Copyright Basics

June 8, 2014

You might notice a few new signs hanging up at the Camera Shop to address the topic of copyright. Copyright, according to Merriam-Webster, is the exclusive legal right to reproduce, publish, sell, or distribute the matter and form of something (as a literary, musical, or artistic work). Basically, it give the creator (photographers) of works of art (photographs) the sole right to reproduce, publish, and distribute them. Photographers often give copyright releases to their clients, which is what we’re always asking for in the Camera Shop. This release gives explicit permission that you may make copies of a print or digital file.

Copyright is not a new concept, but it’s definitely changed throughout the years. There is a Copyright Clause in the U.S. Constitution (1787) that authorized copyright legislation. It was intended “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” This was so the author alone could profit from their works of art. Originally, copyright was granted to authors for 14 years and had to be applied for to be covered. In 1886, the Berne Convention established a more modern set of copyright rules. Under the Berne Convention, copyrights were automatically applied to works of art. The United States signed the Berne Convention in 1989. Currently, works of art are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years. For corporate entities, the copyright is for 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever comes first.

Just because you paid for a CD or a print does not automatically mean you have a copyright release from the photographer and can make copies. We must have explicit permission from the photographer that we may make reproductions for you. If we have the slightest inclination that a photograph was professionally taken, we will ask for a copyright release in order to reproduce the photos.

The U.S. Copyright Office has the following as an answer to the question “My local copying store will not make reproductions of old family photographs. What can I do?”

Photocopying shops, photography stores and other photo developing stores are often reluctant to make reproductions of old photographs for fear of violating the copyright law and being sued. These fears are not unreasonable, because copy shops have been sued for reproducing copyrighted works and have been required to pay substantial damages for infringing copyrighted works. The policy established by a shop is a business decision and risk assessment that the business is entitled to make, because the business may face liability if they reproduce a work even if they did not know the work was copyrighted.

In the case of photographs, it is sometimes difficult to determine who owns the copyright and there may be little or no information about the owner on individual copies. Ownership of a “copy” of a photograph – the tangible embodiment of the “work” – is distinct from the “work” itself – the intangible intellectual property. The owner of the “work” is generally the photographer or, in certain situations, the employer of the photographer. Even if a person hires a photographer to take pictures of a wedding, for example, the photographer will own the copyright in the photographs unless the copyright in the photographs is transferred, in writing and signed by the copyright owner, to another person. The subject of the photograph generally has nothing to do with the ownership of the copyright in the photograph. If the photographer is no longer living, the rights in the photograph are determined by the photographer’s will or passed as personal property by the applicable laws of interstate succession.

We thank all of our patrons for their understanding on the matter. We want nothing more than to please our customers, but at the same time, we must obey the law. We are more than happy to help you with obtaining a copyright from your photographer if you were not given one. Most the time if the photographer gave you large photos on a CD, they intended for you to print them on your own and just forgot to include the release. Photographers can email or fax a copyright release to us. We keep all these copyright releases on file, so once we make a copy of it, you’re okay for that set of photos.

Further Reading:

  1. Understanding Copyright and Related Rights by the World Intellectual Property Organisation
  2. FAQ’s via the U.S. Copyright Office
  3. History of Copyright via the U.S. Copyright Office
  4. Copyright Basics via the U.S. Copyright Office
  5. Wikipedia Article on Copyright
  6. Wikipedia Article on Copyright Extension 

I originally wrote this article for the Peoria Camera Shop blog.

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