Your photographs are the most important intellectual property you own as a photographer. You own what you capture with your camera, just as an artist owns what he or she paints, an author owns what he or she writes, and a musician owns what he or she composes.
Very simply, if your work is your own, then you own it as what is called an original work of authorship, whether it has been published or not. If someone else uses it with your permission, you still own it unless you specifically state in writing that you are assigning ownership to that person (typically for some form of compensation, which is also stated). Even if you assign someone exclusive use of an image, you still own the copyright unless otherwise articulated in writing (see figure 11-9).
If someone else uses your photo in a way that you did not approve, or without your knowledge or permission, they have violated U.S. (and perhaps international) copyright laws, and you have the right to pursue legal action against that person. Registering a copyright for a single photo costs $45, so obviously it can become quite expensive if you formally register a lot of images with the United States Copyright Office. To that end, the PPA provides online copyright information and resources, including a downloadable Copyright Kit available free for members.
Most professional labs are very respectful and cognizant of copyrights, and will question customers about image ownership if they believe that a photo being submitted for printing is owned by another photographer. This may be because they see a photographer’s name or studio name in the filename, on a disk, or even in the metadata. They also may question it if the image appears to be a professional photograph.
A good practice in your workflow is to place a copyright symbol, your studio and/or personal name, and a date into each image’s filename — especially if you are providing digital images to customers. Many wedding photographers, for example, commonly provide a disc of high-resolution images to customers after a wedding, and include it in the package price for the wedding. This does not mean they are releasing the copyright to the bride and groom, but rather assigning limited (and perhaps exclusive) rights to them to be able to make their own prints — either on their own printers or at a professional lab. Here is a typical file-naming protocol in a situation such as this, with SmithPhotos as the name of the photographer and Davis as the name of the customer:
Original File Name (as numbered by the camera): img_5773.jpg
Photographer’s File Name (as archived): Davis Wedding-2008-5773.jpg
Customer’s File Name (as provided on-disk): ©SmithPhotos-Davis-2008-5773.jpg
Consequently, when the Davis family takes this digital image to be printed at a lab or retailer such as Costco, it is obvious that the image is copyrighted (even if the lab is printing an image that was submitted online). They will then require that the customer provide proof that he or she has permission to have the image printed, and they will normally provide the customer with a form that you, the photographer, will need to sign in order for Costco to do the job.
You can make things easier for your customers, if you like, by giving them a signed letter on your studio letterhead, assigning them permission to have the image(s) printed. That is normally sufficient for most labs to be able to proceed, and it makes things a lot easier for your customers. It also makes it very clear to your customer that providing a disc of high-resolution images does not constitute giving them any ownership of the image, but rather a license to use them. Here is a sample of text you could use in such a letter (printed on your company letterhead):
To Whom It May Concern:
The images contained in this disc with file names containing (your studio name) are copyrighted and owned solely by the same. This letter constitutes a limited, noncommercial license for (customer name) to print these images for personal use only. Prints may be made by the customer at home, or by a professional lab.
The images may not be sold, distributed, shared, or e-mailed. They may be used in a personal Web site or presentation, and they may be copied only for personal archival purposes.
If you have any questions about ownership or permission, please e-mail or call me.
Be sure to include your phone number, address, Web address, and e-mail address in the letter. Professional labs typically will not honor letters that lack these points of credibility.
There are other aspects of your work that constitute intellectual property, as well, and I believe that your workflow is arguably the most important (after your images). If you have a well-defined workflow that takes your photography from concept to shoot to print/presentation, it is a marketable and legal asset that you should use to not only run, but to promote and to protect, your business. Workflow is often one of the most distinctive factors in differentiating a professional business from amateurs who reinvent their process and workflow for each shoot. When presenting your photography services to new clients, I suggest including information about how you integrate a defined and consistent professional workflow that ensures the best possible quality for every shoot, from the customer experience in the studio all the way to the quality of the prints they ultimately receive. This kind of professional business behavior especially rings true with commercial photography customers given it communicates excellence in business practices.