As a photographer, you may have heard a few things "through the grapevine" about how to legally protect your work and your business. Because we know that you want to build a business with your photography skills, let's talk about those photography legal issues and myths — and actually shed some light on them.
Myth 1: You're gonna get sued if anything goes wrong.
Truth: The chances you would ever get sued outright is very, very slim.
As you grow a photography business, you probably worry that a misstep or any client problem is going to end in a lawsuit. Honestly, though, filing a lawsuit is expensive, not just because of the high filing fees, but because lawyers are expensive! And it takes them a long time to draft up anything worth a court’s time.
Most of the time, a few emails or a call will sort things out (even if they're not fun). This is why having a photography contract is key, however. So clients know what they are getting, there are clear expectations and boundaries set, and everything is in legally binding writing so you can refer back to that when things get tense.
Myth 2: Anyone can share your pictures without permission if they tag or credit you.
Truth: Attribution does not negate copyright infringement.
Tired of people sharing your photos without permission? Crediting someone’s photo on Instagram or your blog doesn’t make it OK. Asking for permission is not only the friendly thing to do, it’s also the legal thing to do. This goes for YOUR work, just as it does for sharing someone else's. If you find someone sharing your work without attribution, simply request that they attribute it, or take it down. It is your original work, and therefore falls under copyright law.
Myth 3: Your clients can do "whatever they want" with your images.
Truth: A photographer owns their images.
Unless you have a clause in your contract that specifically assigns away your copyright on the images, or states this was a work for hire, you as the photographer are still the original creator. Therefore, clients only have limited rights to use these photos. Always make sure you adjust your photographer’s intellectual property section of your contract and either license (kinda like renting) or sell the copyright so clients can use the photos on all the materials and media they need. This is especially important if you work with businesses who will use your images for marketing.
Myth #4: You can slap a © copyright mark on your work and call it a day.
Truth: You can't use the (C) without registering a copyright.
However, copyright law protects original works of art, literature, music, inventions… in your case we’re talking specifically about photos you’ve visually composed, shot, and (possibly) edited after the fact. The really nice thing is that once the photo is saved securely on the memory chip inside your camera, you own the copyright, even if you don’t put your watermark on it or a © symbol after the fact.
In the event that you find your work being used without your permission, the culprit doesn’t own up, and you find yourself going to court to prove that you own your work and are owed damages—having a registered copyright is certainly handy.
To register a copyright, you’ll need to send a copy of your work, along with an application and filing fee to the United States Copyright office. You don’t have to pay a copyright fee for each and every piece you create, either… you can “batch copyright” multiple pieces under one application.
One of the most important things to know is that as the copyright holder, YOU get to make the rules about whether people are allowed to reproduce your work or not.
For example, as a photographer, you’d generally include a copyright release to allow your clients to print their photos off and hang them on the wall… but you’re not releasing your overall copyright to that photo and your rights to use it in different situations. Essentially, you’re giving them a limited use reproduction license. (Hint, this is where having a contract—spelling out exactly what each party can and can’t do with the photos—is a really good idea!)
Broken down simply—as the sole owner and person in charge, a copyright registration lets YOU decide if your photos are free for anyone to use, or if they have to come and ask permission.
Myth 5: A casual agreement is enough
This is a common mistake I've seen many business owners make, but it can be especially detrimental when you're running a business based on copyrighted, original works like photography. If you want to have control over how your images are used, who can share them, and how people work with you, you need a formal contract.
Contrary to what you might be thinking, a contract won't make people run for the hills. In fact, people who are serious about their photography needs will admire that you're taking the time to be clear and professional. Especially for big investments like wedding photography, brand or business photography, commercial photography, etc., it can make clients trust you even more — because they know they're covered, too.
A strong photography contract can protect your photography from copyright infringement, as well as protect your business from unexpected cancellations (hey COVID-19), refund requests, and the unfortunate nightmare client.
BONUS: Myth #6: Any contract will do.
Truth: You need a photography-specific contract, and it needs to be an actual legal contract.
You can't just whip something up and call it good. Here at The Contract Shop®, we do sell photography templates for a number of different photography specialties, including wedding contract templates, portraits, stock photos, and more. We even have model release forms and photo editing contract templates.
Our templates were created by lawyers, and you can use them again and again for future clients and projects. Just make sure you're covered — and make sure you're not taking legal advice from someone who's not a lawyer!
Other photography business legal resources for you: