Who Owns the Copyright on Photos

Published: March 24, 2017
Red Silk Photos of Bakersfield owns the copyright of this image.

I see this discussion come op every so often. Someone hires a photographer for a session and gets the photos. The photographer likely posts copies of the images to their website, Instagram and other social media. The client then complains that the photographer doesn’t own the images and needs to take them down. Well, it isn’t that simple. The photographer owns the copyright on the photos.

Let’s first define some terms.

  • Product: An article or substance that is manufactured or refined for sale.
  • Service: The action of helping or doing work for someone.
  • Craftsman: A person who is skilled in a particular craft.


Products are typically made on machines while people perform services. We have products all around us from desks and toys to computers and counter-tops. Not all products are made by machines, but are able to be automated when a company deems fit. We see this happening with the fast food industry. While it has been common practice to have workers prepare food, it is possible to have a machine more consistently cook a burger and deliver the same product to the customer.


Services, however, require human involvement. At least currently. While it is possible to have a robot deliver my food to my table, it is a person who asks how I am doing and smiles at me. Service can be good or bad. The quality of a service is based on the experience of the client, whereas, the quality of a product is based on its manufacturing process.

Many things we buy involve both product and service. Take for example the iPhone. The phone itself is a product, but the individuals at the Apple Store provide a service to you by helping you pick out one you like and solving any technical problems you may have.

So what does all of this have to do with owning photos? Aren’t they a product.

Photos Are Not Products

You may be saying to yourself that I am contradicting myself since photos are a physical item (prints) or substance (digital) that is sold. While both of those items may be considered products, it is the content of the photo that gives it value not the paper or thumb drive.

You would not buy a photo of another person’s family to hang on your wall. The contents of the image matter. The major reason for this is the reproduction factor. iPhones are all the same. You may customize it slightly, but they all have the same insides. The same holds true for the Ikea furniture you bought. Photos are custom by their very nature.


This means a photographer needs to be a craftsmen. Yes, photography is a craft. It takes years to perfect. Learning to pose, light, and choose the right equipment to make someone look their best is not a task able to be performed by a robot. These are all judgement calls made by the photographer. Like any skilled labor, you will pay more for a better artisan.


You are probably saying, “I thought this article was about copyright, not craftsmanship.”

Copyright is the legal protection given to artists and craftsmen for their labor. If you purchased a painting or a song from an artist, you do not have permission to reproduce that item at will. The artist gives you certain rights to use it. A photographer owns the copyright to their images when they create them, even if you are the subject matter. Some photographers will allow you to purchase additional rights to use or print the images as they see fit.

What Does Copyright Protect

Copyright protects the artist’s right to make money from their labor. It prevents individuals from making a profit off of their work without paying the artist. Under current United States law, a person can receive monetary compensation for copyright violation ranging from $500 to $150,000. Yes, you read that right, $150,000. None of us wants to pay a hefty fine for an image.

But I paid the photographer!

Yes, you did (hopefully). You did not pay for the copyright though, you paid for the time and skill of the worker. Who owns the copyright on the iPhone you purchased? The images, just like a phone, are not yours; you own a copy of them. You can pay the photographer for the copyright and some may be willing to give it to you. However, many will charge you more for the copyright than they do for you to use the image. Think about music. If Beyonce sells you a song, you will only pay a couple bucks for it. However, if you wanted to “own” the song itself, you would need to pay several thousands of dollars. Just because you own an iPhone doesn’t mean you can make your own iPhone and sell or give it away.

I hope this helps to clarify what copyright is from both the photographer’s and client’s sides of the issue. Unless you pay for it, the photographer owns the copyright to the images created.


  • I’m glad you clarified this. Some people don’t understand when they buy the photo it’s not the rights of the photo, it’s the picture photographers work hard for.

    • I am glad this helped clear some things up for you and for others. Remember, you can always ask questions and I may even turn it into a blog post. 🙂

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