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Stop Spoiling Amazing Photos with Downer Copyright Statements

Photographers often get worked up into a frenzy when they feel their business has been abused or taken advantage of. This isn’t more true than when it comes to discussing the improper use of images that are proofed online or shared via social media.

But it’s important to remember that nearly every paying customer you’ll ever have is far from privy to the copyright complexities of the photography industry. While you might understand what's legal or ethical when it comes to photos shared online, most people are pretty much in the dark. It is for this reason that I believe we photographers need to stop the lengthy copyright warnings often preceding shared galleries and teasers from sessions.

I know that I’m not exactly going to make a ton of friends with this position, but hear me out.

I know that your photos are your babies. You made them, you extracted them from the hazy ether and brought them to life. You cropped them, edited them and made damn sure they had their best face forward. You should feel this way. I know I do.

Here’s the thing: Your client feels pretty similarly. It's their wedding that they planned and their relationship they committed to, or it's their family they’ve raised with love and awe, or their business that they started with the last pennies of their savings account. They feel the same attachment and the same emotional sense of ownership over these images. They should feel this way, and you should want them to. That feeling gets you hired, referred and otherwise praised aloud.

If we are thinking strictly about marketing and voice, which one of these messages is going to engage your audience best, left or right? Be honest.

Now before you decide I’m an idiot and want to run me down with the proverbial internet band wagon of dissent, realize I’m not offering this emotional attachment to your images as justification for breaking laws or doing unprofessional stuff with said images.

Not at all. I’m just asking you to understand that these emotions in conjunction with your client’s almost certain lack of understanding of intellectual property laws and ethics is going make your mini lesson posted above the images seem crass, or maybe even a little cold.

Forget the fact that they might just download and throw some Instagram filters on your photos regardless of your ever-present warning. Your client, in reading this little “Please feel free to tag yourselves! But please do not crop, print, edit or otherwise alter the images!” now feels alienated from their own event, family, business, whatever. Rather than lead with an illustrative phrase or colorful title that elevates their emotions, you’re hitting them with the ever-so-warm-and-fuzzy “Please feel free to tag yourselves! But please do not crop, print, edit or otherwise alter the images!”

To me this is just bad marketing. I know, I know. The industry is under attack. You can’t just let your clients walk all over you. I've heard this all 100 times. Nay, 1,000. But it doesn’t matter how right you are if your clients or their friends and family view you as being condescending or somehow putting yourself first. You risk alienating them.

Previewing a photo like this on Facebook with "Ankit and Natalie weather their first storm as husband and wife!" will probably be more experiential than saying "Photo property of Adam Sparkes Photography. Do not crop, alter, print, or edit the image. Please tag me if you share." Do you agree?

For me, this risk is far greater than the off-chance that an occasional client misappropriates one of my images from social media for an unapproved purpose, or does a bad re-editing. Though (call me naive) I really doubt most of my clients are pulling this crap.

I’d much rather make my interactions with my clients a little more informal when it comes to Facebook. I want an immersive, fun experience that shows I'm more invested in our shared experience than the nitty-gritty rules. Stating a warning before showing something beautiful and emotionally evocative creates a bit of a disconnect. Heck, I don’t even use watermarks on shared images.

I think any discussion of legalities and what access clients have to images is best left to your contract and your consultation. Though this works for me as a wedding photographer, I realize it may work differently for people in different niches.

Do you feel it is necessary to publicly edify your clients about your copyright? Why or why not? Tell us in the comments.

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Lee Morris's picture

I completely agree. Your goal should not be to protect your images at all cost. It should be to make your clients happy so that you can easily get more clients.

Luis Lavenant's picture

I agree too.

If a client crops or edits an image, you don't have to worry if it looks "bad", or in a different way. You are not suppose to use that "bad" picture in your portfolio.

You still have the original, which you are showing to future clients.

Theo Lubbe's picture

I thought that was the job of your photos and behaviour at their wedding, along with your direct interactions with them before, during and after working with them for said wedding, not of the wording of preview/promotional shares to your own page of your own work to which you own legal rights.

Photographers are told how to behave/dress or expected to behave/dress in a particular manner at their clients' weddings. This 'alienates' the photographer.

Do you see photographers complaining about having to pander to others' whims?

Adam Sparkes's picture

I sort of see your point, Theo. But, they are the customer. In that relationship, we are providing customer service. So, I'd imaging its only natural and expected that we'd pander more than the client?

Joe Montalto's picture

Thats whats wrong with he photo industry. If a client paid me to shoot for them they own the images. i don't care what they do with them.

Adam Sparkes's picture

I don't know about that as an absolute statement, Joe? There are plenty of different scenarios where clients have different types of releases, and rightfully so. Not everyone should be giving everything away without consideration. That, too, can be harmful. I do think we, as an industry, could stand to be less guarded at times, though.

Percy Ortiz's picture

Adam I think Joe is referring to domestic clients (as this article it seems) I have almost the same motto as Joe in that my wedding, portrait, senior clients can pretty much do as they please with their photos. I have the original photos in my website and to be honest most clients are happy displaying their photos in their original glory except when it comes to Instacrap. Commercial clients on the other hand 99.9% use the photos as they were intended because they paid good money for a photographer to create an image according to their vision anyway. The 0.01% who offend do it again because of Instacrap but by then the images are plastered all over in magazines, posters, billboards and so on in their original form

Ken Ilio's picture

Agree. I look at it this way - if I were working for somebody else, a company, a department, a school etc., the photos that I produce while at work at that company are not mine. The copyright is the company's and they can do whatever they want with them. So if a client hired me as their photographer, then, I am working for them, and they can do whatever they want with the photos that I produce. I usually ask for two or three good ones that I could include in my website, but that's it. As soon as I get paid, they're theirs.

Justin Haugen's picture

I've had to hold my tongue when I see one of my bridal portraits get the Valencia treatment with a tilt-shift and a square crop. It hurts sometimes...

Kolade Agunbiade's picture

Haha, true say. It hurrrrrttsssss.

Richard Lee's picture

The wedding, engagement, or etc photo belongs to those who pay for it. If it was that good no one will change it but they do especially adding Instagram filters.

Ralph Hightower's picture

Photography is not my profession; it is a creative outlet for me from another creative profession. By trade, I am a computer programmer; I write software for computers.

Recently, I looked at a job posting that stated "All code developed is copyrighted by the company"! What I read into that Draconian copyright statement is "We own you!". I have been programming computers since the mid 1970's. What I bring is my experience. Any code that I bring to their solution, from my knowledge, they own!

For example, that "Thirty days hath September" poem; there's a simpler method for determining the days in a month. But I wouldn't be able to use my knowledge at that job. With the exception of February with leap years and leap centuries, there's a better method for figuring that out.

It would be like a company wanting to copyright the Exposure Triangle.

Michael Meeks's picture

Preach brother.

wayne myers's picture

Totally agree with this post. I do however ask the client, if they choose to get the images printed elsewhere, please do the image justice by getting a decent print.

Prefers Film's picture

I thought this was going to be about a certain member who includes a copyright paragraph with every one of his painfully over-Photoshopped images.

Gary Sutherland's picture

Your argument may have some merit where it is applied to your own personal sphere of business - wedding photography - where the market is primarily restricted to the subject and their immediate family and friends, but consider the wider market where an image has a significantly larger potential outlet. Throwing away your copyright rights would be commercial suicide.

In addition to being a semi-professional photographer I also design and write computer software for the business market. The software supply is done on the basis of executable-only. The customer rarely, and only by specific agreement, has any ownership over the copyright of the software which usually is also protected by a mechanism of activation keys tied to specific customer details.

In general, the public has a very scant understanding of copyright law - a lot of people seem to believe that if an image is posted on the internet then it automatically becomes public domain which categorically isn't the case - and that it can be copied with impunity. Whilst it isn't legally a requirement to stamp a copyright notice on a photo to establish ownership of reproduction rights it is becoming more and more necessary in order to combat ignorance and some commercial interests.

Adam Sparkes's picture

I think some people are reading this as me saying you should give your images away. I'm not implying that at all. I'm simply saying leave the legal speak off of your marketing materials as seen on social media. Your right though, Gary, this applies somewhat differently in other types of photography. I did admit this much in the article.

Theo Lubbe's picture

"But it doesn’t matter how right you are if your clients or their friends and family view you as being condescending or somehow putting yourself first. You risk alienating them."

See, here's the thing; if everyone had even the most rudimentary understanding of copyright laws, then nobody would need to feel alienated and everyone could be a little happier.

Most people in the world understand that simply taking something from someone else without giving them something of equal value in return is rude/unethical/criminal. They know this because these things are not only explained to them, but most people do not like having something they feel is theirs taken from them or used without their permission, no matter how insignificant that thing ultimately is; this isn't out of not wanting to share, it's out of not wanting what's theirs to be misused.

Do you think your client or potential clients would be happy if you took their personally-produced photos, videos, music or the like off of their FB profile (or elsewhere) and began misusing them in some way? I'd wager they'd be outraged and some would probably even seek to have legal action taken against you for stalking, harassment or copyright infringement once they realise they have the law on their side.

If putting up a notice on your images because these same people somehow don't realise their hypocrisy in doing the same thing to your images alienates them, then they are the problem, not the necessity of the message.

Pablo Alanis's picture

I agree. I rather have a happy client that will send me more clients than wasting time and energy policing the pictures.

billouparis billouparis's picture

I disagree with the umbrella in front of the husband's face.

Tony Hicks's picture

I sort of have the opposite problem. I really don't care what sort of mess they make of the photo with cropping and filters - - just please don't completely alter the photo and then give me a credit thus making the world think that I did that crunchy HDR edit or whatever it is they did. Keep my name out of it! I cringe with embarrassment when I see my name attached to something I would never do. Awhile back I made the mistake of giving a client high res files to forward to her "professional graphic designer" friend for retouching rather than do the editing myself. I was swamped with retouching and was frankly relieved I didn't have to do it myself. A week or so later I saw that she had tagged me on Facebook and when I clicked on the link I was horrified to see that my photo of her had been turned into a freakin' animé character of over retouching!! But the worst part was that in the description under the photo she gave me credit as the photographer!! I hid under my kitchen table as I imagined all 700 of her fb friends laughing and thinking I had done the retouching! Ugh. Completely my fault and it will never happen again... unless they promise to keep my name a secret. :)

Ross Floyd's picture

As a photographer, you should own the rights to you images - period.

Even wedding photographers should be thinking of their images as their own intellectual property, regardless of how loose the agreement is on what their clients can do with the images.

If you say your clients "own the images" then you don't, and cannot use them without your clients' permission.

Commercial photography is a different animal, but clients get to do what they want with the images anyhow. They just pay much more for the right to do so (if you're doing it right)

Really consider your goal, and weigh it against the payoff. I have a smaller client that posted an image of mine to Facebook, and a few other sites - not a big deal because I charged them more for the right to do so.

Other people and companies started sharing it - great. Once company tried to use it in their advertising, they got a phone call, and instead of taking it down, agreed to pay for the right to use the image. That was my line for that particular circumstance - sharing for fun OK, sharing for Profit - you need to pay to do that.

Jennifer Kelley's picture

I think it depends greatly on the type of images you produce and the clients you serve. Wedding clients want nothing more than to share their pictures with anyone and everyone. That's their day, the photographer is simply a witness and documenarian. Most people feel that pictures of them are theirs to do with whatever they want, regardless of actual legality. I've seen a lot of senior and wedding photographers provide social media photos to their clients, cropped and sized properly, to minimize unflattering crops and filters, some with small and tasteful watermarks. There is no real way to say "please don't make my pictures look like shit and then credit me for it" without coming off as a jackass. And frankly, although infringing on your copyright may not be legal, you aren't really losing money from it anyway when your client is a wedding or portrait client.

I tend to be particular about protecting my images. I'm not a portrait photographer and I'm more art/project oriented and don't really have "clients". However, stealing, altering, and doing god knows what else with my images is not only a violation of my rights but potentially violates my permits and agreements with the places I photograph.