Copyright Issues for Creatives

Today we’re happy to have a guest post from Portland area photographer Aaron Hockley. Today, Aaron shares some of his knowledge on copyright issues for photographers and creatives in general. See his information at the bottom of the post. -Eric


Copyright is an interesting topic for photographers… not only should photographers be aware of current copyright law, but the reality is that public perception and sentiment toward copyright is changing quickly. Odds are that five, ten, or twenty years from now we’ll see copyright laws that vary from the status quo, and photographers would be best served to entertain new ideas when it comes to intellectual property.

Current Copyright Law

image of colored lights and water

Disclaimer: I’m a photographer, not a lawyer, so don’t mistake this for legal advice from an attorney. This will be a very brief overview of current law. Like many laws, there are various nuances, loopholes, and exceptions.

Current US copyright law states that the creator of a work (such as a photograph) owns the copyright to that work from the moment that it’s created. In practical terms: photographers own their copyrights as soon as they press the shutter. The only exception is if the work is done in an employee relationship or as a “work for hire” – if you’re unsure about these topics you should contact a business attorney to help you work out contracts that keep you in a favorable position. You don’t have to register your copyright with the government in order to have protection, but doing so will put you in a much better situation if you end up filing a suit related to copyright infringement. For more information on registration, see Copyright.gov.

As a photographer and copyright owner, you get to control the use of your images. If a company wants to use your photograph in an advertisement, they must purchase the rights to do so (or they’ll be infringing on your copyright). If a parent wants to make prints of the senior portraits you made of her daughter, she needs to obtain that permission from you. As a photographer making albums, books, or multimedia materials, you’ll also need to respect the copyrights of others by ensuring that you’ve secured a license for the graphics or music that you use in your products.

Looking to the Future

As we look at copyright in the future, I suspect some things are going to change. There aren’t clear answers, but astute thinkers can ask some great questions and start to formulate responses. As pointed out in Everything is a Remix, many of our creative works (from Disney movies to Led Zeppelin songs to various found-on-Youtube amusements) are remixes of copyrighted work. Do we continue to try to prevent reuse and remixing, or do we embrace the notion of remix as a way of creating interesting derivative works?

The internet has made it easier than ever to publish various creations to a wide audience. Many folks understand that copyright somehow affects the use and copying of music, video, and photography, but many folks don’t understand that protection. Andy Baio has taken a look at the no copyright intended meme that’s pervasive on Yahoo – as of December 2011 we find nearly 500,000 works on YouTube that claim “no copyright intended” and over 600,000 that cite Fair Use as a disclaimer for infringement.

What happens when there’s a law on the books but widespread disregard for that law is occurring in ways which aren’t generally causing great societal harm? Cheezburger CEO Ben Huh offers his analogy:

This disconnect between the public’s view of copyright and fair use and what should and should not be prosecuted, versus the ‘copyright maximist’ view of the law, is our generation’s Prohibition.

There aren’t “right” or “wrong” answers to many of these questions, but as photographers who create and share the results of our creations, I’d argue that we ought to be aware of leading thoughts in the area such that we can adapt our businesses to result in continued success. The old model of “create once, copyright forever” seems to be dying… what will we find in its place?


Aaron Hockley

Aaron Hockley is a photographer based in Vancouver, Washington who writes and speaks about new media topics for photographers. Among other things, he creates abstract fine art photography.