3 Selfie Copyright Photo Basics You Need to Know

Photo Credit: Selfie by Ginevra Bariosco used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Photo Credit: Selfie by Ginevra Bariosco used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The selfie era has long been upon us.

Only a few can resist the urge to express the “exuberance of the moment,” as experts put it: social media and clever smartphone technology in particular have made it ever so easy to throw up a peace sign, strike a pose and voilá – selfie heaven for well-knowns and unknowns alike.

In fact, according to psychologists, the advent of the selfie era has to do with achieving a level of ‘intimacy-at-a-distance’ with those larger than life people and places we admire.

It’s a technological way to zero-in on the moment and place oneself right at the center of attention. This is all somewhat of a good thing from an intellectual property standpoint. The selfie raises a number of interesting issues – particularly in the realm of copyright.

At least one threshold copyright rule for selfies exists: he (or she) who snaps the shutter, owns the selfie. Though this simple adage is easy to apply, selfie issues can still get complicated.

For instance, who actually owns the rights to a group selfie? If you post a selfie on social media networks, can you actually say it’s still yours? What about reposting a selfie? Who owns what then?

Photo Credit: Netflix est de sortie en France by LoKan Sardari used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Photo Credit: Netflix est de sortie en France by LoKan Sardari used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

1. Selfies and More: The Question of Who Owns What

When it comes to photos, the question of who owns what can get sticky.

That is, unless one central tenet of copyright basics can be remembered: when it comes to photographs, it’s always the shooter (the person who clicks the photo) who owns the photo. This is true regardless of who owns the camera or who is holding the camera at the time the photo is taken.

The golden rule for photo ownership is if you click it, you own it.

This general rule touches on the essence of copyright law. That is, copyright law rests on the notion of original creation. The main question is always who created this photo, this painting, this song, these lyrics, this novel really?

For instance, when a professional photographer takes a photo of a model, we sometimes make the mistake of assuming that it is the model who owns the resultant photo. It is her image, right? Plus, she gets paid based on that image, right? Well, that may make sense from a business standpoint, but copyright law says otherwise.

This is because the root of copyright, its foundation, is based on original and authentic creation.

Copyright law deems the person who manipulates the camera, by clicking the shutter, as the original creator. Thus, the owner of a selfie would be, yes, you guessed it, your very own self.

Photo Credit: 8/52 Self Portraits Are Not Selfies by Ryan Hyde used under CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo Credit: 8/52 Self Portraits Are Not Selfies by Ryan Hyde used under CC BY-SA 2.0

Photo Copyright Basics: A Quick Primer

As with all photos, the person who shoots a selfie retains ownership under copyright law for 50 years, and if he or she registers the photo with the U.S. Copyright Office, that person is entitled to a possible injunction and monetary compensation when someone else gets caught infringing the copyright.

This is because, as the owner of a copyrighted work, the shooter has the exclusive right to sell, adapt, alter, copy, publish or distribute the photo.

These concepts of ownership have been codified in the U.S. Copyright Act, and a case called Feist Publications, Inc. vs. Rural Telephone Service, Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991) articulates the originality standard well. In that case, the Supreme Court made independent creation and “at least a some spark of originality” a Constitutional requirement in order for exclusive rights to be granted.

Of course, there are exceptions.

For instance, when the photo is a work-for-hire – a photo created while under the employment of another or as part of a contract for a client – the ownership lies with the employer or client rather than with the photographer, usually according to written agreement. Additionally, the fair use doctrine often plays an significant role in copyright law as an exception to the general rule.

Photo Credit: Fisheye Fun For The Whole Family by Lotus Carroll used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Photo Credit: Fisheye Fun For The Whole Family by Lotus Carroll used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Group Selfies: Same Rule Applies

What happens when a group of friends or family crowd around the smartphone for a group selfie? The ownership guidelines remain the same.

Whoever clicks the photos is considered the original creator and ownership resides with him or her.

Think back, for example to that amazing Oscar moment this year that presented such a telling moment in selfie history when Ellen DeGeneres gathered together a group of front row-seated celebrities for the group selfie of the century.

If you’ll recall, just after a voice yells out, “I’ll take it!” Ellen quickly replies, “No, I’m taking it,” to the cheers and chuckles of the crowd.

Smart thinking, Ellen. If there were ever a legal dispute over the ownership of the famous Oscar group selfie, which might I add, spread like wildfire throughout the social media world, Ellen’s insistence would have paid off.

However, as is so often the case with group selfies, things got mixed up in the “exuberance of the moment”, and Ellen was not the person who actually snapped the photo. It was actually Bradley Cooper who clicked the shutter. The person who clicks the photo owns the photo. In this case, that owner would not be Ms. DeGeneres, but Mr. Cooper. Go figure.

Photo Credit: A non-selfie of a selfie by Tom Woodward used under CC BY-SA 2.0

2. Selfies on Social Media: Who Owns What?

The questions about selfie copyrights don’t end here, however.

What about posting your selfie (assuming you clicked it) to a social network site like Instagram or Twitter? Do you automatically lose ownership rights?

The answer here depends. The main factor is whether or not the terms of the site, which presumably you have already read and agreed to at registration, dictate that ownership shifts when photos are posted.

Now, before you think, no a site would never go so far a to dictate such widespread copyright control, recall the Instagram copyright scare that took place not so long ago.

It should be noted that Instagram currently claims no copyright ownership in any content posted there, including photos, and has since denied any intentions of claiming ownership during the scare, but not all sites are the same.

The best advice is to always read site terms and agreements carefully before posting any original content to the Internet. Doing so could pay off when it counts.

Photo Credit: Selfie by Patrick M used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Photo Credit: Selfie by Patrick M used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

3. Look out! Photo Copyright Can Only be Transferred Via Written Agreement

This raises another interesting point. Photo ownership can only be conveyed via agreement, preferably in writing. In other words, the transfer of the original creator’s rights cannot be assumed by anyone else unless there is some agreement stating the creator’s intention otherwise.

In other words, just because you own your photo, you may be prevented from publishing, distributing or using the photo if there is a written document in place indicating you don’t have the right to do so.

All in All: Selfie Copyright Basics Aren’t Complicated

All in all, selfie copyright basics boil down to original creation – even with selfies. Remember the selfie golden rule: she (or he) who clicks it, owns it. It’s also important to keep in mind that the transfer of ownership cannot automatically take place.

Copyright ownership must be conveyed via agreement, preferably in writing. You can transfer copyright & IP ownership online using Kunvay. Keep these selfie basics in mind the next time you throw up your peace sign and strike a pose, and your ownership rights will remain firmly intact.

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