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Copyright, Model Releases and the Bride

Are you confused by Copyrights, Usage Licenses and Model Releases?  Don’t worry many photographers are confused too!  Believe it or not when a photographer takes a photo of a person not only does the photographer have specific ownership rights known as the copyright but so does the subject of the photo.  The Right of Publicity describes the subject’s right to control how an image can be publically displayed or most importantly commercially used.

The Founding Fathers of our country realized that in order to foster the exchange of ideas that not only did we need a free press but also a way for the creator to take ownership of their creations.   For if a creator was not able to profit from their ideas and creations, then innovation would cease.  Patents, Copyrights and Intellectual Property (IP) Laws are what we’ve come to know creator’s ownership rights by.  As soon as a photographer, musician, or writer creates their work, their copyright or ownership is automatically established.  

This copyright lets the owner determine and control if, how and when their work will be reproduced.  Some photographers like Anne Geddes, strictly control how their photographs will be used.  Anybody who copies one of her images without her permission could face a fine of up to $250,000!  At the other end of the spectrum are photographers who don’t care about their copyrights.  As we earn part of our living from the resale of images, most professional photographers are in the middle of the road.  We’re livid when another photographer steals our images to advertise their services and we’re mad when our images are used commercially without receiving compensation.  Finally, we’re unhappy when we see our images used on wedding favors without our permission.  Most photographers are happy to work out some arrangement, but you just need to ask first. 

When you ask to use a photograph, the photographer is granting you a usage license.  As with anything else, that license can be very strict or liberal.  It can be for a single use, many copies, a limited amount of time, in perpetuity, a specific purpose or general use.  A typical usage license will normally spell out the details of what the photographer will allow and disallow.  If you decide to take your image files to a local store (i.e. Wal-Mart), they may ask to see the usage license before you are allowed to make a copy.  Unless you are a celebrity, there is little reason for you to purchase the copyright.  A usage license specifying what you want to do is usually sufficient and less costly.

Just as the photographer controls how their photographs are used, you control how your likeness is used commercially.  While Copyright is actually Federal law, Model Release or Right of Publicity laws will vary from state to state.  Generally, a photographer can use your photos as a piece of art. But, without your permission, your photographer cannot use your photo to advertise their studio or show to future clients.  For instance, if a photo of a person is hung is a corridor as decoration it would be considered art.  Meanwhile, if the exact same photo was hung in the exact same location but was used to as an advertisement it would be considered commercial usage and therefore a model release would be required. 

It is for this reason that many photographers include a model release in their contract.  They are asking your permission up front to use your likeness commercially before any photos are taken.  However, most photographers will contact their clients to inform them they will be using a specific image and seek final approval.  If for some reason you don’t like the image used, you can ask that it not be used.  Unfortunately, not all photographers will comply, but most do.

You control how your image is used and grant permission via a model release.  To fully understand the Right of Publicity laws in your state, you should consult a local attorney.  Meanwhile, the photographer owns the copyright and grants you permission to copy that image via a usage license.  Before you book your photographer, read your contract carefully to determine if you are also signing a model release and how the photographer might use your photos.  Also make sure that if the photographer is providing you with image files, they are also providing you with a usage license that will permit you to make the copies and products you want.


A Chicago Illinois professional wedding photographer and owner of Magical Moments Photography, Howard's honors and achievements include becoming one of the first local Certified Professional Wedding Photographers. His work has been published in "Chicago Style Weddings," "Wedding Guide Chicago," "The Perfect Wedding Guide,"  and the "Daily Herald."

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