I want to share an experience with you all about copyright and wedding photography. This is important information, so please read on…
What happened to me:
Last August, I co-shot a wedding in Simi Valley with a lead photographer who will obviously remain anonymous. I hadn’t second shot a wedding in about eight years. It was a nice minute referral, I had nothing booked, the wedding sounded intriguing and I had nothing else planned for that day, so I took the gig. I met the lead shooter on a Thursday, we agreed on a rate and we co-shot the wedding that Saturday. I agreed to shoot on his cards to save downloading time at the end of the night, assuming he’d send me my RAW files the following day, as this exactly is what I do for my second shooters.
At the end of the night when I asked when he’d send my images, the lead shooter became very defensive, insisted the images I took were “his intellectual property” and he “never agreed to release them.” Putting aside the shock of the situation (I would never do this to a second shooter at the end of a shoot), I calmly explained to him that I owned the rights to my work for the reasons listed in the next section below. He proceeded to call me “unprofessional” and drove off with my work.
I eventually had an attorney send him a demand letter, to which he responded, claiming he couldn’t release the images because his clients wanted their “intimate moments to remain private.” This was after he posted three images from their wedding onto his instagram account, which has more than 9,000 followers.
I lost patience and sued him. Two days before we were due to appear in court, he released the work. Was it worth the trouble? Absolutely.
Copyright law and your rights:
Under US Copyright law, if you release the shutter, you automatically own the image. This applies even if you are not using your own gear. The only exception is if the work you’re creating is work made-for-hire. A photograph is considered a work for hire in at least one of following situations: First, if you’re an employee of a company and you were photographing within the scope of your employment. Second, if there is a written agreement between you and whoever hired you specifying that the body of photographs is to be considered a work for hire. (See 17 U.S.C. Section 101).
To be clear, this must be a written agreement signed by you and the lead photographer. A verbal agreement is NOT sufficient. Furthermore, if the lead photographer hands you a check without a written agreement, this does not a legal Transfer of Copyright. In this scenario, you’re simply being paid for your time, not the copyright to your images.
Takeaways for second shooters:
First, know your rights (see above) and never assume anything, even if that assumption is based on years of previous experience. When I first started nine years ago, I took on a lot of second shooting gigs and I’d never experienced this sort of resistance when trying to access my work. I wrongly assumed it was normal for second shooters to have unrestricted access to their work.
Second, never be afraid to demand access to your own work. If there is no written contract singed by you and the lead photographer, the copyright for every photo you take automatically belongs to you. You have every legal right to demand the return of your work.
Finally, if you are asked to sign a contract giving up your copyright, make sure there is a sub-license that at least gives you the right to promote your own work on your website. This is a very reasonable demand. If the lead shooter tries to intimidate you or threatens never to hire you again over this, then you absolutely should not be working with this person.
Takeaways for lead shooters:
First, be transparent with your second shooters. Whatever policy you have with regards to copyright and image access, that is entirely up to you, but make sure you communicate exactly what your policy is before shooting commences. Do not wait util the end of the night! Put everything in a written work-for-hire agreement and make sure the second shooter knows exactly what they’re signing.
Second, if you’re going to retain copyright, be reasonable and add a sub-license that allows your second shooter to promote his or her work on the internet. Imagine having an amazing job experience that propels your career, only to find out your forbidden to mention anything about it on your CV. It makes no sense and it gives the more seasoned second shooters out there absolutely no incentive to work with you.
Finally, if you absolutely must forbid your second shooters from promoting their work, it should only be because the client requests it in writing. That restriction should apply to you as well.
Bottom line, just be fair. If you get to use your own work to promote your business, your second shooter should have the same rights. 👍