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. Hi!
    Don’t agree with the statement that “The way the default rules of copyright ownership work, the photographer you hire to shoot your wedding holds the copyrights in your wedding photos.”
    It’s just an opposite. Thus the U.S. Copyright Law clearly states in Par.201 (b) Works Made for Hire that “In the case of a work made for hire, the employer or other person for whom the work was prepared is considered the author for purposes of this title, and, unless the parties have expressly agreed otherwise in a written instrument signed by them, owns all of the rights comprised in the copyright.”

    • A photography contract is not automatically a “work-for-hire”. Generally, work-for-hire arises from employment situations, not independent contracts. While it could be negotiated (I believe someone discusses this above), the contract must expressly state that this it is work-for-hire. However, it is not the “default” when contracting for photography.

  2. What a fantastic article! Thank you!

    There’s something disheartening about the “do not post on facebook” clause. I think I understand the reasons for it – or at least, that outside of those specific reasons facebook seems to cause a lot of problems – but the number one thing to me is getting to share my experience of love & union with my partner. This includes the photos, and my compromise with myself is to not dissect the costs of the photographer and photos they way I might dissect some other costs… and I don’t even like facebook very much, but I know that it’s the only way I’m going to access certain people in my life who somehow made it on facebook but barely even exist in terms of e-mail.

    It would be not only a deal-breaker legally and financially, but disheartening on an emotional level to feel like my and my partners concerns as the ones getting married are less important.

    I also might have a particularly difficult family, and might be totally reasonable to expect that most people can access photos through other means such as flicker. I just know it would give me a headache to have site-specific restrictions.

    Thank you for sharing this information. It’s not something I saw anywhere in my paperwork with our photographer, but I’m going to open up a dialogue about it just in case.

  3. Hi Molly! I’m about to graduate from college and re-start the wedding photography business I oh-so bravely started my sophomore year, promptly realizing I wasn’t superwoman and putting everything on hold til graduation 😉

    I’m excited… but the technicalities, just like those discussed in this post, scare the heebie jeebies out of me! You, however, seem so chill about it. Please, teach me your ways, oh wise one!

    In all seriousness, I would love to talk with you more about this very subject and your experience with it… perhaps by email? I would also be thrilled if it’d be possible to see a copy of the contract you and your photographer decided on. Thanks a million and I look forward to talking with you soon!


  4. Molly,
    Here is a copy of the Canadien copyright law dealing with infringement

    Infringement of Copyright
    Marginal note:Infringement generally

    27. (1) It is an infringement of copyright for any person to do, without the consent of the owner of the copyright, anything that by this Act only the owner of the copyright has the right to do.
    Marginal note:Secondary infringement

    (2) It is an infringement of copyright for any person to

    (a) sell or rent out,

    (b) distribute to such an extent as to affect prejudicially the owner of the copyright,

    (c) by way of trade distribute, expose or offer for sale or rental, or exhibit in public,

    (d) possess for the purpose of doing anything referred to in paragraphs (a) to (c), or

    (e) import into Canada for the purpose of doing anything referred to in paragraphs (a) to (c),

    a copy of a work, sound recording or fixation of a performer’s performance or of a communication signal that the person knows or should have known infringes copyright or would infringe copyright if it had been made in Canada by the person who made it.

    So basically if my new wife and I want to to make copies of our wedding DVD and pass on photos to friends and family with no intent to sell or rent or otherwise “affect prejudicially the owner of the copyright”, then we are completely free to do so and I think in Canada the law would sway towards the client anyway, which in the case of a wedding is right because the couple already paid for a product and service so they should have exclusive rights to that product. Think about a movie star- some photographers have to pay movie stars to take photos of them- why would it be any different with a wedding couple? Here ends the lesson, Molly

  5. As a professional wedding photographer I can understand both sides of the argument. My view would be to discuss your requirement with the photographer at the very start of your relationship. This gives time for both sides to negotiate a satisfactory outcome.
    Wedding photography is a people business and getting around these kinds of difficulties can only be done by talking, and not getting into litigious argument.

  6. Hi Molly, thanks for writing the article. Now, I better understand the mindset of a professional photographer. Recently, I was given low-res photos of my own personal photo-shoot. I was not able to make sense why. Now, I do.

    Still, I have to agree with everyone else that photographers should just tell the customer about this fact the beginning. In practice, photographers doesn’t do this. If they do, then most customer would rather hire someone else. Weddings are private and most cherished moments. Any sane human being would not allowed someone else to have ownership of the snippets of these moments.

    If people start demanding that they want a photographer work-for-hire (which is actually what the customers think happening in their mind anyway) for their own personal event, then the photographer would have to present the actual price of such services. Not doubt, some people would still go for the cheaper option of not owning the copyright like how they would go for cheaper furniture. However, for the rest of us who prefer solid wood, we would gladly paid for the services even if it means affording less of those photos.

    The reality is, everyone of us is a photographer because we now have cameras in our pockets! The shocking thing is, we have been conditioning our self to accept mediocre pictures. We don’t really mind mediocre pictures if we get to own those photos. Just ask a friend or a hobbyist freelancer with a DSLR to capture the photo ala work for hire. Without the raw files, how are we going to survive the ever changing file format and ever increasing display pixel density?

    • OMG! That is the problem! Do any of you have any idea at all what a raw file even is? What you want is a jpg, you couldn’t even talk me into a tiff, no way in the world do you ever get a raw file. All you should ever desire to do that wouldn’t put me in great danger of you altering the photos I took in a way that damages my reputation can be done with a jpg. A raw file has no actual edits done to it, any adjustment made by the artist when it’s in this state is simply a .xmf “sidecar” file that contains metadata that tells the software the artist used were to set the adjustments that are desired only after you export the file to an app such as Photoshop as most commonly a uncompressed .tif file for further editing are the adjustments even applied to the photo . Survive the ever changing file formats? A jpg file has not changed hardly at all since the format was introduced. Never have I ever heard of a person having a hard time opening a jpg., a raw file on the other hand can only be opened by hi end image editing programs and most camera manufactures chose to use there own proprietary raw formats. Adobe isn’t even informed by the manufactures how to open there files when they change them every time the put a new camera out, they have to buy the camera and reverse engineer them to unlock the files secrets, so photographers have to wait a month or so after a camera is released before they can even work in this format. There are many ways this format will give you much better results in the end but to start with the images are very plain and flat because nothing has been done in camera. So why do you even want to have a file were to open it your going to have to buy software or have an account with a company like Adobe and keep it up dated to even view the file? Also because this file is a full res unedited file that gives you the ability to give editing a try and mess the photo all up and with a raw file there is a lot of ways to make a good raw photo look horrible if the person altering it doesn’t have a clue as to what there doing, a skilled person on the other had can make a good photo look fantastic. If I give you a hi res jpg for printing and a low res version for the web because I would rather not have it recompresed and have the file degradation that comes alone with it if you resize it yourself and that’s as liberal as I would ever be with my hard work. To tell you the truth I really rather you not print it yourself were I have no control over the final quality but clients now days expect that kind of crap and in my and a lot of other photographers opinions ask us artists to give up so much that were not going to even afford to provide you are services anymore, esp if it means I have to do things that put my very future as an artists at risk just to get a job. Your right people have become so used to the down right awful quality cell phone pictures that fill the web and if you were a photographer or a real lover of art you could see clearly why the are so bad and why it is physically impossible for one to even come close to the quality of a “real” camera, that a lot of you just don’t care about art unless you can get it 100% for free and that’s not art unless it was outright stolen. So to people like you I say don’t bother to hire a photographer for your wedding you probably would end up making the job down right miserable for the poor person anyway and let you friends snap away with their junk cell phone cameras cause that’s good enough anyway right? While your at it you might what to start bit torrent downloading that song for the wedding march, because you shouldn’t have to pay someone for there art right? Let share everything for free on the web and all act surprised when everyone has lost the desire and even the means to create art. That will be a fun world to live in. I’m sorry if I seem like I’m being a jerk about this but I really feel that there isn’t many people out there that understand the value of true art anymore and it’s really starting anger me.

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