Copyright, Licenses and who really owns those images.

You're a business owner and you've just commissioned a photographer to make some high quality images of your products. When the work is done and you've paid the photographer, you own those images right?

Well, no, actually.

Welcome to the uneasy world of Copyright and Licences. On paper (in the UK), it's a very simple issue that's as clear as fresh spring water sprouting from the side of an Icelandic mountain. The creator of an image is automatically given copyright ownership. There are of course exceptions to every rule and this one is no different; for example if the image was created as part of an employed photographers job, then the employer would own the copyright; or there can be more than one copyright owner in the case of works that have had multiple contributors. But generally, the photographer will technically 'own' the image; what you have paid for, is a licence to use those images.

So what's the difference between owning copyright and owning a licence? Ignoring the fairly rare occurrence these days of commercial images being provided in a print format; we need to start off from the premise that the images your photographer has provided are a digital product. This may seem like an obvious point, but it's an important distinction to understand that what's been provided is not a physically unique item. 

As set out in the Consumer Contracts Regulations;  since digital downloads are not a physical item, you can't 'own' them in same sense as you would if you'd bought a tangible product. Most downloaded digital media, whether it be images, music, software or film; are all provided with a licence of use, which sets out how you can use the media and any limitations that may apply. Although you may not realise it, you've probably been buying items 'on licence' for quite some time.  A good example here will be all those songs you paid for through iTunes, most of us will have skipped through the Terms and Conditions; but if you take the time to read them you'll come to the startling conclusion that you don't actually own any of the music you've bought, you've simply bought licences to use those downloads.

Digital photography then is no different to any other type of digital product, but it is perhaps unique in that it draws attention to the licensing aspect more acutely than other formats of digital media, especially when those images are to be used commercially and possibly redistributed by the image commissioner, as there can often be limitations placed within licences that restrict the number of copies that can made of any single image. 

But why would a photographer wish to restrict the number of copies that can be made? There can be a number of reasons why copying restrictions may in place in your licence and only your photographer can explain specifically why they're there. However one common used validation is that it's an attempt to bring the digital marketplace into line with more mainstream commercial practices. When you buy any physical product, most people would consider that making replicas of the product and either selling or freely giving away those replicas, in most cases would be illegal if not just morally wrong. But in the case of digital images, an unlimited number of perfect copies can be created by virtually anyone with a computer; an unregulated flow of copied images could potentially harm a photographer's business by effectively preventing him or her from making future sales of those images. 

But what to do when you need to make copies? If you're a wholesaler, you may want to provide approved images to your resellers and with copying limits in place, you might risk breaching the terms of your licence and opening yourself up to a copyright claim. The good news is is that your licence doesn't necessarily have to have a copying limit applied, if you have one, a simple conversation with your photographer could resolve the issue easily. One thing we see quite often is instead of simply negotiating the licence, many business owners may ask to buy the copyright from the photographer. Photographers can be willing to sell their copyright and assign it to another person, but it's rare and will often cost much more than the licence fee. So are they just being greedy? The simple answer is no, in the same way that if you downloaded a song and wished to buy the copyright from the musician who created it, you might expect to have to dig deep into your wallet for the privilege, photographers will usually also want compensating for relinquishing the control over what happens to the images they create.  

Again the good news is that photographers are people, just like everyone else; and you can talk to them. If there's something in your licence that worries you, detail it out to your photographer and ask for an explanation and see if you can come to an agreement. For commercial photography, there's usually only two things that your photographer won't want to move on:

1. The licence holder cannot resell the images to third parties. This makes sure the photographer's business doesn't end up competing with their own clients in selling their images .

2. Images provided must not be used for obscene or pornographic reasons. A photographer's reputation is bound to their images and they often won't appreciate it if their work is photoshopped  into something crude or illegal.

Beyond this, most photographers should be willing to talk about their licence and amend the details so that it suits your requirements for the intended use of the images, while still protecting the photographers interests.

So although licences can bit a little surprising, remember to just talk to your photographer if you have any concerns; and always, always, keep in mind the wise words of Sir Tom Jones:

"It's not unusual".