Copyright has to be one of the most confusing issues in commercial photography. The goal here is to help clarify some basic questions on the topic.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines copyright as the exclusive legal right to reproduce, publish, and sell the matter and form of a literary, musical, or artistic work.* This definition applies well to photography. The reproduction of a photograph requires the permission of the copyright holder.
As of 1976, U.S. law recognizes, with few exceptions, that photographers own the copyright of any image they capture. An exception to this is Work For Hire. If an employee does photography in the scope of their job, or if an independent photographer uses a "Work For Hire" clause in their contract, then the copyrights are the property of the employer or client. Otherwise, photographers retain the copyrights to their images.
The copyright symbol (©) labeled onto an image is simply a reminder to anyone seeing it that the named party following the symbol owns the copyright. If there is no copyright label does this mean there is no copyright? No! The © label is only a reminder, and all images should be treated as copyrighted material.
Yes! The majority of photographs used commercially are purchased for specific rights of usage. Several variables of use are considered, such as the type of application, placement, size, duration, repetition, and others. This approach, used widely in the industry, provides a fair balance between the photographers need to earn a living, and the clients need for quality photography at a price appropriate to their specific project.
Yes! Federal law considers copyright infringement a serious offense, with punitive fines exceeding $100,000 in addition to other costs and damages. Photographers dedicate many years perfecting their art, and the law supports this investment of time and money by protecting their rights to own and sell the images they create. Choose to respect the law and avoid the legal ramifications of copyright infringement.
This information is in no way an exhaustive study on Copyright Law, and anyone seeking in-depth information should consult with an attorney in this specialty.
*By permission. From Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary, Tenth Edition (C)1996 by Merriam-Webster, Incorporated.