Laws of Photography Copyright

Do you find yourself sometimes worrying whether you are in the right or wrong when taking photos legally speaking? What are you allowed to take photos of, and what’s illegal? How do you go out in the world and take photos in a safe and responsible way?

Can you use someone else’s photo for certain purposes too? It’s giant melting pot of laws and rights that photographers need to understand to keep them from prosecution.

Knowing the laws of photography copyright is very important when it comes to shooting and sharing those photos online. This article will outline what the law says about photography and where the red lines so you don’t find yourself in hot water.

Intellectual property and digital copyright laws conceptual illustration with copyright symbol and icon and a gavel on blue background.

What is Copyright?

Copyright is effectively the conversation about who owns the intellectual property of a piece of content. This might be a video, a book or even a blog – but in this instance, we’re obviously talking about a photograph.

To keep it simple, whoever presses the button on the camera that takes a photo owns the picture and therefore owns the copyright. Depending upon the situation copyright might be shared by multiple people or a group, or a business but this would require pre-agreed contracts which is more for commercial photographers.

If you’re a beginner or hobbyist photographer taking photos for fun, all the photos you take belong to you only. Copyright means that the image, as taken, is owned by you and anyone wishing to use it for re-publication, editing, printing or public display needs your written permission before they can do so.

Breaching copyright can result in fines and potential prosecution.

What is Considered a Breach of Copyright in Photography

There are a number of ways to breach copyright. This list is designed to make you aware of ways you could be breaking copyright laws, rather than show you how to break them!

● Passing someone else’s photo off as your own.
● Re-editing someone’s photo without permission.
● Selling (or making money from) a photo that doesn’t belong to you.

If you ever spot someone passing your photos off as their own (sadly it does happen online) you can contact them and simply ask them to remove the image and warn them next time you will prosecute them.

Alternatively, if you feel very strongly about the situation you may send them an email with an invoice attached stating how much they owe you for the use of your image and ways to pay – that normally gets some type of reaction.

You can find dedicated copyright lawyers/solicitors who can formally contact businesses/individuals on your behalf, but this will cost you money in upfront fees.

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Trespass Laws for Photographers in the UK

There is a conversation that underpins the copyright of a photograph pertaining to where you are stood when you take a photo. The following section pertains to trespass laws in the UK. While they may be similar in the USA and other countries, please check further to be sure.

For example, if you are stood on private property when taking a photo there is a potential claim on your copyright from the land owner. They might claim you couldn’t have taken the photo without being on their land, therefore they have a stake in the image.

Being aware when you are on public and private property is important, more so for urban photographers. The lines of demarcation can be blurred in big cities and you might not know when you are accidentally trespassing.

It happened to me once in London. I was taking a photo of a building and the security officer came out to tell me I can’t do that. He was partly right and partly wrong.

I was standing on private property belonging to the building while taking the photo. So I apologised and asked where the line of demarcation was (ie. the edge of the property’s boundary) – it was 3 feet behind me! So I stood 3 feet back and took the same photo.

Being on public land means that I can still take a photo of the building. The building itself rarely has rights that it can’t be photographed. Anything out in public like a person or a building has no expectation of privacy.

Private detective with camera spying near building on city street

Things to Avoid Photographing for your Safety

There are exceptions though such as government buildings. Seeing someone pointing a camera at a secure or sensitive facility could stir security fears even if your intentions are benign.

Most government buildings should be OK to photograph from public land, but shooting indoors may require permission. Most normal buildings in a town or city you are allowed to photograph providing you are standing on public land at the time.

The same goes for photographing schools too. To avoid causing upset and confusion I’d advise staying away from photographing schools, especially when children are present unless you have written permission from the school itself. The same goes again for other scenarios you might find groups of children.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 28, 2020: Freelance female paparazzi photographer outside the entrance to the Royal Courts of Justice, The Strand, London - 604

Will a Watermark Protect My Photos from Copyright?

Many photographers see adding a watermark to their photos as a way to protect themselves from copyright infringement.

It’s understandable, but not foolproof. With the quality, accuracy and abundance of photo editing AI tools that can remove elements of a photo getting rid of someone’s watermark on a picture isn’t as hard as you’d imagine (unfortunately).

Please don’t let this put you off putting a watermark on your photo by all means, but just know it won’t stop someone intent on stealing your photo.

In truth, there aren’t many ways, again, unfortunately, that you can protect yourself from copyright infringement. If someone is hellbent on stealing your photo online, then they’ll find a way. It’s a catch-22 for photographers who want to share their photos online, but also keep them private in a way too.

Concept of copyrighted material. Copyright, registered symbols with laptop composition

How to Protect Yourself from Prosecution

You can though make sure you’re not at the sharp end of the stick and breaking the laws yourself by taking precautions. If you are wanting to use an image that isn’t your own in a composite for example, check with the owner first before even starting.

If you are downloading an image from a stock website check the guidance for attribution, even if it’s free to download. Some websites ask that you credit the original photographer wherever you post the composite.

Can I Use Someone Else’s Photo Online?

Ultimately no, unless you have their permission. Copyright gives power to the image owner to decide who uses their photos and in what type of context it’s used too.

If you don’t get permission from the copyright owner then the best thing to do is stay away from using someone else’s photo online for any other purpose.

Photos from stock websites are the safest way to find a type of photo that you might need for advertising or compositing purposes – but again check the attribution and uses policy to make sure your intent doesn’t break their laws.

man adding a block showing the words ’Intellectual property’ on top of other wooden block with text copyright, patents, invention,and trademark

How to Find Out if Someone is Using Your Photos?

The best way to find out if there are illegal uses of your photography on the internet is to run a reverse image search (RIS).

A RIS can be done via Google or Yandex. Upload the photo you want to check and the site will sour the internet for images that look exactly the same or very similar. Hopefully, you won’t find other examples of your work in places you don’t expect, but if you do, at least you know what to do next!

Laws of Photography Copyright: Final Words

Fingers crossed the abyss of copyright law and trespassing laws related to photography seems a little easier to grasp. Remember to protect yourself when outdoors shooting by staying on public land and only photograph subjects that won’t rise tensions.

Bookmark and save this article about the laws of photography copyright so you can find it again in the future. If you’ve got any other questions about photography chances are you’ll find the answers in our other articles and tutorials below.


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