The laws of copyright protect the creators of literary, musical or visual work that is fixed in a permanent form, such as a book or photograph. Copyright protects the creator from unauthorized use or copying of the work, as well as commercial use of the work without permission. Copyright extends to any original creative product, including wedding photos.
Although you may be the subject of wedding photos, the creator of the photos -- the photographer -- holds the legal copyright. The photographer does not need to claim the copyright, file for protection from the U.S. Copyright Office or serve any kind of notice; the law holds that copyright is inherent in the work. The photographer has the sole right to copy and distribute the photos, to sell them, or to publish them in any form, either electronically or in a printed, hardcopy version.
Contracts and Terms
Wedding photographers work under contract to provide a service. As the client, you have the right to negotiate the terms of the contract, which may include the work specifications, photo format, work hours, price and deadline for completion. You may order multiple prints of the wedding pictures, of course, or request a CD or electronic file of digitized photographs. All of these properties remain under copyright that belongs to the photographer, unless you specifically negotiate a contract that states otherwise.
Your photographer may also agree to negotiate the terms of your use of the photographs. As the copyright holder, he may grant you a license to reproduce the photographs or to publish them, for example, in an online wedding album. The license may be exclusive, meaning you alone hold it, or it may be non-exclusive, meaning the photographer reserves the right to grant the license to someone else. The license may also be granted for a limited or unlimited amount of time; it may grant the photographer royalties for any commercial use or sale of the photographs.
If you wish to allow others to use or copy your wedding photographs for private use, you may also request a Creative Commons license from the photographer. A Creative Commons license requires only attribution by the person who uses the photographs and, if used for an online source, the creation of a link to the original photograph posted by the photographer. By granting a Creative Commons license, the photographer disseminates and publicizes his work, while still retaining the right to control its commercial use.
Founder/president of the innovative reference publisher The Archive LLC, Tom Streissguth has been a self-employed business owner, independent bookseller and freelance author in the school/library market. Holding a bachelor's degree from Yale, Streissguth has published more than 100 works of history, biography, current affairs and geography for young readers.