There doesn’t seem a day that goes by without a photographer being caught up in a legal wrangle over the ownership of images they’ve taken. Here, Peter Stevenson from professional photographers’ insurance provider InFocus, discusses a recent case and the questions it raises.
Many of the people reading this piece, will have seen the rather amusing photo of the bear falling out of a tree having just been tranquilised by wildlife officers. The unfortunate black bear had wandered into the grounds of the University of Colorado and scampered up a tree. Thankfully it has now been returned to the wild.
The incident was captured on camera by an engineering student at the university, Andy Duann. Andy is also an amateur photographer, who worked as a photographer for the campus newsletter, the CI Independent.
The captivating shot of the bear mid-flight, before it landed on a crash-mat, has become an internet sensation and can be found on all manner of websites. The bear even has its own Facebook and Twitter page! As a result of all the attention, the Daily Camera approached the photographer, asking if it could buy the image.
This is where the copyright issue arose.
The campus newsletter said that as the photographer’s employer, they owned the shot and therefore Andy had no right to sell it. Andy, on the other hand, argued that as the photographer, he owned the image and could do what he wanted with it.
So who was right? Well, under normal circumstances, if you’re an employee doing your job and carrying out photography, then the copyright of the work belongs to your employer. So in this case, the newspaper as the employer would own the copyright. If you’re a freelancer, then the copyright belongs to you unless explicitly agreed otherwise.
You’d think then, that it was clear the newspaper owned the copyright. However, the university had to concede that the image was in fact, owned by the photographer but only because Andy joined the CU Independent late into the semester and therefore he didn’t sign a contract they had in place for other photographers, stating that ownership of photography would belong to it, rather than the person who took the shot. Had they got the photographer to sign this, then it would be a completely different story.
The incident is interesting for professional photographers, studio owners and newspaper bosses across the UK. It shows how difficult it can be to keep track of an image once it goes viral. It also demonstrates how important it is to stipulate in a contract exactly who owns the copyright of an image at the outset, especially if the images are likely to go viral or be sold on. As a freelance professional photographer, you should always be on the lookout for people using your images without your permission. You have the right to ensure you protect your intellectual property.