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Understanding Copyright and Licensing for Photography

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Read Time: 7 min
This post is part of a series called Freelance Photography.
How to Handle an Unhappy Photography Client
How to Register Copyright and Track Your Images from Inside Adobe Lightroom

Copyright and licensing of images can be a hard thing to get your head around. Even if we as photographers have come to understand it, often clients or friends don’t and we find ourselves explaining why you can’t just use an image you found on Google for your website. In this article I’ll explain the most common licensing agreements and their implications. This is by no means exhaustive but it should give you a good understanding of the fundamentals.

Firstly, let me just point out that I live and work in the UK, laws and terms may vary where you are so please always check the laws where you are, never assume.


Copyright usually describes something that is your intellectual property: something that you have created. Copyright is a legal tool that stops other people from taking your work and using it as their own or making changes to it.

Copyright and Photography

As soon as you create something (so, a picture in this instance), you automatically hold the copyright to that, it’s yours—unless you’re creating as an employee on behalf of an employer, but let’s say for the sake of this article that you’re not.

You can’t copyright an idea. Someone can go out and take the same picture as you, but they can’t take your picture and claim it as their own, modify it or sell it—unless you give them permission of course.

Joint Copyright

Sometimes a photo requires a model release too [Photo: Julia Caesar - public domain]

Sometimes things can be less black and white. If you’re a photographer working in partnership with a model, then it could be argued you both created the work and so the permission of the other person would be needed when publishing or selling the image or the rights to print/distribute the image. For this, photographers and models usually have release forms to state they’re happy for the picture to be used.

Out of Copyright

This can vary depending what it is, but generally for artistic work copyright lasts for 70 years from the end of the year in which the person who created it dies. If the copyright isn’t renewed by the end of that term, for whatever reason, then the work becomes ‘public domain’ and anyone is free use it.

This isn’t the case with every historical photograph though. Many archives obtain original photos and then reprint or reproduce them. They then own the copyright to this particular print of the original and so you’d still need permission to use them.


Royalty Free (RF)

People often mistake royalty free for meaning they can take the image and use it for whatever they want without paying. This unfortunately isn’t the case and has tripped up many a person. RF means that once you’ve secured initial permission by buying the license to an image you can use it multiple times without paying again for continued use of the image.

Fair Use

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'Fair use' can be an obstacle course so be careful and don't abuse it [Photo: José Iñesta - public domain]

Fair use is a tricky one and you should be really careful before using an image without asking, then labelling it as ‘fair use’. If you’re writing something and want to include an image under fair use, the piece has to be non-profit and usually educational or research based. Even then, you can’t abuse that. Say you were writing an historical article and wanted to use a picture that you found in an old book with no way to contact the author or publisher. You could use that picture (with appropriate credit and acknowledgement) but you couldn’t get away with re-publishing that book’s entire catalogue of images within your article. Also, this really only counts if there’s no way to obtain permission; there’s no excuse to go ahead and use something if you could’ve asked!

Every situation will be different, though. It’s always wise to thoroughly research your options first and always ask permission where possible. The best way to think of it is like quoting an author. You’d take a small example which demonstrates your point and you’d credit the author; you wouldn’t re-publish a chapter of a book.

Creative Commons

‘The Creative Commons copyright licenses and tools forge a balance inside the traditional “all rights reserved” setting that copyright law creates.’ -

Creative Commons licenses give the owner some flexibility when allowing their work to be used. You can give someone permission to feature your image without handing over the copyright. In brief, summarised from the Creative Commons site, here are the CC licenses:

Attribution CC

This allows someone to alter your work (including commercial use) as long as you’re credited for the original image.


As above, including credit but also means any new works using your image will then carry the same license, so any offshoots will also allow commercial use.


This lets someone redistribute or commercially use your work as long as it doesn’t get altered in anyway and still credits you.


Unsurprisingly, doesn’t allow commercial use but will let someone alter your work as long as they include a credit.


Again, non-commercial use but allows altering with a credit and identical license for their new creation.


Enables sharing but no commercial use and no changes allowed.

There is another CC license, which I’ll go into next.

Public Domain or CC0

Hurrah, free to use images! Pictures marked as public domain or Creative Commons 0 means the original owner of the photograph has waived their rights to the copyright. In essence, you can use this image for whatever you want without asking permission. Sometimes, the site hosting the image will ask for a credit or require a model release, so always check to be sure. You can check my article How to Find Good Stock Photography for some great places for high quality, free to use stock images.


Phew, wasn’t that a lot of information to take in? Don’t worry, we’re not expected to remember every license term or to quote any of this verbatim but it’s a useful document to have on hand so that if you’re asked a question, you don’t need to panic. Here are the important points to remember:

  • In most cases copyright is automatic, you don’t need to register anything.
  • Out of copyright doesn’t always mean free to use, so check or ask if you’re unsure.
  • Royalty Free isn’t free! It just means you don’t pay every time you want to use the image.
  • Fair use only applies in certain circumstances and then only when used, well, fairly!
  • Creative Commons gives lots of options. If you’re using an image or licensing your own for other people to use, read the terms carefully and be sure you’re happy with the deal.
  • Public domain or CC0 means you can use the image for whatever you like, within reason. Check whether attribution is required before using from a stock site.

In the days of Google Image Search, digital watermarking and endless social media network sharing, the chances of an image being discovered are higher than ever. Just recently a guy who’s in the same photography group as me found an image of his being used on three separate sites. When confronted, they pleaded ignorance and are now in the process of having to pay up for their mistake. I once worked for a company who had to pay £9,000 for breaching copyright by stealing an image thinking nobody would ever find out; it happens every day. 

It is important that, as photographers, we understand what can and can’t be done with our images but also so that we can educate others when asked, too. Make sure you know the basics and can pass those on to clients, friends, and family who might not be familiar with what they can and can’t do. 

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