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I am a food + product photographer & educator specializing in eco-friendly and sustainable brands. When I am not working with clients, I empower creatives to start their journey by sharing my knowledge on the business of food + product photography.
Most professional photographers leverage online platforms to advertise their skills and attract new clients. But sharing your work online can have some drawbacks, as someone who’s unfamiliar with photography copyright laws may use your images illegally.
And unfortunately, it is not rare for photographers to discover their work being used illegally online. When it comes to the images you create, it’s extremely important to know your rights so you can protect your professional well-being!
Copyright laws protect your intellectual property from the moment you post it online. Your photographs are the product of your creativity and belong to you!
Copyright laws in the United States indicate a few things nobody else is allowed to do with your images without your permission:
For example, if you discover someone using your images to earn a profit or advertise for their own business needs, you can take legal action against them.
Of course, while this article is chock-full of good points about photography copyright, it is not meant as legal advice. If you’re in a pickle and your images are being used without your permission, you should seek help from a lawyer!
There are some situations when a photographer’s images do not belong to them. You’ll need to spell these situations out in a written contract and agreed to ahead of time.
For example, a photographer working consistently for a magazine or newspaper surrenders all rights to those images. The term for this sort of arrangement is “work-for-hire”—suggesting the photographer is hired knowing that their images are for a specific entity and purpose.
Another caveat… if you take a picture of a trademarked product, there are limits to what you can do with that image. While most brands have no objection when you use images with trademarked products for your portfolio or on social media, you might get in hot water if you try to sell those images on stock sites without a release, for example. Some stock sites will actually refuse images that include trademarked products!
Protecting the copyright of your photography is easy… once you get the hang of it! Take a look at these photography copyright tips to make sure your images get the maximum protection possible.
You can avoid misunderstandings about photograph ownership by communicating with your clients.
There are a few natural times you can discuss copyright protection before you start on a new project:
As you grow your business, you will probably want to have a contract drafted specifically for you by a lawyer. If you are working on location or doing lifestyle shoots, make sure they include model and property releases, as well as clear information about image rights.
Let’s say a brand hires you to shoot images. For the brand to be able to use your images legally, you’ll need to license the images. That means that you are granting the brand the rights to use your images for a certain use and a certain amount of time.
A licensing agreement details exactly how, where, and for how long the brand can use the images. You, as the photographer, get to decide the agreement terms based on what the brand needs, and you also get to decide how much to charge.
If the client wants to extend their use of your images for a longer period or for an additional media outlet, for example, you can create a new licensing agreement for the new uses (that should, of course, come with a fee).
Licensing your photographs is similar to renting out your car. You have to give clear, written permission on what you’ll allow and for how long. But it’s still your property in the end.
In the United States, you can file for photography copyright at any point in the creative process. But you are eligible for significantly more protection if your images are registered before the infringement takes place! It makes sense to get into the habit of registering your work for copyright regularly to avoid struggles later on.
For instance, if you register your copyright before someone attempts to use your images unlawfully, you can receive financial compensation for the value of your work plus stress damages (statutory damages).
On the other hand, if you register your copyright after someone infringes, you are entitled to far less compensation. Usually, you can only get back the fair market value of your images when you register later.
First off, let’s clarify what metadata is. According to IPTC, photo metadata is a set of data describing and providing information about rights and administration of an image. That information will stay attached to your photo, so that anyone can easily identify it as yours, and the file will show up as copyrighted anywhere that supports metadata.
In the copyright notice, include:
You can also choose to add a watermark to your images before sharing them over the Internet. I personally find that it is easy to crop out a watermark if you put it in a corner, and that the watermark is distracting when added in a conspicuous place, so I usually don’t use them.
If you do want to license the rights to your photographs, you need to consider a few questions so you can come up with usage fees.
When you’re deciding what to charge for the rights to use your images, ask yourself three questions:
Pro tip: You can get an idea of licensing fees by using the Getty Calculator. The numbers it will generate are pretty high, so you will need to come up with a percentage based on the size of the company.
Remember: your image rights fee is an additional fee to your creative fee. Your creative fee will be calculated based on the scope of work for each project, and should take into account how many images you will create, pre and post production time, ingredients and props, prop or food stylists, studio or equipment rental, etc.
No matter how knowledgeable you are about photography copyright, accidents do happen. These tips can help you if someone ever uses your images without your permission. Just bear in mind that you should still consult a copyright attorney when problems arise!
A tracking service like Pixsy will help you identify when your images turn up on the Internet someplace unexpected. If you discover your images have been stolen, the tracking service allows you to fill out a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) notice or file a claim right away!
To operate most tracking services, all you need to do is upload your images to the system, or connect your social media accounts. Most of them have a free tier! Their technology matches your photographs to identical versions across the Internet.
Most social media platforms make it simple to report if someone steals your images. For example, Instagram allows you to report pictures by clicking on the triple-dot feature. They give you an option to report and claim an intellectual property violation in just a few steps!
Most social media platforms, like Instagram, take theft and plagiarism very seriously. They won’t hesitate to take the image down and provide fair consequences to the offender.
It is crucial as a product or food photographer to be familiar with your rights. Reference this article anytime you need guidance on photography copyright! The longer your photography career, the more knowledgeable you will become about copyright laws!