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JACK'S TIPS: Copyright Law

How well do you know British copyright law when it comes to photography? Let me explain…

The basic idea of photographic copyright is as simple as it gets. The person who presses the shutter owns the rights to that image. It doesn't matter who owns the camera. Whether film or digital, the copyright belongs to whoever pressed the shutter. There are exceptions but not many. Most photographers are baffled by the cloak and dagger world of copyright.

Protection is now life plus 70 years from the year the picture was taken to life plus 70 years from the date the picture was first published. However, “employed” photographers have no rights to their images unless granted by their employer. This is grossly unfair but the law persists. For example, if a photographer is working for a news agency or magazine, the company owns the copyright to all the photographer’s images because they are paying the photographer his/her wages and national insurance contributions.

Understanding the law

Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Sneaky alternative legislation means there is now a growing list of things that can't be photographed. The UK has no Privacy Laws, unlike those in France. Try doing street photography in France and you may get a nasty surprise! The late Cartier-Bresson couldn’t operate in his home country today like he did in his prime. In the UK, the Human Rights Act guarantees the “right to respect for private and family life”. So, if you hound and pester people with your camera you can expect the law to work against you. However, the Human Rights Act also tells us that “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers”. So, it works both ways.

You can’t photograph on private property without explicit permission of the owner. Some places are private that at first appear to be public. For example, Trafalgar Square and Canary Wharf in London are actually private property! You can’t even photograph money, stamps or maps because the Bank of England, Royal Mail and Ordnance Survey own the rights! You also can’t photograph inside a courtroom. Photographing the exterior of buildings is fine as long as they are visible from the patch of public land you’re standing on. Security staff will try and say otherwise but they’re wrong.

But remember… even if you were foolish enough to have photographed things you shouldn’t have, you still hold the copyright to those images.

Wedding Photography and Commissioned Work

Did you know that wedding photographers can’t use the images they took without permission from the commissioner? (i.e. usually the bride and groom). The wedding snapper still owns the rights but can’t use the images for him/herself. Likewise, the commissioner of those photographs can’t use them without the permission of the photographer. Not many wedding/event photographers know this!

What about digital?

As things stand today, your rights to your images will cease to exist 70 years after your death. Your rights then pass to your next of kin so if your images have value it’s a good idea to let younger members of your family know before you plan on dying.

Today, many people assume that if your photos are on the internet then they are free and fair game. Not true. The same strict copyright law still applies. The trouble starts if you don’t protect your images. Pictures without copyright markings or embedded metadata may well be used without your permission as the user can claim they did not know the image was protected. Even if you do mark your images there are many unscrupulous individuals who will wipe the metadata or crop off the watermark from your photographs to avoid paying for usage. Therefore it is important to regularly check for unauthorised use of your work. Software is available that can do this (PicScout, Who Stole My Pictures? etc.)
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