Once you shoot a photo, you automatically own the copyright. A photo copyright agreement grants a license to purchasers to use your photos under conditions you set, and normally requires you to be compensated for the photo’s use. The compensation and conditions should be clear and set in writing.
You should state clearly in any agreement that you continue to own the photo image you created. Whether you sell a photo print or download of an electronic image, the purchaser is only buying a copy of your photo. The purchaser is not free to make other copies of the image, resell the image or otherwise distribute the image except under the conditions agreed to during the purchase.
If you accept a contract assignment to shoot a wedding, another personal event or family portrait, your agreement must state the usage rights you’re granting the purchaser. You would likely grant rights for personal use only and require that any additional copies of photos must be made by you. The purchaser cannot publicly display the photos, such as on a website, unless you specifically grant that right. You could choose to offer low-resolution electronic images for the user to post on personal websites.
A business that contracts for publicity photos expects and needs broader usage rights. Your copyright agreement should allow the purchaser to use the photos you shoot for any publicity purpose. This includes making high-resolution photos available for download by the news media, and for use in advertising the business. While the agreement allows the business to copy and distribute your photos for free for publicity purposes, you can deny the business the right to sell your photos or use them for any non-publicity purpose.
You may offer the photos you have in stock for commercial purposes. Your photos are then part of another product. They may be used in advertising, as illustrations in publications, or as images on posters, T-shirts and coffee cups. For posters and other products in which your photo is the prominent image, the purchaser will typically use your photos with words or other design elements, or alter the image itself if you allow alteration in the agreement. The copyright agreement can set a higher rate if a publication’s circulation or the number of products sold with your image exceeds a number you set. If you make your photos available through a stock photography agency, the agency will apply its own standard usage rights, though you still may be able to set special conditions, depending on the agency. Purchase of a stock photo does not allow the purchaser to resell the photo as is.
If you shoot photos as an employee or under a “work for hire” contract, you grant copyright ownership to the employer or person for whom you’re working. Legally, you are not the owner of the image, and unless granted explicitly in your hire agreement, you have no right to use or copy the image.
Tom Chmielewski is a longtime journalist with experience in newspapers, magazines, books, e-books and the Internet. With his company TEC Publishing, he has published magazines and an award-winning multimedia e-book, "Celebration at the Sarayi." Chmielewski's design skills include expertise in Adobe Creative Suite's InDesign and Photoshop. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Western Michigan University.