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Wedding photos: Does your photographer legally own them?

Updated October 2017

Contrary to what most soon-to-be-newlyweds may think, the wedding photographer owns the legal copyright to the wedding photos they take. This can be disappointing news since many newlyweds would prefer to be able to do whatever they want with their wedding pictures: upload them to Facebook, make a Flipgram to send to Grandma, or even adjust the colors in Photoshop.

Copyright laws for photography under federal law

Under federal law, your wedding photographer has the sole right to copy and distribute the photos they took, including the right to sell the photos, to publish the photos in any form, and to reproduce the photos either electronically or in a printed hardcopy version. And even more importantly, copyrighted material cannot be reproduced or copied without permission from the photographer.

Sounds restrictive, right? Don’t worry, these are just the default copyright rules under federal law. Concerned couples can alter the default law by signing a contract with their photographer that spells out the terms of how photos will be used in the future. You can get started on your wedding contracts here!

Wedding Photographer Contracts

If you’re like many couples and wish to copy, reproduce, and manipulate your wedding photos, you should ask for a copy of your wedding photography contract to see what you’re agreeing to with respect to copyright or other issues. Make sure you do all this before commissioning a wedding photographer.

Typically, wedding photographers use three types of contracts: 1) the photographer does not allow for reproduction of images without permission; 2) the photographer may grant clients a license to reproduce the photographs or to publish them, or 3) the photographer may include a copyright release that gives the clients full access to the photos to do what they want with the photos.

Since not all photographers are concerned about the future use of wedding images, you may be pleasantly surprised by a photographer’s accommodation, even if they’re the copyright owner under federal law.

For example, some wedding photographers give their clients the digital negatives or full-resolution images through a USB or file-sharing drive. However, if a photographer is going to be fussy about the photographs, then their wedding photo contract will probably state that the photographer owns the copyrights and that permission must be granted for all future use.

But don’t give up too easily! Even if the contract initially states that the photographer owns the copyright, your photographer may also agree to negotiate the terms of your use of the photographs.

Negotiate a Photography Copyright Release Form

If you’re negotiating with a wedding photographer, it’s a smart idea to ask for a copyright release. A copyright release is an agreement between the photographer and client. In a properly drafted release, a photographer gives up the copyright to the work and grants the client’s full permission to do what they want with their wedding photos. The release should also include the title of the work, the name of the photographer, and terms that explain who can do what with the work.

Copyright releases can be a simple letter with a statement of release in plain English or a full contract with complicated terms. You can get started on your copyright release here!

In the end, it’s your wedding and you should get what you want.

Amanda Gordon, Esq.

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