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What is copyright in photography?

Police helicopter keeping an eye out for trouble in the city. I photographed this through our studio skylight.

What is copyright? Despite numerous articles spread across the internet, discussion in books, on TV and in magazines some people still do not seem to understand copyright. So in a non-legalistic jargon free way I am going to explain it again - because judging by how many pictures get stolen many people still do not seem to get it.

How do you get copyright?

The moment you take a picture you automatically own copyright to that image. You do not have to register it. You do not have to do anything at all. It is yours. There are no exceptions. But you can choose to give up your copyright by for instance signing a contract with your employer, an agency or an individual to pass copyright over to them. The point is you have to enter, or have entered a legal agreement, to give up your copyright.

What does having copyright mean?

It means that nobody can copy your image and use it without your express permission. Even if the person for example copies your image and gives you a credit and links back to you, they are still breaking the law. It is illegal to copy someone else's work.

You also infringe on copyright if you take someone else's picture and change it, for example by giving it a treatment in photoshop or including it in a collection of other images eg a mosaic.

It does not matter if you have no intention of making money from the copied image. You infringe on copyright the moment you make a copy of someone else's work.

What is the difference between copyright and plagiarism

Copyright infringement is not the same as plagirism. "While both terms may apply to a particular act, they are different transgressions. Copyright infringement is a violation of the rights of a copyright holder, when material protected by copyright is used without consent. On the other hand, plagiarism is concerned with the unearned increment to the plagiarizing author's reputation that is achieved through false claims of authorship."- Wikipedia. In other words plagiarism would occur when you make a picture which is substantially similar to someone else's work.


You do not infringe copyright when you click on an image and it downloads to your internet browser and is stored in the memory cache on you hard disk. But if you then take that image and use it in a PowerPoint show, a Word document, on your blog, website, email it to someone else or use it in any other form, even if you substantially alter the look of the image you are infringing on the original authors copyright.

The consequences

If you infringe on copyright you are breaking the law. There are legal and financial consequences. Some companies, agencies and individuals pursue their copyright vigorously in court and are awarded huge sums of money in damages. The precise award depends on the circumstances of the case.

I work with an international agency which specialises in protecting copyright. If anyone infringes on my copyright they get an invoice. If this is not paid then the next step is my agency. I have been 100% successful in recouping damages so far and fortunately have not had to go to court.

Disclaimer: obviously the subject of copyright is complex and my article is certainly not meant to be a legal guide. In layman's terms it is meant to simply explain the dos and don'ts. If you stick to the advice above you will not infringe on anyone's copyright. Enjoy looking at photographer's images but don't use them!

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