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Learn how to navigate copyright and intellectual property ownership smartly so you own your work, and own your future.

Why You Don’t Own Your Wedding Photos: How to Own Your Wedding Day & Copyrights to Your Wedding Day Photos

Wedding Photos Copyright - Photo Credit: iStock PhotoPsssst.

Did you know that few people really own their own wedding photos?

It’s a little known fact that most people are shocked to discover.

However, after reading this post you’ll understand why wedding photos are the most expensive photos of a lifetime that most people don’t own and more importantly, how you can avoid this common wedding-day fail and own your wedding day AND your wedding photos.

A wedding is such a personal matter. Many automatically assume full ownership of wedding photos belongs to the happy, new couple. They figure the wedding photographer is merely someone paid to render a service, and never imagine that, in actuality, ownership belongs solely to the photographer.

It’s a matter of copyright right law, and a finicky one at that.

Owning Your Wedding Day, Doesn’t Mean You Own Your Wedding Day Photos

Here’s the scenario: With the wedding only weeks away, the future Mr. and Mrs. Nuptial are planning their wedding photos. They’ve hired the magnificent Mr. Flash, a very popular wedding photographer whose reputation precedes him. The Nuptials, having seen his work, are thrilled to have him on board. In a brief meeting, Mr. Flash describes the details of the pre-wedding photo shoot as well as the arrangements for wedding day pics. Trusting his experience and reputation the Nuptials agree. Everything is set.

After the wedding, the Nuptials are back from their honeymoon and excited to see the lovely photos of their beautiful day. More importantly they want copies to share with friends and family. They dial up Mr. Flash and speak with his assistant. She quickly informs the couple, to their utter dismay, in order to take any photos home, they’ll have to pay a whopping expense for each extra print.

Doesn’t seem fair, right? Or, does it?

What Copyright Law Says on the Matter

First and foremost, what exactly does copyright law have to say on this pesky issue of wedding photo ownership? Is there any way to prevent the Nuptials scenario from playing out over and over again all across America?

Under U.S. copyright law, the original owner of a created work is exclusively the creator, unless it’s a ‘work for hire’. In the wedding scenario, a photographer is hardly ever ‘for hire,’ and so we end up with the typical Nuptials situation. Even though married couples spend thousands for a photographer to cast their most memorable moments in just the right light, they may never actually own the results.

The reason this seems like such an anomaly has to do with the digital age. In this rapidly changing digital world, it’s easy to copy, paste, post, share and deliver photos to anyone anywhere in the world. It should be easy to do what we please with our own wedding photos, right? Not being able to seems absurd. However, the law is quite clear: The copyright owner of wedding photos is the wedding photographer.

This means the wedding photographer, not the new couple, has the right to do with the photos as he pleases (short of unlawful slander or defamation, of course). This includes promotion in advertisements for the business. Most often, the photographer exercises this right fully, charging a hefty fee for reproductions, usually burned onto a DVD and sold to the couple. Many photographers, though they absolutely could, would never sell or transfer their copyright to anyone else due to the highly lucrative nature of such rights.

What About Payment and Possession? Doesn’t THAT Equal Ownership?

Another matter that makes this issue confusing is possession and payment. Many assume that possession of images – having a photo in your wallet or in the ‘Photos’ folder on your hard drive – and payment is the same as ownership. Yet, this is far from the case. With copyright law, the ownership emphasis is always on the original creator of a work. This means, even after payment, a buyer may not actually own the photos they’ve paid for.

For example, suppose someone takes a photo of a sculpture. Who owns the copyright – the photographer or the sculptor? Though it’s a bit tricky, the correct answer would have to be the original sculptor since, under copyright law he is the original creator of the sculpture. Though, the photographer is in possession of a photo of the work, he cannot own the copyright to the sculpture because he is not the original creator, and must have permission to reproduce images thereof.

Suppose that photo was subsequently made into a postage stamp, without the permission of the sculptor, and the stamp made millions of dollars in sales? Who has the right to the millions? Again, the correct answer is the sculptor. No matter how many times the work is re-created and paid for and no matter who has possession of the work, if the person in possession is not the original creator, that person is not entitled to the copyright.

What About the Nuptials? Don’t They Have Any Rights Here?

US copyright law, being quite keen on fairness, conveys to creators of original works a “bundle of rights.” Within that bundle is the creator’s exclusive right to control the way the work is used. Specifically, no one else can reproduce, adapt, publicize, perform or display the work without the original creator’s permission.

For the Nuptials, the key word here is permission.

In fact, it’s quite normal today for a wedding photographer to allow couples permission to use and share wedding photos through a usage license or similar agreement. Of course, this license limits use of the photos to the couples’ personal use and never for commercial purposes.

It’s important to note that a photographer’s license almost always covers digital sharing as well. However, most photographers will only permit the sharing of photos online if an identifying watermark giving credit to the photographer is also in place on each photo. It’s good business to do so, and it’s certainly understandable, now that we have a clearer picture of the law on this issue.

For Best Results

It’s always a good idea to ask about licensing policy and procedure in initial meetings with your wedding photographer. If a photographer is promoting their services with full copyright as an incentive, find out what they really mean before diving in head first.

That said, in some cases, it may be possible to make special arrangements in order to obtain the full copyright to your wedding photos. This would be done through what’s known as a copyright release. Not every photographer will offer these, but with a bit of searching you may be able to find one. Those who don’t offer it already may agree to your well drafted release, but expect a price into the hundreds of dollars if you’re dealing with an experienced professional.

The Copyright Release & Transfer: How to Own Your Wedding Day AND Your Wedding Photos

Essentially, a copyright release and transfer is an agreement between the creator of a work and a future user of the work. For an agreed upon price, a photographer gives up the copyright to the work, without any rights retained, granting a new couple full permission to do what they please with their wedding photos. Eureka!

Copyright releases range from a simple letter with a straight-forward statement of release to more complicated permissions. Many photographers have their own. A few online resources can help with drafting copyright releases, and with a little work and research you could draft your own. The other more costly option is to hire an IP lawyer to do the drafting for you.

Still, a third and easy online option is to use Kunvay. Kunvay helps buyers handle copyright ownership transfer online with downloadable copyright transfer documentation. For quick and easy photo copyright transfers, simply use Kunvay’s three simple steps to manage the transfer. It’s by far the most pain-free and budget-friendly way to gain the oh-so-elusive wedding photo copyright so you own photos and your future.

The Recap

Begin by accepting that, even after payment and possession, no one except the wedding photographer owns the copyright to wedding photos. The good news is that most photographers include in their fee a DVD of the photos along with a usage license permitting personal use of the photos as well as online sharing that credits the photographer.

Sometimes, a couple can make a special copyright release arrangement with the photographer. This release transfers full copyright to the couple and gives them formal permission to do with the photos as they please without limits. If this is your ultimate goal, consider saving time and money with a reliable online resource like Kunvay to get the job done quickly and conveniently.

When it gets right down to it, understanding wedding photo copyright is not quite so complicated, but it’s important to be aware of especially since most people will never spend more on photography in a lifetime than they will on their wedding day – and for many people, owning your wedding day, also means owning your wedding day photos.

Because you want to navigate copyright & IP smartly, follow us on Twitter.

About the Author: Veena is currently a legal document specialist, freelance writer, poet and community activist residing in west Texas. She earned her JD in law from Chicago-Kent College of Law, specializing in Intellectual Property, and holds a degree in Microbiology from the University of Texas.

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  • TheInternetGuy

    Sir, you were not ‘forgotten’ out of $1,000, they never intended to pay you in the first place. Think about it, you never knew who the winner was (or if there was one) but you were offered a measly $1,000 on a take-it-or-leave-it basis (who does that?), giving you no further options. That’s incredibly unusual, especially given a 72-hour period to decide?

    When you decided to hand over the IP they probably collected the large sum from whatever company launched the challenge and their job was finished, leaving no reason to actually pay out the fees since you had signed a contract transferring the IP. The hiring company probably has no clue of what happened and this should not reflect negatively on them.

    Sadly, that’s how some businesses are run.

    • Reggie Solomon

      It’s true. I never did find out who the actual grand prize winner was; I wish there had been more transparency around that. It would definitely have improved my confidence in the process.

      The actual IP however was never formally transferred to them because they never followed through with the actual prize award rendering the transfer incomplete. That’s actually, one of the saving graces of the whole experience reflected in point #2 of lessons learned.

      Thanks for chiming in and sharing your thoughts. Much appreciated.

  • Juan Mario Inca

    Really interesting Kunvay, thanks ​!

    Given your interest, I think you’ll be very much interested in this list of emerging Open Innovation research:

    And in this new research too:

    - The Contours of Crowd Capability

    Powerful stuff!

  • Will Tennant

    Registering the copyright is required prior to bringing an infringement lawsuit.

    • airtonix

      um no?

      Perhaps you are thinking of trademark or patent.

      Copyright is given the instant you create the work.

      • Will Tennant

        True, But See Copyright Statute Title 17 Section 411 requiring registration prior to bringing lawsuit.

        • John Feminella

          If you’re the author, you don’t need to register beforehand. Otherwise, registration is required. The law is very clear on this — it’s the very first part of the relevant section. See §411:

          **Except for an action brought for a violation of the rights of the author under section 106A (a)** [...] no civil action for infringement of the copyright in any United States work shall be instituted until preregistration or registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title.

          Then §106A says:

          the author of a work of visual art [...] (1) shall have the right [...] (A) to claim authorship of that work, and [...] (B) to prevent the use of his or her name as the author of any work of visual art which he or she did not create;

          So, in this case, since Mark’s client is ripping off the work and presenting it as his own, registration would not be required since the original author is bringing the suit.

          However, even if you don’t need to register, you may want to do so anyway. That’s because the law requires courts to presume that a plaintiff who has a registered copyright is the holder of that copyright. So a defendant would have to prove that the registration certificate is in error, fraudulent, or otherwise not accurate.

          • Will Tennant

            This is true if you’re claiming a 106A right of attribution or integrity. The famous artist Anish Kapoor, for example, would not appreciate someone taking credit for his work, or suggesting he authored the work of another. However, my comment was with respect to copyright infringement. If Mark’s client is ripping him off by copying or reproducing the work, which is Mark’s exclusive right, then 106 applies. Most of my clients are in the former category and whether it’s a picture or web-design, etc., they’re just looking to get paid for the work they do.

          • Richard_M

            Registration within 90 days of first publication grants the copyright holder the right to recover attorney and court costs. This is what puts teeth into copyright laws. It is true that copyright is given the moment a writer expresses their work. It is also true that not registering within 90 of first publication is not a good business practice.

  • Heather Cuthill

    This is a classic example of why artists should always insist upon a written contract from every client: you’ll get paid, you’ll protect your rights in your own work, and you’ll save yourself the hassle and the costs of trying to get paid through the courts – which may end up losing you money even if you’re successful. Here’s a contract template that is comprehensive and easy to customize for each of your graphic design projects:

    • Mo Kane

      Having a written contract is meaningless. Have you heard of breach of contract? If the client is not going to pay because they never intended to, having a piece of paper will not obligate them to do so. If the design work was done for a pitch and the client didn’t get the project, the client may not have the money to pay subcontractors like the designer. Not his fault. See my other post as to what to do next (TL:DR:Nothing).

      • Heather Cuthill

        You can always ask for money up front – either a deposit of 50% of the contract price payable at the time the contract is signed, or the full contract price to be placed in escrow or trust until completion. Clients who intend to honor the contract should not have a problem with that.

        • Mo Kane

          A 50% deposit is an excellent idea. But if the client is going to rip you off, all you are going to get is the 50%. Placing the money in trust requires a cooperating attorney that both sides agree upon and adds cost. The trust department of a bank won’t do this; they would need a trust instrument, etc. I am unaware of any commercial escrow services though this is a good idea as well, can you suggest any?

          • Heather Cuthill

            There are a number of online escrow services, such as Their fees are typically based on the dollar value of the transaction. It’s the most cost-effective way I know of – a lot cheaper than a lawyer.

  • I’ve been a prayin.

    Why on earth would you do $1000 worth of work without a contract? Of course it’s heinous on the part of the contractee to not pay, but you should do what you can to prevent being taken for a ride.

  • Will Tennant

    (a) Except for an action brought for a violation of the rights of the author under section 106A(a), and subject to the provisions of subsection (b), no civil action for infringement of the copyright in any United States work shall be instituted until preregistration or registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title. In any case, however, where the deposit, application, and fee required for registration have been delivered to the Copyright Office in proper form and registration has been refused, the applicant is entitled to institute a civil action for infringement if notice thereof, with a copy of the complaint, is served on the Register of Copyrights. The Register may, at his or her option, become a party to the action with respect to the issue of registrability of the copyright claim by entering an appearance within sixty days after such service, but the Register’s failure to become a party shall not deprive the court of jurisdiction to determine that issue.

  • Mo Kane

    So much for the law, what about the reality of the situation? What happens, say, if there was a contract and the client simply refused to pay? What should the artist/designer do? Assume further that the contract was for $1000. You will not get an attorney to represent you in small claims court for less than $250. And that doesn’t include filing fees and subpoena fees. Figure on at least one continuance. And then your attorney will ask for more money for the second hearing. Assume you win. Now you have a judgment. Do you know where the client’s bank account is? Do you have the client’s bank account number? No? Then you have to pay someone to find it. That is not necessarily cheap, either. Can you garnish your client’s bank account? Sure, if you know where it is. But you have to file a separate proceeding. Your attorney will charge extra for that. At an absolute minimum, you’re at $750 in attorneys fees, not including the costs of filing the new case, the costs of service on the bank, etc. And don’t think that even if you get all the numbers right that the bank is going to simply mail you a check. No, they may very well answer and wait for yet another court hearing. Or your client, who may well be a small business like you are, simply lives paycheck to paycheck and there’s not much money in the bank either. Now what? Seize the client’s car? It’s probably a lease. You mean you didn’t get a full financial statement from the client when you started working on the new project? How much time have you spent on this collection effort? And in the meantime, you have opportunity costs because time spent on the lawsuit(s), just like time spent on the original project, is unrecoverable. You could be working on something else. My advice: if the amount of your bill is less than $5000, chalk it up to experience. In the future, insist on a down payment. That’s one way to cover your loss. Tell the client that you will not hesitate to truthfully inform anyone who asks that he has not paid you. This is a somewhat obscure reference, but when relatively small amounts of money are involved, trying to collect on a debt in the United States is like Captain Kirk’s comment on the Kobayashi Maru: the only way you can win is not to play the game.

  • Mo Kane

    For some reasons everyone’s comments seem to be repeated under separate posts. My comments about whether the law protects those who have been swindled for small amounts obviously does not apply to situations such as Winklevoss v. Zukerberg.

    • Kunvay

      Sorry about that Mo. There seems to be a Disqus bug. We’ll get fixed this week. Thanks for the note.

  • mr.t

    What if you worked for a large company as an artist and began working with one of there biggest clients producing original artwork for them wich was being printed on tshirts. Wich was and still is being produced and making lots of profit. You only worked on the clock hourly and left the company after some time. You never signed anything at all stating anything about royalties or copywrites. You have the proof that these are your works. Are you entitled to any royalties or rights about these works of art in the fact these have generated thousands of dollars and you are left pennyless and kicked to the curb?

  • Oliver Gerasimov

    I think that’s the most freelancer risk because most of them worked in a client without written contract. But thanks for sharing this post at least they will know that they have the right to claim their work.

  • Paul Thomas

    As a photographer, I needed exclusive ownership of my work. After some extensive research I found out about this firm called Levy, Levy & Sosa in Miami. I decided to set up a consultation to meet with their attorney and I’m sure glad I did. They assisted me with applying for copyright registration, the process was so simple and they guided me along the way, explaining in ways that were easy to understand. I encourage you to contact them on 1-800-464-5554 or visit their website to secure your work!

  • Tony

    Can someone tell me the legality of creating a shirt (not for resale) that says something like “Pepsi is Shit”. Would that be illegal if I am not selling it? Thanks in advance.

    • Kunvay

      Hi Tony – Good question. If you created a t-shirt that said “Pepsi is Shit” that would constitute an expression of opinion and would be protected speech. Pepsi wouldn’t like it, but you could sell a shirt with that message. Just be sure not to use the Pepsi logo; that’s where you could get into murky waters.

  • Gerrie7407

    If I decide to print 20 t-shirts for a concert, am I allowed to print the artist logo on it ?
    Example a Justin Bieber logo with a face ? what the legal implications

    • Kunvay

      Gerrie7407 – If you print someone else’s logo on a t-shirt for sale, you would unfortunately be violating the logo owner’s copyright. The legal implications are if the logo owner saw the shirt and was able to trace it back to you or your company, you could be liable for damages. You could take the risk that the logo owner wouldn’t find out given how large the Bieber brand is and the unlikelihood that they’d find you, but you’d be taking a risk.

      Below is an article with a 4-part test to determine “fair use” vs. “copyright theft.