On Giving Your Photography Clients Copyright

Photographers! Stop the madness!

Over and over, I see pricelists where people say that their clients get the copyright with their DVD of photographs / digital negatives / high-resolution negatives.

No, no, no, no!

You are NOT giving your clients the copyright! You are giving them a License for Personal Use! (Actually, you are selling it to them, as part of the price tag on selling your digital files.)

While this may seem like semantics, it isn’t. These are actual, LEGAL terms. They have a meaning behind them. It is pretty important. If you give your clients the Copyright on their images, it means that they have the rights to do everything with them and you have NO more rights to use them.

You can’t sell them a print. No more canvases either. You can’t make them an album from their photographs. You can’t display the work in your portfolio. Or on your blog. THEY have all the rights with the copyright. YOU have none left if you give it to them.

This has a monetary impact on you & your business!

If you include a License for Personal Use, they can use the photographs to make their own prints. YOU can still use the photographs for everything else. YOU can still make money off of your photographs by selling them other products.

They are two very different things. Educate your clients on the difference if needed (because someone has told them to ask for the copyright on the photos even though the use license is what they really need), but do NOT give away your copyright!

Think of it as a bundle of sticks – you want to keep some of them for yourself, and you want to share some of them with your clients. You do not want to give them the whole bundle! This great stick analogy is courtesy of Katie Sunstrom, who I did a presentation with on Photographers & Copyright at PhotoCamp Houston back in 2009.

If you’d like more information on copyright law, be sure to follow Plagiarism Today – Jonathan Bailey is an awesome guy and his site is full of great information.

DISCLAIMER: I am not an attorney. Please consult your attorney for legal guidance on copyright issues. Just so we’re clear.

Christine Tremoulet - Business Coach for Professional Photographers

Author: Christine

Business Coach for Professional Photographers, founder of Photographer's Inner Circle, and Best-Selling Author. Blogger since 2000, I named WordPress. My Superpower: Helping entrepreneurs like you use the power of storytelling across blogging & social media to magnetize clients and dominate your market. It is time to stop believing the lies of the Perfection Culture. I live in Houston, Texas when I'm not traveling in my Mini Cooper.

  • Great post! A photographer local to me gives away what she calls “copy write.” She’s cheap as chips, too, so no surprises. *sigh*

  • Thank you for making this so easy to understand! It is such a small, yet important, distinction. We should all be this mindful of the details.

  • Thanks so much for sharing this, I have shared it with many of the ‘start up’ photographers that go through my husbands class at the local college.. and some that have been in ‘business’ for a while! Have a great day!

  • Wow, I’d like to think that people aren’t that, er, naive – but I’m really not that surprised! I only recently stopped giving my clients digital image files with their session (with personal license) because I can’t sustain a business by doing so. They’ll take their files down to Walgreen’s or Wal-Mart and get crappy prints on the cheap and I’m left making zero profit! I would NEVER give up my copyright and my contracts and model releases make sure my clients understand this!

  • Thank you so much for this post. Truly helped in dealing with a client today. I’m hoping they see my point of view after having the ammo to use (terms) in defending my rights! Thanks so much!

  • I hope this thread is still live. I am making a coloring book for someone. I am taking photos inside their private club, of their buildings, desaturating the photos, then compiling it into said coloring book. They sent me a work for hire contract which essentially said they own every picture, etc. from now until eternity in every format, etc. and I’m not to use them ever. I understand they want to protect their privacy and I have no interest in using the pictures again, 20 of them. So not even sure how to approach this, or even if I want to, based on the rest of the work for hire contract. How would you even price photos in this scenario?

  • Erin, that is a bit of a unique situation since it is a work for hire project, and they are hiring you, ultimately, to create the coloring book. In the past when I worked for a web agency and took photos at a client job site, it was part of my job – and I charged nothing extra.

    If you feel you need to charge them something, I’d go to ASMP.org and look up their information on commercial pricing — they are my go-to experts in this situation!

    Hope that helps!