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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.

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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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