Joint Copyright Issues – When You Work With Someone Else

In general, when the shutter on a camera is tripped to make a photo, the photographer who pressed the button owns the copyright. But photographers often work with others when making their photographs, such as the art director, stylist, assistant or even the Photoshop editor. So does that person get to share with the photographer the copyright of the photograph? It depends.

Unless it is agreed to in writing, if the work done by the other person would not qualify on its own to be copyrightable – such as when the art director has the “idea” to place the model on the hood of a red car – then the copyright is not jointly held. Neither will a copyright for a photograph automatically be deemed shared even though the contributors intended to create a “unified” work. Note that these rules do not apply to the “work for hire” scenario or when you are transferring a copyright.

Instead, for a photograph’s copyright to be jointly held with someone other than the photographer, both the photographer and the contributors must have intended at the time the photograph was made to be joint authors. Specifically, the Copyright Act of 1976 states that a joint work is “a work prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or inter-dependent parts of a unitary whole.” This question is important because when you share the copyright of a photograph with others, you must share the profits from exploiting the copyright.

Regardless of the law, though, a contributor to your photograph still may make a claim for joint copyright ownership of it. While you should be able to thwart those efforts, it can cost you time and money and create ill will. So be sure that any documentation that you are required to sign for a job clearly gives you sole ownership of the copyright. And when you hire assistants for your shoot or for Photoshop editing, put it in writing with your assistant that you retain sole ownership of the copyrights regardless of the work performed.

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