By Howard Kier

It happens all the time. You are involved in planning a perfect wedding. The clients love the results. A few days later, you look at the photographer’s website and see the stunning photos. Whether you planned the event, provided the floral, linens, or another special part of the day, wouldn’t some of those photos be a great addition to your portfolio? What are your legal rights for their use?

Confused by copyrights and usage licenses? Many photographers are, too. Believe it or not, when a photographer takes a photo of someone, the photographer has specific ownership rights, known as “copyright,” and so does the subject of the photo.

The law inspires innovation
The United States’ Founding Fathers realized that to foster the exchange of ideas, we need a free press and, also, a way for creators to take ownership of their work. If artists and creators are not able to profit from their ideas and inventions, then innovation will cease. Today, we call these ownership rights “patents, copyrights, and intellectual property (IP) laws.” As soon as a photographer, musician, or writer creates a work, his or her copyright or ownership is automatically established. While most of this feature focuses on copyright from the photographer’s perspective, the same holds true for authors and their books, musicians and music, or directors/producers and movies.

Copyright control varies by photographer
Copyright lets the owners determine and control if, how, and when their work will be reproduced. Some photographers, like Anne Geddes, strictly control how their photographs will be used. Anyone who copies one of her images without her permission could face a fine of up to $250,000. At the other end of the spectrum are photographers who don’t care about their copyrights.

As photographers, we earn part of our living from the resale of images. Therefore, we are angry when another photographer steals our images to advertise his or her services.  And we’re upset when our images are used commercially, and we don’t receive compensation. We’re also unhappy when we see our images used on wedding favors without our permission. Photographers are not unreasonable. We’re simply trying to earn a living. Most photographers are happy to work out some arrangement for image usage; just ask.

Avoid copyright infringement—always get permission
When you ask to use a photograph, the photographer is granting you a usage license. That license can be strict or liberal—for a single use, many copies, a limited amount of time, perpetuity, a specific purpose, or general use. A typical usage license will spell out the details of what the photographer will and won’t allow. If you decide to take your image files to a local store, they may ask to see the usage license before you are allowed to make a copy. Unless you are a celebrity, there is little reason for you to purchase the copyright. A usage license specifying what you want to do is usually sufficient and less costly.

Be sure to remember, when you license an image for your website, you may not be able to use that image for print media. When you are granted a usage license, the permitted usages are specific. If you want to use the image for something other than you originally intended, get an additional license.

Creative commons vs. usage license for the Internet
One of the most common myths about copyright is, “If it is on the Internet, I can use it without permission.” That is absolutely false. There are some items on the Internet where the creators have granted “creative commons,” meaning everyone can use it. However, in the absence of a creative commons license or other stated usage license, don’t assume you are free to use the image without permission. At best, you’ll alienate some photographers, and at worst, you could lose a copyright infringement suit and be forced to pay thousands of dollars plus legal fees.
At the bare minimum, to use a photo on your website, either take the photo yourself or get a usage license from the photographer. Most photographers are willing to provide wedding planners complimentary files for use on websites and in printed material. With a bit of understanding, you can prevent not only yourself from running afoul of copyright infringement but also keep your clients from running into trouble.

Watch the July/August issue of Wedding Planner Magazine for a follow-up article on model releases.

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