Portrait Photography Copyright Law

By Josh Shear
Copyrights for portrait photography may be worked out between photographer and models.
photograph eye image by Rog999 from Fotolia.com

When a portrait photograph is taken, a copyright on that photo is created by the photographer. Many times, however, the portrait is commissioned by the model, and in that case, the copyright is owned by the model as a work-for-hire.

Creation of Copyright

Technically speaking, a copyright is created the moment a portrait photograph is taken in digital format or printed if it is taken on film. However, in order for the copyright to be enforceable--that is, in order for the copyright holder to protect her work in court--the copyright holder must register the image with the U.S. copyright office.

Who Owns the Copyright?

The photographer is the default owner of the copyright on a portrait photograph. If the model commissioned the photograph, the model is the copyright holder, and the picture is considered a work-for-hire.

Length or Term of Copyright

If the photographer maintains the copyright on the portrait photograph, the copyright expires 70 years after the death of the photographer. If the photo is a work-for-hire, the copyright expires 120 years after it was taken or 95 years after it was published, whichever comes first.

Right To License

The copyright holder has the right to license the portrait photograph however he sees fit. This includes selling the rights to use the photo with or without conditions or licensing it for free.

Registering a Copyright

Registering a copyright gives the copyright holder the ability to enforce his copyright in the U.S. legal system in case someone else tries to make money from using the portrait photograph.

About the Author

Josh Shear began writing professionally in 1999. He has been an editor at Reminder Publications and project coordinator at the daily online news site syracuse.com. He received his Bachelor of Arts in English from Western New England College, and took graduate courses in mass media theory at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.