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.

Meet your new BFF wedding vendor

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

  1. At first I just wanted to comment to thank you for bringing some light to this issue that goes overlooked by most couples. My partner and I will definitely be talking to our photographer about copyright sharing (once we book her).

    I was just telling my partner about this post when I looked more closely at your pic and shouted "I KNOW HER!" Well, kind of. I met you last year at a copyright discussion for museum curators at U of M. I thought your examples sounded familiar! Anyway, totally random, but it made me laugh.

  2. Nice post! The range of reactions in the comments is pretty interesting to me as a nerdy academic who is obsessed with plagiarism and having artistic tendencies which makes me contemplate the importance of protecting my work but aware of the possibilities of changing expectations. Definitely gives me something to bring up with our photographer and negotiate what we can do, what they can do, etc. I can see the concerns for photographers, but I have to say I've experienced some fabulous companies that use varieties of licenses to allow their customers to use their products in the most useful way possible for everyone.

  3. You have to abide by the contract you sign.

    There are so many things wrong with your post.

    I have to repeat:
    When you pay a photographer to shoot your wedding the only thing you are buying (or owning) are the things you and the photographer have contractually agreed.

    As a creative you should never work without a contract. As a buyer you should read your contracts. I have had bad experiences on both sides of the issue. Quite literally the moment money changes hands the person receiving the money has the burden of proof that they have not sold all rights.

    • Is there a place where the author said that you should not abide by the contract you sign? Or that you should work without a contract? I could be mistaken, but it seems that she is trying to give people at least some of the tools to be sure BOTH parties are getting a fair contract – a win-win for all

  4. Thank you for this post, it is very helpful!

    I'm a wedding photographer on the opposite end of the spectrum… At the moment I offer a full copyright release and access to all of the RAW files of images shot on the wedding day as a part of every package. I don't use watermarks either because I think that they are tacky and take away from the overall impact of the image. Perhaps I should be more worried about branding or something, but I'm doing really well without it. My clients privacy is also paramount, and I am clear in my service agreements that I will not use any of their images without their express permission. To me it seems crazy that I would have more control over my clients wedding images, than they would, and I'm just happy to be making a pretty good living doing what I love. Who has time to police how other people are using their photos? If my clients like my shooting style, but would also like to try different processing techniques on their images, or photoshop their wedding images into a creative collage piece why should I stand in their way? Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm banking on the idea that the more people who see my images the better, and that if people like the pictures they will ask 'who took that picture?'

    I'm also not that worried about other people using my images for other things or claiming credit for them, if it does happen and becomes an issue I can prove that I took them. Perhaps creative commons is a good way to protect myself against some problem that hasn't occurred to me yet, but for now the only thing I can think of that would piss me off is if someone used one of my photos to campaign against same-sex marriage.

    Anyhow, thanks for this, it has given a lot to think about.

    • "To me it seems crazy that I would have more control over my clients wedding images, than they would, and I'm just happy to be making a pretty good living doing what I love."

      🙂 I'm glad there are photographers like you that understand this.

    • While I kind of enjoy where you’re coming from, one thing I see that I (believe ) I could do if I used you as a photographer is use your photos to decorate a set for film or television (which is my desired field). Now, I am not 100% on anyy of this craziness, and frankly I have yet to meet a set decorator who is (that’s what the legal dept is for! haha), but, say, if I was to use a photo of me and my husband (two people I could get model releases for) at our wedding on the desk of some character on some TV show I work on, it seems you contract would let me do that as I hold the copyright. Is that something that phases you? Or makes you reconsider? I am not saying it should, but it’s something I’ve considered trying to negotiate into the contract with my photographer when I find them, and I just don’t know if that’s pushing some button or something.
      Just want your thoughts!

    • Lauren, you are the photographer that I have been looking for! In my experience working in media/arts/entertainment work-for-hire is the norm for any professionals. When I stepped into the wedding market I was shocked that nobody out of dozens of people I spoke to was willing to entertain work-for-hire. I get being attached to your work – but if most clients are ok with it, do you really lose that much making a deal with one client who wants to protect their privacy? Sadly I find it off-putting because to me it feels like the photographer is putting their own priorities above those of the client. (When I read the “model release” section of a contract which talks about advertising and promotional use I was left scratching my head and thinking “who is working for who?”) Your attitude says it best – happy clients will ASK you to show off the photos that they love, refer you to their friends, etc.

      Are you by chance in Southern California? Would you post your site/contact info?

  5. Thanks for writing this post. People should try to become more familiar with how copyright affects them and how CC licenses can help define what is permissible.

    I will probably go through a personal friend photographer for my wedding, but the CC license that you negotiated to would probably be an absolute minimum that I would agree to as a client. I would actually push for a contract that defined the photographs as "work for hire" and granted the copyright to myself, the client. (A contract sort of like the ones big record labels use to own the copyright on the albums they release.) I realize many super-pro photographers wouldn't agree to this, but having complete rights to the photographs to my own wedding would be important to me. I'd pay for it, and grant the photographer a license for the sort of uses he or she would need to promote their own business instead of doing it the other way around. Anyone who doesn't want to work with me on this won't get my business. There are a lot of good photographers out there, with more people learning how to use their DSLR cameras every week. I think that if customers pushed for more rights on their wedding photography, it would not be hard to find somebody willing to accomodate. This copyright is more useful in the hands of the client than it is in the hands of the photographer.

    • So I know this post is SUPER old, but it seems like a response is necessary:
      You can’t just declare a “work for hire”. For that standard to apply, the photographer would have to be your actual employee. (Think health benefits and payroll taxes.) Chances are, any challenge to “work for hire” would be successful, and they’d just end up with the copyright. What you need is for them to sign over the copyright to the photos as part of the contract.

    • What a lot of you fail to understand is this is the photographer living here. Whey should I give you the photos I messed up on (even the best photographer in the world is going to miss the mark time to time) and why in the world would I want to give someone who thinks there now for some reason a skilled photo editor just because they bought a copy of Lightroom MY raw files. Have you ever seen an unedited raw file? There rather bland and flat and even if there exposed 100% correctly in perfect light and ext they don’t always look very good tell there edited by someone who knows what they are doing. That is because they are as Adobe calls them digital negatives, they are raw hence the name, data from the camera and are not adjusted in any way unlike a jpg by the camera that took them.

      I don’t ever want my client to see my work in this very unfinished state and I don’t what a person that does not know enough about photography to know why I feel this way to even begin to attempt to try and edit the images I took because I’m 100% sure your going to make my work look awful and then post it all around the internet. Just because someone buys a fancy DSLR and learns it’s basic controls in no way shape or form does this make them a good photographer. It takes years of training and practice to reach the point were you can even make it in this field. Now days thanks to cell phone cameras people have no clue as to what a good photo looks like anymore and it’s getting harder to find work because of this.

      Us artists need to be able to protect our rites to the work that is our reputation and deserve to have our work displayed in a manner that best showcases our talent and not have it retouched by people who may have no clue as to what they are doing, or printed at a Kiosk at Walmart were there computer will try and attempt to re-adjust all the work I did. Yea I’ll give you a low-res perfect for the web jpg copy and feel free to post it on Facebook or whatever and I’ll sell you prints of a much better quality then Walmart prints. Your out of your mind if you think I’m going to give you the right to do what ever you please with work I worked very hard to create for you to enjoy.

      I don’t think you people out there have a concept of what kind of work and what kind of skill level you have to have to shot something like a wedding? There is no second take almost every shot this is the case and to add to the photographers stress there are a lot of people that are starting to think like you and we often have to turn down work because of request that that may damage our business and possible our reputation.

      People like you are getting this delusion in there heads that because it’s in a digital format it some how gives you the right to do what ever you please with it. This is the reason art in general is starting to die. Us artists can only produce so much and not be compensated until we can afford to even create anything anymore and that is in essence akin to what your requesting of the person you what to shoot your wedding when you have the nerve to request they give you all the rights to work they busted there butts to make.

      I feel like my fellow artist that are buying into this CC thing are giving up to much also. Good luck finding a photographer for your wedding, and if you do don’t expect your photos to be worth a darn, because only the most desperate for work photographer is going to be ok with your terms, a talented highly skilled person will never agree to give a client what you asking for and they did they would be an idiot.

  6. Nice post. I’m also a librarian, and I review all licenses for the library I work for. It was fun to read this from that perspective. I also want to share our photographer’s way of doing business:

    Our photographer explained his rather unorthodox business model to me with the following: “About 10 years ago, we decided to stop fighting the Internet.”

    What this team of photographers now does is charge a flat rate for their professional skill–their expertise at finding/creating photos as well as doing the editing (blemishes, colors, etc.). Their customers receive all the high res (? or something like that) digital images on disc after they have worked all their magic, along with a list of recommended wholesalers who can do prints/albums, etc.

    What is interesting is that after freely giving away their copyrighted material with the understanding that their customers will do whatever they want with those images, their business is actually doing better than a decade ago under the more traditional business model.

    I don’t think they formally license the uses they obviously sanction–We are from a very rural area where reputation and word-of-mouth recommendation can quickly spread to a critical mass of the community, so wedding vendors don’t often try any funny business. In fact, when we asked if there was a contract, they were so surprised since no one had ever asked before! (before y’all start freaking out, they are totally legit–they have been our go-to photographers since I was six months old, and I have the pictures to prove it.) 😉

    However I may suggest we draw something up when the time comes. I guess that’s the license-reviewing-librarian in me. Thanks again for a great post!

  7. Of course, Creative Commons is great for content users. The post says it all: “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.” The problem, of course, is the “free” as it is not clear to me how the content creators are supposed to survive, unless, of course, they have a nice cushy job as a librarian. The promotional aspect of CC is all very well, but if I am supposed to provide my content under a CC license, I fail to see how that will translate into earning.

    Now, with weddings the concept might be a good idea. Couples like the idea of being able to do whatever they like with the pictures. I would guess, though, that the price of a CC contract would be higher than one where the photographer retains all rights simply because part of the income is expected to come from future print orders. What CC, then, does is shift some of the cost from the print-buying relatives to the couple, but as a photographer I have no problem with that.

    The main reason why I am not a huge fan of giving couples the means to make their own prints is quality. As a photographer who lives by reputation I do not want a bunch of low-quality prints circulating as people will associate them with my work. The same, perhaps to a lesser extent, is true for electronic copies. Simply by resizing, auto-contrasting, and resaving as low quality jpegs the image quality can reach a level where I don’t want my name associated with the image. Of course, good quality images gone viral through CC or any other license are valuable publicity for wedding photographers. So there is a trade-off to consider as a photographer.

  8. I’m a photographer, too.

    I alway say “I’ve got my own wedding photos, these are yours” Do whatever you want with them.

    I know there aren’t a lot of shooters who are as liberal as I am, but I feel that once you have hired me and paid for my services, you can do whatever you want with them.

  9. As a professional wedding photographer I would like to encourage people to discus both CC and copyright law with their photographers before hand. Specifically the issue of posting a professionals photos on Facebook.

    From Facebook Terms and Conditions:

    When you post User Content to the Site, you authorize and direct us to make such copies thereof as we deem necessary in order to facilitate the posting and storage of the User Content on the Site.

    By posting User Content to any part of the Site, you automatically grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to the Company an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, publicly perform, publicly display, reformat, translate, excerpt (in whole or in part) and distribute such User Content for any purpose on or in connection with the Site or the promotion thereof, to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such User Content, and to grant and authorize sublicenses of the foregoing.

    You may remove your User Content from the Site at any time. If you choose to remove your User Content, the license granted above will automatically expire, however you acknowledge that the Company may retain archived copies of your User Content.

    This means that photos posted on facebook belong to facebook, and archived copies are made even if material is removed. Many photographers may not want you to post photos to facebook for this reason, even if they allowed for a CC license. It’s also a reason many wedding photographers do not allow CC licenses or offer DVDs.

    There’s a lot of legal sticky ground there where the couple, the photographer, and facebook could end up in a legal tangle if someone thinks their copyright has been infringed. I’ll admit that I am no lawyer (I hire someone else to deal with that) but as a rule I make it part of my contract that clients not post photos to facebook. As of yet no legal precedent has been set. I recommend sharing wedding photos through flickr, shutterfly, photoshelter, photobucket, personal blogs, or to link to my site of their specific photos to show others.

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