Your Photography Business and Intellectual Property in the United Kingdom

Photographers and Intellectual Property

Whenever dealing with a ‘creative’ type business, the subject of intellectual property is never far away and that is definitely the case in the area of this business. As a freelance photographer/owner of a photography business, the copyright of your work is crucial. Depending on what you choose to specialise in, your money is made, yes from fees that you charge but also could also come from licensing fees you charge for the use of your work in the future. This area, especially in the United Kingdom, has been somewhat tetchy for photographers but in the last 20 or so years things have started to change...for the better. This is thanks to a key piece of legislation – Copyright, Designs and Patent Act passed in 1988 which gave new rights in this area. This does not mean that the pressure on photographers has stopped. It just means that they can better protect themselves by enforcing their rights under this Act.

In British law, copyright exists as soon as the subject matter is created. If you are a freelance photographer (or just an enthusiast with an all-consuming hobby), you automatically own the copyright to the pictures that you take (unless you sign something to the contrary...which I would not advise at all). This means that from the moment you press the snap button, the image is yours. It does not matter if there are people in it or not. If there are individuals in the picture, they will have some say as to how the image is used but you own the image rights. However, if you take a picture as an employee and it is part of your contract of employment, it is your employer that owns the copyright to the image. But this must be made clear in any contract of employment.

Copyright – Photographer vs. Customers

The area of copyright is a tricky issue when it comes to photography. Many photographers find themselves under pressure from clients to give away their copyright...and many do it. Why? Because the photographers are convinced by the clients that because they have paid for their services, it is they (the clients) that own the copyright and this is incorrect. DON’T FALL FOR IT! The Act makes this clear that “author”, in relation to a work, means the person who creates it” (part 1, Chap 1, Sec 9 (1)) NOT the person who pays for it. Furthermore it states that “the author of a work is the first owner of any copyright in it.” If you want to learn more about the provisions of this act, click on this link http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts1988/UKpga_19880048_en_1.htm. It will tell you all that you need to know on this area in the United Kingdom.

There are two key things to remember in this case:

  • The person asking for the rights to the photographic image should consider that there is no way they can use it without getting a licence and/or permission from the copyright owner by a potential licensee. You can decide what to do with our image, how it is to be used and where it can be used.
  • Your image may be worth more in license fees in the future. Potentially much more than the price that was paid for the initial project so do not give in to any pressure (unless the price is right...what that is, is totally up to you)

Although the laws on copyright are quite clear and that it is indeed the photographer that have the power (woohoo!), the onus can be on them to prove this. This can be sometimes very difficult to do. To save themselves hassle and expensive lawsuits in the future, many photographers register their copyright rights. Which means that, if they do have their day in court, they can provide evidence that they created the image. This does cost money and is not needed for legal purposes.

Registering Copyright

As stated before, there is no legal need for you to register your copyright because the law offers substantial protection. If you created the images, then you automatically own the copyright. However, many photographers choose to register their rights and they do so with the UK Copyright Service (http://www.copyrightservice.co.uk/) This allows photographers to upload their images as proof that they own them. There is a £37 fee for this (which lasts for 5 years) and you can upload as many pictures as you like.

If you do portraits, you do own the copyright to them but your clients do have some rights as to where the picture appears etc. This is why the release forms are key in this area. Prior to the photoshoot, the clients will be required to sign a model release form. This will prevent any legal action being taken if you use the images (or sell reproductions).

There you have it, the sometimes tricky world of intellectual property. You do not have to do much but you do have to have common sense in this area. If you are not sure of something, research it. A little legwork at the start will save a lot of problems in the future.

Take care and God Bless readers and budding entrepreneurs...

© Ngozi Nwabineli - September 2009

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