Copyright laws on images

The shots. The story

Wed 22 Mar, 2023


Whose ownership of wedding photographs, the bride and groom? Of the photographer? How many licences define the ownership and use of images on the web?
We will try to delve into the intricate world of copyright, obviously with wedding photography in particular in mind.

Copyright and other web licences

Copyright is the universally recognised part of law (although every country has its differences), which protects the author of a work of a creative nature, the work itself from plagiarism (the actual copyright), and the fruits derived from it; and is acquired automatically when a work is defined as an intellectual creation.
But in our hyper-connected and hyper-shared universe, along with the rights that protect the author of the image, there are also Creative Commons licences, which defend the ownership and use of images and their sharing. Internet users can therefore exploit and use these works under the conditions set by the authors and without asking their permission.

How copyright applies to wedding photographs

In the analogue era, photography consisted of two basic elements: the negative and the positive, and both were real, tangible objects. For the photographer, maintaining ownership of the negatives was essential because he essentially made money from the copies he printed from these negatives, which became his primary source of income.

With the advent of digital photography, the problem of the legal definition becomes more complex because we start talking about formats (RAW for negatives and JPG for printable images), and above all because the meaning on which the 'analogue' law is based is missing: the negative and positive are in fact virtual products, so we are moving in a decidedly ambiguous field between real and digital existence.
The RAW format in fact only exists in digital form and cannot be printed. But despite this, it exists, so it must be regulated.

In addition, the difficulty in deciding how to define the ownership of negatives in wedding services stems from the difficulty in unambiguously defining the wedding photo shoot, which has not just one soul but many (it is the story of an event, but is also composed of floral details, shots of the location and the landscapes surrounding it, and of course it is also a portrait service); above all, it must absolutely be understood as a collection of images and not by evaluating the individual images taken.

Copyright law in Italy

Under Italian law, after several rulings, the Supreme Court ruled that:

"unlike art. 88 of the Copyright Act for photographs in the context of a contract of employment and photographs of objects on commission, art. 98 of the Copyright Act does not grant the person portrayed an exclusive right to the photograph. The provision merely affirms the existence of a competing right to the photographer, consisting of the possibility for the person portrayed to use the photograph. However, the photographer would retain ownership of the negatives and, unless otherwise agreed, would not be required to hand them over."

Thus, ownership of the digital negatives rests with the photographer, who is not obliged to hand them over to the client (but is obliged to keep and preserve them carefully for at least 10 years), unless they have agreed otherwise before the service takes place.

Does this mean that the photographer can do whatever he wants with the wedding photographs?

Absolutely not!

In fact, since we are also in the field of portrait photography, the subject's right to privacy must obviously be taken into account: since 2018 in the EU there is a regulation called GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) that protects the privacy of web users, both when it comes to sensitive data and public image.
The wedding photographer, like any professional handling sensitive data of a client, is obliged to comply with this regulation, under penalty of paying a fine of 2% of the turnover.
Thus, although the photographer is protected by copyright and owns the copyright on these images, he may not use them for any public or commercial purpose unless the client (i.e. the bride and groom) gives consent, without which those photos may not be shown anywhere, either virtual or physical. For their part, the bride and groom may not use for profit or change the appearance of the images delivered by the photographer.

Photo protection

How do I protect the privacy of my clients? In the simplest way: with a contract.
When a couple chooses me as the photographer for their special day, in order to consider the date locked in the calendar, I require the signing of a written agreement that protects the interests and rights of use of both parties, in addition to my copyright on the images.
In fact, in a specific point of my contract, I request the couple's permission to use their wedding images on my social channels and possibly also on my website, for promotional purposes.
In the event that the couple does not sign this part of the contract, and therefore prefers not to appear in any of my web channels, I respect their wishes without any penalty or any 'exclusivity' relationship to report.
If, on the other hand, the couple does give me their consent to publish, I will submit a small selection of the images I wish to publish, so that they are always aware of what images I use, where I publish and what use I am making of them.

Additional safeguards

Since the pandemic, practically all photographers have adapted to the possibility of delivering files to clients without physically meeting them. And fortunately the internet has provided us with many channels we can use in this circumstance.
I personally tried various platforms until I chose Smugmug for the delivery of wedding images. This app in fact allows me to protect the privacy of my clients through a system of password-protected digital private galleries, where they can view, download in HD and share with their guests, all the images of their wedding.

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