Photo by  Miles Price

Photo by Miles Price

As you begin to sell your work and make money with your photography, it becomes increasingly important to understand the laws of the industry. Whether it’s protecting your own copyright, or knowing not to mistakenly infringe on someone else’s, knowledge is key. Read on for some of the basics of copyright, model releases, and property releases, to ensure that you never find yourself in an unexpected legal situation.

Copyright & Royalty Free

Copyright makes it so you can profit off of your own work exclusively. According to law, as soon as you take a photo, you own the copyright to it.

Every microstock Royalty Free image license grants you basic microstock royalty-free usage rights. For a one-time payment, you may use the Licensed Material over and over again for one permitted use such as advertising and promotional projects, web sites, presentations, videos, commercials, catalogs, and broadcasting. 

Copyrights allow you exclusively to:

·       Reproduce your work

·       Make derivatives of your own work (like composites of your own photos into one photo)

·       Distribute your own work

·       Publicly display your work

When have you infringed on someone else's copyright?

·       You've taken a photo of someone else's photo

·       You've outright used someone else's photo and tried to pass it off as your own

·       You've taken a photo of someone's art without permission (including statues in public places, and pieces in museums) 

You do not need to display a copyright symbol on your photo for it to be copyrighted, nor do you need to renew a copyright. They last for life + 70 years for individuals, and 120 years from publication for corporations. For a more complete list of terms, click here.

Creative Commons

A non-profit that developed standardized licenses built on copyright for creative works. People often think that Creative Commons licenses mean that the photos are public domain, which is not the case. To learn more about Creative Commons and see the licenses, click here.

Fair use

Comes up when someone thinks his or her copyright has been violated, and is a defense that people use against infringement claims. Each case is different, so fair use is hard to determine. There are four factors to consider when determining whether or not something falls under fair use:

1.     The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes

2.     The nature of the copyrighted work

3.     The amount and sustainability of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole

4.     The effect of the use upon the potential market value of the copyrighted work

Fair use can also come into play regarding public works of art, like statues. Art is protected by copyright (which is why you can’t sell photos from the inside of a museum) but be aware when you’re photographing outdoors, too. Check out this article about a sculptor who makes sure to get paid for every photo of his work that’s used for business purposes. Another great example is the lights on the Eiffel Tower. While the Eiffel Tower is fine to photograph, the light show is considered a work of art, and is protected under copyright.

A rule of thumb with copyright is to only use your own work, and when you want to reference or use someone else’s, always get their approval in writing. As a photographer, you need to protect yourself and your own work, as well as be sure not to infringe on someone else’s copyright.

To go more in-depth, click here.

Photo by  Hannah Merritt


Releases are important because they protect you from potential lawsuits where people claim invasion of privacy or defamation after you’ve photographed them. Model releases state that the person in the photo consents to be photographed, as well for you to use the images. Model releases apply to any situation where the person is recognizable, and are extremely important to obtain.

Imagine you sell a photo to a major brand featuring a recognizable person, but the model didn’t sign a release. If that person sees their face on a huge billboard and becomes upset, they can sue because you never got written permission to use or sell the photo. There have been a number of high profile cases like this, and they can get messy and expensive.

Property releases are similar to model releases. Property releases protect you in the event that a property owner decides to sue you. Property releases aren’t needed for public property like government buildings, but you need to be careful on private property, especially if it’s recognizable. A couple of examples include the Flatiron Building in NYC and the Painted Ladies in San Francisco.

For more about releases, click here.