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Intellectual Property Rights in Photography

Updated: Aug 21, 2023

Intellectual property rights in photography are critical for protecting photographers' creative works. Photographers devote time, effort, and resources to creating their works, so it is critical that they understand how to protect their intellectual property rights.

Copyright law

The legal framework that protects the rights of photographers and other creators is known as copyright law. Original works of authorship, including photographs, are protected by copyright law from being copied, reproduced, distributed, or displayed without the creator's permission. The owner of the copyright has the exclusive right to use their work and can control how it is used.

Types of copyrights

Photographers can have two types of copyrights: copyright in the underlying work (the photograph) and copyright in the subject of the photograph (if it's a person, a building, or a work of art). It is critical to understand that, while the photographer owns the copyright in the photograph, they may not own the copyright in the photograph's subject.


Although original works of authorship, including photographs, are automatically protected by copyright law, registering your copyright with the United States Copyright Office provides additional legal protection. In the event of infringement, registering your copyright makes it easier to prove ownership and allows for more significant damages.


Photographers can grant permission to others to use their work for specific purposes. Photographers can retain ownership of their work while licensing it to others for a specific purpose, such as publication in a magazine or on a website. Licensing agreements should specify how the work can be used, for how long it can be used, and for how much compensation.

Fair use

Fair use is a copyright law exception that allows for the limited use of copyrighted works without the permission of the copyright owner. Fair use includes commentary, criticism, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Photographers should understand the concept of fair use and how it applies to their work.

Model release

If a recognizable person appears in a photograph, the photographer should obtain a model release. A model release is a legal document that authorizes the photographer to use the model's image in their work. Model releases should specify how and for how long the image can be used, as well as the compensation.


Watermarks are visible indicators that a photograph is protected by copyright. Watermarking your photographs can help prevent unauthorized use of your work. Watermarks can be simple or complex, but they should be visible enough to discourage unauthorized use of your work.

Copyright infringement

Copyright infringement occurs when someone uses a copyrighted work without the permission of the copyright owner. Photographers have the right to sue anyone who violates their copyright. Damages, attorney's fees, and other remedies may be awarded for infringement.

Understanding intellectual property rights in photography is critical for protecting photographers' creative works. To help prevent unauthorized use of their work, photographers should register their copyrights, obtain model releases, and use watermarks. Photographers can protect their intellectual property rights and ensure the protection of their work by following these steps.

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