.”

— Rogers v. BBB Houston, 2011

“[The] act of posting the pictures to [a] website and making them accessible to others for distribution is considered a publication.”

— Waller v. Nexstar, 2011

Reply by Maggie

January 31, 2013

Thank you so much for this information! I have been putting my art up without watermarks for years... i have noticed people are starting to use them and it upsets me because they are nto asking me or paying me. This really did help.


Reply by Edwin

January 3, 2013

I am a freelance photographer and I have a question about copyrights as the photographe. My customer is an associate for a insurance company from what I was told they hire photographers and duplicate photos using Costcos kiosk. I am offered to shoot pictures for their exclusive event and I have already offered them a price for photography and travel only. But the customer wants FULL COPYRIGHT of my work. I have not replied and the job is soon next weekend. I am starting a business in Photography but don’t know much about Photographer/Artist rights. What do you suggest? I don’t have contracts as well. I’m a bit confused.

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

January 6, 2013


Hi Edwin,

You are fine giving them full copyright, that is what the job is. They are paying you for your time. Advertising, newspaper and magazine photographers often work like this. They get paid for their time and the client gets to use the images wihout restriction.

Freelance photographers often do a mixture of work, sometimes doing paid work like this where they sell the copyright, and other times doing personal work where they retain the copyright.

Just decide if the money makes the job worth your time.


Reply by Chad

December 14, 2012

I was at a park, when the weather around me started behaving strangely, I took my camera and started taking pictures of the sky. When I had them developed one picture came back with an image of "Jesus" standing in the clouds. I know it sounds unbelievable but ’GOD’ as my witness it is true. I want to have it copyrighted before I release the photo. My question is can I have "Jesus" in a copyright form, and can I get it registered as a trademark. Thanks for all your help.

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

January 6, 2013


Hi Chad,

Congratulations taking a cool photo.

Copyright: Your photo already has copyright, which is bestowed automatically. So you can release the photo. You could include credit information next to and/or on your photo, such as with a watermark and metadata.

Register: For extra protection, you could register the copyright. You can do this online for about $35 by submitting an online form at

Trademark: You cannot trademark a photo, as that is a protection for business names, such as "Coca-Cola." The equivalent protection for a photo is copyright.

Good luck!


Reply by Sheila Homan

September 8, 2012

at a wedding i took pictures and the photographer asked if he could use mine. later i found out that he has posted them as his and he also has them copyrighted with his name and the symbol and i am upset that he copyrighted my work. nothing was ever signed or even writen down now he is going to sell my pictures to the couple and i will not get anything

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

September 10, 2012


Hi Sheila:

Well obviously this is wrong. See who hosts his website. The hosting company should have an online form to submit a notice of copyright infringement (which may be called a DMC takedown notice). That should get your photos removed from the site, and get the photographer’s attention. You could also send a cease-and-desist letter (written by an attorney) and mention the $150,000 maximum statutory damages per infringement plus attorney’s fees that could come from a civil copyright lawsuit in federal court. That should get a response. BTW, I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.

Reply by Greg Craig

February 21, 2013

I have a picture of Jesus and animals and faces from a single shot of a some trees. I want to sell my picture and story to National Enquire on a one print licsense deal

Can I get a million bucks for this incredible shot and that fact that I met God in person; kneeling about 15 feet before ALMIGHT GOD.

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

March 5, 2013


Hi Greg:

A photo of Jesus would be worth a lot of money. To see if National Enquirer would pay a million bucks try asking National Enquirer. That would be a miracle.


Reply by Suzannah

August 2, 2012

I have a client who wants me to photograph a painting he owns by a decesed painter. He only wants a copy for private use. Is that ok?

Reply by Wayne

July 16, 2012

I wanna use a celebrity’s face for a promotion that is significant to the fact that the celebrity will not be present at said event, Do I need that persons’ consent. The idea is brilliant not sure about using the persons’ image without consent.

Reply by Kaylea Malone

July 16, 2012

i seen a picture from google and i want to know if i can paint it and sell it?

Reply by Anonymous

July 11, 2012

If a photographer grants license to a client to disseminate and sell photographs under a contractual agreement that certain conditions be upheld, (i.e. giving proper credit and citation for every usage and instance of the image/s published), and the client breaches that agreement. What if any recourse does the copyright owner have to revoke the license which was governed by a contract and applicable terms and conditions?

Reply by Meera

July 5, 2012

Hi I want to take some photos of toy animals currentlly in stock at a popular toy store. I then want to edit the photos to make a poster and offer it for sale.

Would I be ok in doing this? or do i need to get permission from the people that make the toys?

Reply by Karen`

July 3, 2012

we had family photos done at a professional photographers, and now i see that she has sold one of the pictures to a local business for use in their waiting area. if this allowed?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

June 26, 2012

I will be your photographer for two international trips! Unfortunately for you he is right. You should have got him to sign a contract. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, “… the transfer of exclusive rights is not valid unless that transfer is in writing and signed by the owner of the rights conveyed …”copyright ownership, copyright transfer, work made for hire

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