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Tying the Knot?

Find wedding vendor contracts and other legal resources for newlyweds.

Under federal law, if there is no agreement to the contrary, your wedding photographer, or any photographer for that matter, owns the pictures that they take. This means that they have the sole right to copy and distribute the photos, including potentially 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. In some states, photographers are faced with a catch-22. Certain states, like California, have laws that may require photographers to obtain a signed release before they can publish another person’s image in many scenarios.

Fortunately, by signing a contract with a photographer that spells out the terms of how photos will be used in the future, or who will own the rights to the photos, you can get around the restrictive federal laws.

Wedding Photographer Contracts

If you are like many couples and wish to copy, reproduce, and manipulate your wedding photos, you may want to read your Wedding Photography Contract carefully before signing. Pay particular attention to what you are agreeing to with respect to copyrights or use of the photographs. Make sure you do this before signing an agreement commissioning a wedding photographer.

Typically, wedding photographers use three types of contracts that may:

  • Require clients get permission before reproducing or publishing any photos.
  • Give clients a license to reproduce, publish, or use the photos in a limited fashion.
  • Include a Copyright Assignment or release giving clients all the rights to 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 when they hold the copyright. Some photographers, however, may require additional payments to release their rights, as selling prints, photo books, and photo packages may be a large part of their business and revenue.

For example, some wedding photographers give their clients the digital negatives or full-resolution images through a USB or file-sharing drive. You may be able to tell when a photographer is going to be fussy about the photographs if their contract states that they own the copyrights and that clients must get permission for all future use.

If the contract you already signed states that the photographer owns the copyright and limits your use of the photographs, you may still be able to negotiate new terms. If you are able to agree to new terms, be sure to document that agreement in writing with a Contract Amendment.

Why do most wedding photographers not offer Work for Hire Agreements?

Generally, photographers do not like to offer their services to clients through a Work for Hire Agreement. This may be partly related to their desire to require clients to purchase prints and books directly from them. Many photographers, however, do not want to completely relinquish their rights because they may be trying to build or protect their reputation.

When creative freelancers and professionals sign a Work for Hire Agreement, they effectively give up all of their rights. This means that if the client wants to sell the pictures, or even claim they created them, the photographer may not be able to stop them.

Fortunately, photographers may be more willing to provide an exclusive license to use the photographs, as this may still allow them to restrict selling, or place other limits on the use of their work.

When negotiating with the photographer you want to hire, it can be helpful to understand what other photographers in the area with similar experience charge for their services. Doing your research on what similar photographers charge, and how other photographers structure their contracts, may provide you with leverage, or at least a better understanding of what you may be able to negotiate.

While interviewing a potential wedding photographer, it may be a smart idea to ask for a Copyright Assignment, a full release, or an exclusive license. These agreements between a photographer and client can allow the clients to do what they want, while limiting what a photographer can do.

In a properly drafted release, a photographer effectively transfers the copyright to the work to their client, which allows their client to do what they want with their wedding photos. A release, assignment, or license agreement typically includes a title or description for the work, the name of the photographer, and terms that explain who can do what with the work, and for how long.

Copyright releases, assignments, and licenses can be a simple signed letter from the photographer with a statement of release in plain English, or a full contract with detailed terms. Releases, assignments, and licenses may also be part of the hiring agreement.

If you have more legal questions about hiring a wedding photographer, or protecting your rights to use your photographer’s photos of your wedding, reach out to a Rocket Lawyer network attorney for affordable legal advice.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.


Amanda Gordon, Esq.
Amanda Gordon, Esq.
Rocket Lawyer network attorney

Amanda Gordon is a Rocket Lawyer network attorney and a family law attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. Amanda focuses on all aspects of family law including divorce, child custody, support, and parenting plans. Amanda’s mission for her practice is to put family first. Find out more at gordonfamilylaw.com.

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