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Copyright & Protecting Your Images

This post is about one of the most asked questions I get apart from what lens is best and at what setting???

This question is COPYRIGHT & PROTECTING IMAGES. But instead of providing you folks with links upon links Etc, I’ll just leave you here with a true to life situation and how to go about it

Written by Shannon Holden

This is a hard post to write. It’s a sensitive subject amongst photographers and artists … our ownership of our creative work. It’s sensitive in that we feel we have to constantly defend our work, and our right to make a living as an artist. And it’s also sensitive in that we often feel such a close relationship with our clients, and we don’t like having to be the Copyright Police amongst our friends. I’m so thankful that I’ve never had to have a difficult copyright discussion with a client. Nonetheless, I’ve been the victim of image theft.

About a year ago I learned that an image I created was stolen and used to make another piece of art. It was a complete stranger who took the image from my website, and turned it into a painting, which she had then posted on another public website as her own work. I don’t think she necessarily did so maliciously … at least I hope not. I think she just did not really understand copyright and all it entails. She included a link to my website in her description, which I imagine she thinks is sufficient credit offered for the use of my work. It’s a nice gesture, but this is still a copyright violation. I first sent her a kindly worded email asking her to remove the artwork from the website, to which she did not respond. I then talked to the legal team at the Professional Photographers of America who contacted her and the website on my behalf, and that seemed to do the trick.

Today, I received an email from a professional web designer who had used one of my images on a commercial website he is designing. He was very complimentary of my work and asked my permission to use the image, offering a credit and link back to me in return. Again, I believe he meant no harm by this and I appreciated his concern for obtaining permission. But the fact remains that he copied the image off my site and worked it into the design without my ever knowing it, and before asking permission.

Minutes after that email, I read a story on the news sites about a US family who just learned that their Christmas card photo has turned up in a Czech advertisement. I won’t link the story here due to the same copyright laws, but if you are curious just search on “Family Christmas Photo Czech Ad” and you can read about it for yourself. Imagine their shock!

The image of mine this web designer used happened to be an image of one of my own children that was not watermarked at all. (I’ve fixed that now!) That, plus the news story I mentioned, made me realize that the watermark I place on images here on the blog must be there each and every time, and must be more prominent than it has been in the past. I’ve resisted this until now, because I didn’t want the watermark to take away from the impact of the image. And I trust my clients, so I didn’t worry too much that any of them would be stealing images off the blog. But I know now, more importantly, I must protect myself and my clients from this sort of thing. Thus, beginning immediately, my blog images will be watermarked much less discreetly than before. You might even consider doing the same … marking the images you upload to Facebook, Myspace, Flickr, or a personal blog. You never know who might be right-clicking to save that shot to their hard drive.

The more I thought about it today, the more I felt I should share some details here, just for the sake of education. Ten years ago, before I was making my living as a professional photographer, I really didn’t understand copyright law either. It’s not like it’s a conversation that comes up over a cup of coffee each week.

Thanks to the Federal Copyright Act of 1976, a photograph is protected under copyright the minute it is created within the camera. That copyright remains in effect for the life of the artist plus 70 years, unless she legally relinquishes her copyright. Without express permission from the artist, it is illegal to scan, copy, reproduce or alter her photographs in any way. This includes saving an image from the artist’s website or anywhere else she has posted her work, to use it on your own website, MySpace or Facebook page, etc. It also includes scanning prints you have purchased and reproducing them in any way.

You may ask, “But if I pay the photographer to create portraits of my own child or family, don’t I own those images?” Quite simply, no. When a photographer creates an image of your child during your session, she owns the copyright to each and every image. By purchasing prints or other artwork created with the images, you have permission to enjoy the images in your home or office, or share them with family. You do not have permission to copy those images. This includes home scanners and printers, or photo stations at drug stores and supermarts.

“But what is one little scan going to hurt? I invested a lot of money in my session.” I am always thankful for each and every one of my clients, and I appreciate the value of the investment you have entrusted to me. Photography is not only my passion, it is how I support my family. I have chosen this career because I am passionate about it, but I also work to pay the bills. My income is a necessary part of our family’s cash flow. Just one or two people scanning may not impact my business, but imagine if it were more than a few? What if several clients purchased just one 5×7 of their favorite image, scanned it, and printed 8×10s at Supermart to give to all their relatives. That would start to cut into my income, which would in turn influence my prices as I would have to make up for that loss in income.

Scanned images also devalue my work, as the scans will often result in poor quality reproductions of the image. This impacts my reputation as a photographer, which also impacts the health of my business.

“What is the difference in a print release and relinquishing your copyright?” If you purchase a digital negative from me, you are not purchasing the copyrights to the image. I am not giving up any of my rights as an artist. Instead, you are purchasing a license which allows you to reprint the image for your own personal use (or for business use, if and only if that is part of the license agreement we both sign). You may print enlargements, holiday cards, post it on your personal blog, etc. because my license gives you permission to do so. I still own the creative rights to the work, which means you may not make any profit off that image commercially, present it as your own work, or make artistic alterations to it.

“Aren’t you flattered that someone would want to use your photograph on a commercial site?” Sure, I am! I’m flattered every time I hear from a new client interested in my work. But because I am a professional photographer, because this is my career and my source of income, I simply cannot give away my work. (Ok, when I win the lottery, I’ll start giving away photographs for free. Until then, my checkbook and my accountant won’t let me.) I must guard the value and my ownership of my work and choose carefully where and how it is used, especially in commercial endeavors.

While I’m on the topic, I want to send Kudos to Costco’s Photo Center. I recently sent some personal photographs to the photo center at their Alpharetta location, which I am printing for a scrapbook project I am planning for my kids. Shortly after I uploaded my images to their 1-hour website, I got a phone call. The gal who called was very polite, and said, “I’m sorry, but we had to place your order on hold. It appears these photos were created by a professional photographer, and we must be certain that you have written permission from the photographer to print these.” I was so thrilled to get that phone call! It was easily resolved by offering her my website address, so that she could see that I, Shannon Holden, am in fact the professional photographer placing the order. I was so thankful to know the local Costco employees were trained to look out for us starving artists. I must remember to bake them some cookies some time!!

I’d like to close this sensitive post with a heartfelt thanks to my clients who have been so supportive and respectful of my work as an artist. I am truly blessed with some of the best clients in Atlanta, and I will never take that for granted. Thank you for making my career such a beautiful way to earn a living.

Much love,


P.S. – No blog posts allowed without photographs! It is a photography blog after all, right? In case you had not heard, my family and I just got back from the beach. Now that I’m getting caught up on work after my vacation, I’ll share some beach images soon!

Please Visit: Shannon Holden Photography

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