Can I share my own wedding photos? Copyright, Creative Commons, and your wedding photos

Guest post by Mollyali

Academic Librarian, Copyright Specialist and Tribesmaid Mollyali has written an impressive post on copyright issues and how they relate to your wedding photos. Read on and learn!

I'm really excited by the amazing success we had negotiating with our wedding photographer around copyright, and I wanted to share what we did with OBB.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, I'm a librarian with a background in publishing who frequently does outreach and education about USA copyright issues. None of this is legal advice, etc.

Okay. So before I explain what our photographer is doing for us, you need a very very abbreviated introduction to copyright. (I'm sorry, I'm a librarian, I have to teach you things, I can't help myself)…

1) The purpose of copyright law is to promote the progress of science and art. Hardly anyone knows that anymore. So many people think it's about generating profit for the music industry and giving individual artists total control over their work, but that's just not true. Once upon a time, copyright law was balanced between the needs of creators and the needs of the public. Things have gotten really unbalanced over the last 40 years, but the goal of serving the public and promoting progress is still in there.

2) Copyright protects creative works that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. This means that in order for something to be protected by copyright, it has to be recorded some way, on paper or on a hard drive some other physical thing. There are several classes of creative work that qualify for copyright protection: literary works, musical works, dramatic works, choreographic works, pictorial, graphics, and sculptural works, motion pictures and other audiovisual works, sound recordings, and architectural works.

3) Copyright does not protect ideas or facts. Those are free for anyone to use, even if it makes them look like they're biting someone else's style. A work has to be at least a little bit creative to qualify for copyright protection. Something that is purely factual, like a phone book, does not have enough creativity to be copyrightable even if it takes a lot of effort and hard work to make it.

4) Copyright attaches to a work automatically the moment it is recorded. There is no need to register the copyright, or to put a little (c) on it, or even claim it. If a work is relatively new (created in the last 50 years or so) creative, and recorded in some way, it's almost definitely copyrighted. Copyright also lasts a really long time (currently, life of the creator plus 70 years after the creator dies). This means that most of what you find online is under copyright, even if there is no copyright symbol and no attribution and no source listed.

5) Copyright comes with a set of exclusive rights. These are things the copyright holder can do with the work that other people mostly cannot do (there are some important exceptions, but it would take way too much space for me to go into them here). The rights that come with copyright are:

  • The right to make copies.
  • The right to distribute copies.
  • The right to make derivative works.
  • The right to perform or display the work.

The copyright holder may keep these rights to herself, or she may give some or all of them away, usually with a contract or a license.

…the photographer you hire to shoot your wedding holds the copyrights in your wedding photos. She is free to sell them, publish them, Photoshop them, and share them. You are not.

So what does any of this have to do with your wedding photos? Everything. The way the default rules of copyright ownership work, the photographer you hire to shoot your wedding holds the copyrights in your wedding photos. She is free to sell them, publish them, Photoshop them, and share them. You are not. I hear all the time from people who believe that because they are the subjects of the photos, or because they are the ones who hired the photographer, then they are the ones who hold the copyright in the photos. In fact, it's just the opposite. Those exclusive rights are hers, not yours.

But that's just the default. You can change all that with the contract you sign when you hire your photographer. Most wedding photographers these days do retain the copyrights in the photos they take of your wedding, but they may give you a license to make personal, non-commercial uses of your photos. This is especially common when photographers offer a CD or DVD containing the high-res files of all your pictures. You usually have to pay extra, but a license like this means you can print copies yourself, post your pictures on Facebook, and send them to your friends, without asking for permission and without violating your photographer's copyright. These are all good rights to have, and I highly recommend reading your contract carefully to see if you get them, and if you don't, to ask.

For me and my boyfriend, a personal license was absolutely the bare minimum of what we would accept from our photographer. We're both copyright nerds, and we knew we needed a license to use our own wedding pictures. But what we really wanted – and ended up getting – was more.

A couple of weeks ago in the post about the XKCD save the dates, Ariel alluded to something called Creative Commons. Creative Commons is a system that allows creators to attach a license to their work that gives certain permissions to the whole world. There are several Creative Commons licenses to choose from. All the licenses require that whoever uses the work must attribute the creator and provide a link back to the original. Other options permit only non-commercial uses, forbid derivative works, or require people who build on a work to share the new work under the same license as the original.

Many photographers, artists, musicians, and authors – including the ones who make a living from their art – now use Creative Commons licenses because they recognize that it is good for them. They always get credit as the creator, and it's easier for people to discover and fall in love with their work when fans are free to copy and share it.

I love love love Creative Commons because it has made possible a huge pool of new creative material that we are free to use and build on without worrying about copyright infringement. This is especially exciting to librarians and educators like me and my boyfriend, but anyone who loves remixes or mash-ups or funny cat pictures on the internet should appreciate how much better life is when people feel free to build on the creative work of others.

I really didn't think we'd be able to convince a professional photographer to license our photos this way, but we did, and it wasn't even that hard.

So, back to wedding photos. Instead of a license that would just allow me and my boyfriend to use our wedding pics, we wanted a license that would allow anyone in the world to use our photos. We wanted a Creative Commons license. I really didn't think we'd be able to convince a professional photographer to license our photos this way, but we did, and it wasn't even that hard.

First, we found an amazing photographer who already offers a personal copyright license along with the CD of high-res files. This way, we already knew we had someone who didn't feel the need to retain complete control over the images. Once we'd gotten past the initial email exchange figuring out whether she was available, telling her how much we loved her work, describing our offbeat wedding plans, etc., I explained in an email a little bit about Creative Commons and why it was important to us, and I provided a couple of links to information where she could learn more. I was afraid we'd lose her right there, but to my surprise, she was just excited to be working with people who actually understood copyright law, and was totally open to hearing more about CC.

Then we set up a phone call where we could talk about all the usual stuff you talk about with a photographer, but in addition we discussed the CC license. I explained again why it was important to us, and talked about ways in which it could be good for her as well. We agreed that it would have to be a non-commercial license – anyone who wanted to make a commercial use of a photo, like for advertising, would have to contact her for permission. Her biggest concern was that if the license was attached to high-resolution versions of the photos it would be too easy for people to make infringing uses, especially in print.

Ultimately, we compromised with an agreement that we would be allowed to attach a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license only to low-res versions of the files. This is enough to allow for web-based reuses of our photos, but was limited enough that our photographer was comfortable giving it a try. We edited the language in her standard photographer contract to reflect the new license, and that was it.

Contracts can be intimidating and full of legalese, but it's really worth taking the time to understand what is in your agreement with your photographer, and to negotiate for more rights if they're not in the standard agreement. I was surprised by how much we were able to get just by asking.

If you want a concise overview of what Creative Commons is and why it is valuable, I highly recommend this video.

Comments on Can I share my own wedding photos? Copyright, Creative Commons, and your wedding photos

  1. Thank you SO MUCH for this useful, thoughtful, and provoking post. It's so difficult as a photographer to explain copyright to clients in a sensitive and positive way; they are, after all, often spending their hard-earned dollars on something very precious–the memories of their wedding day. I myself am a big fan of Creative Commons; it makes it easy to explain copyright to my clients, especially how there are different levels and areas of "owning the copyright". Just because a photographer retains the copyright of their images doesn't mean they're trying to squeeze the most out of their clients!

  2. I work for a social magazine (and now a wedding magazine) and I deal with a LOT of wedding photographers. Unfortunately, SO many of them know little to nothing about copyright, though they'll claim that they do. Just like any other business, there are some people who are real sticklers for whatever rules they've been told are true and then there are people who really just don't care.
    I've found that most photographers have come to accept that your wedding images will end up on Facebook. However, that doesn't mean that you can just assume that your photographer will be cool with it.
    As is the case with any business transaction… ask as many questions as you dare! Ask whether you'll have access to untouched hi-res copies, whether you can post low-res to Facebook with/without credit, whether you'll be allowed to make unlimited prints… there are a lot of additional charges that photographers tend to tack on for these things.

    Again, let's reiterate the point of this article: GET IT IN WRITING.

  3. One thing to keep in mind: many photographers may already be in contracts which will not allow them to release ANYthing as Creative Commons. I sell stock photography, and have an exclusivity contract with my agent that states that all of my photos— even the ones I do not use as stock photography!— are protected and cannot be licensed for use, free or paid on a royalty-free basis, by anyone unless they go through my agent.

    There's also no such thing as "personal copyright;" what you've been granted is a personal license, albeit a broad one. But that's nit-picky.

    My point is this: always be sure that you're using your wedding photos in ways that are allowed by your photographer. Even if you have a personal license to display your photos on social networking sites like Facebook and reprint them yourself, that's way different than, say, using them to enter a contest for "cutest newlyweds" — the website you upload the picture to may have a licensing agreement in the contest rules that says they're allowed to use the picture royalty-free, indefinitely, to promote the contest. And that may not be a license you're allowed to grant.

    I'm getting married this summer and already plan to have a chat with my photographer about whether I'm allowed to submit my images on wedding websites (like OBB!). I totally love my photographer and know the photos will be amazing — and that's why I want to be careful and respectful, you know?

    • Just to be clear, I never called it a "personal copyright" in the post; I always refer to licenses. Admittedly, despite my attempts to be very specific in the language I use in this post, it would probably still make a lawyer cringe (I'm sure there are some Offbeat lawyers out there). To be most correct, I should have said, "a license for personal use." One of my favorite copyright scholars, Jessica Litman, says that copyright law was written so that you need a copyright lawyer to understand it. My primary aim here was to make the mix of copyright and contract law that comes with hiring a wedding photographer comprehensible and less intimidating for regular people. To do that, I had to simplify the language. Hopefully the lawyers will forgive me.

      • You did write: “First, we found an amazing photographer who already offers a personal copyright license along with the CD of high-res files.”

        The phrase “personal copyright license” is, I think, what’s confusing.

    • Wow, I hope your agent actually gets you a lot of work, because that is a horribly restrictive contract to work under. As a content creator, I would never agree to something like that.

  4. Thank you for giving us the benefit of your knowledge!
    thank you for sharing your "copyright nerd"iness with us – you really made it understandable.

  5. Any thoughts about section 13(2) of the Copyright Act concerning commissioned photographs, according to which…
    Where, in the case of an engraving, photograph or portrait, the plate or other original was ordered by some other person and was made for valuable consideration, and the consideration was paid, in pursuance of that order, in the absence of any agreement to the contrary, *the person by whom the plate or other original was ordered shall be the first owner of the copyright*.
    (my emphasis)

      • I should have made it explicit in my post, but it only applies to U.S. copyright law. Canadian law is a whole different can of worms. In fact, despite some international harmonization from a handful of treaties, copyright law is surprisingly divergent from country to country. It sounds like in Canada the default is that copyright belongs to the client in these situations, but you would need to consult a Canadian copyright lawyer to know for sure. It's all I can do to stay on top of U.S. law.

  6. Also, from the flip side, you can negotate to withhold rights. Since I have a pretty public online persona, we negotated that no images could be used online or by any third party without our written consent. I cannot stress enough what a good decision this was for me, and how it made me feel like a very personal and emotional moment of our lives was as protected as we wanted it to be from the outside world. This is good to think about in the age of, achem, wedding blogs 😉

    Super informative and wonderful post 🙂

    • That's a terrific point, Meg (big fan by the way – A Practical Wedding and OBB are literally the only two wedding blogs I read ). It's important to consider privacy in these negotiations as well.

      It all comes down to what I tell authors – always read your contract before you sign it. If there is anything you don't understand, ask for clarification.

  7. Hmm… as a photographer and small business owner, I'm not thrilled with this post, but can agree to disagree. As you point out, any contract is open to negotiation. I don't know enough about CCC to respond properly, but I would never, ever agree to release my copyright in any form. It's the only thing protecting my work from non-approved usages, and I don't relish the thought of someone else claiming my work as their own, photoshopping it in a way that doesn't represent me and my brand, or so on. I can see that CCC is something to research a bit more, but I don't think I will be convinced.
    Thankfully, my clients are perfectly comfortable once I explain that I will always hold the copyright, but that they will be granted the personal usage permissions (which, yes, covers any non-commercial usage). And I do have to disagree with this: "She is free to sell them, publish them, Photoshop them, and share them." In my wedding contracts, I get permission to use the photos in relation to my business, i.e. on my website, in albums, as submissions to wedding magazines, etc. But I can't sell or license anyone's image for commercial/ stock/ promotional purposes without an explicit model release.
    I find that a personal usage license works great for my clients (so they can use them as they see fit, without the ability to claim the work as their own), and copyright works great for me (so I can use them to promote my business, but can't license the clients' faces/ images as greeting cards or anything without separate permission). This way, everyone is protected and comfortable.
    I guess my main question, in regards to this statement: "we wanted a license that would allow anyone in the world to use our photos", is… why??

    • Couple of things. First, I want to be clear that Creative Commons licenses are not copyright releases – they're licenses. A photographer who attaches a CC license to her work retains her copyright, and all the license options require attribution in the manner specified by the creator. In other words, using a CC license does not give anyone the right to claim your work as their own. That's still infringement.

      In answer to your concluding question, I think I actually said it in the post:
      "I love love love Creative Commons because it has made possible a huge pool of new creative material that we are free to use and build on without worrying about copyright infringement. This is especially exciting to librarians and educators like me and my boyfriend, but anyone who loves remixes or mash-ups or funny cat pictures on the internet should appreciate how much better life is when people feel free to build on the creative work of others."

      I love the creativity that flourishes online, the creativity that brought us the remix and the mashup and Weezer's Pork and Beans video (

      People think up uses for artistic work that never could have occurred to the initial creator, with often delightful results. As unlikely as it is that someone will ever do anything with our wedding pictures as hilarious as the squirrel photobomb phenomenon (original at http://cuteoverload.com/2009/08/10/this-is-photob… we wanted to make sure that someone could do something we never dreamed of with our pictures, without worrying about copyright infringement. On a more practical level, we also wanted our loved ones to be able to use our pictures, not just us. A CC license gives my mom, my best friend, my second cousin, and anyone else who attends our wedding and wants to use or share our photos hassle-free permission to do so.

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