Personal Photos Copyright Laws

By Cindy Hill

The development of inexpensive digital cameras and cameras incorporated into cell phones has placed personal photography within reach of just about everyone. Like other creative works, photographs are protected by the intellectual property law called copyright from the moment they are taken. Copyright protection for personal photos is limited by the privacy and publicity rights of the individuals in the photos and the legal rights of anyone purchasing a license to use a picture.

Copyright Registration

Copyright protection attaches to a creative work the moment it stops being just an idea and becomes fixed into some tangible object like a digital file or piece of paper. Copyright law gives the owner the exclusive right to publish, reproduce, sell or alter his creative work, such as a photograph. Enforcing copyright is easier if the owner registers the photograph, or other work such as a piece of writing or painting, with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registering the copyright of a personal photograph can be done through an online filing. A filing fee is necessary, but photographers can group sets of photographs together as a collection and pay one filing fee for the whole set.

Privacy and Publicity

Copyright laws are intended to encourage people to become creative and generate vibrant new artistic and literary works, but copyright does not convey a right to photograph anything you like. Photographers, including amateur personal photographers, can legally photograph public places unless prohibited by national security laws, but laws protecting privacy preclude taking or publishing photos of private property without the owner's permission. People also have a right of publicity, which means that a photographer can not publish a photo containing recognizable images of people, other than in conjunction with a news story, without getting their permission. Placing personal photos where they can be viewed by others, such as on a social networking web page, constitutes publication. Photographers should get written permission from the people appearing in photos before publishing them, according to the American Society of Media Photographers.

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Photographing Copyrighted Works

Since copyright laws give the owner the exclusive right to duplicate the copyrighted work, photographers can not legally photograph materials protected by copyright law unless they have the copyright owner's permission or the photograph meets the copyright law exemptions for "fair use." A personal photograph of a copyrighted work like a painting, sculpture or another photograph may meet the fair-use exemption if it is for purposes of academic study or criticism, or strictly for personal use such as photographing artwork for an insurance inventory.


A copyright owner can give other people permission to use her creative works by granting a license for that use. Amateur photographers can generate income from their hobby by licensing photos through a wide variety of online stock photo banks, or through private licensing agreements. Photo banks or private clients who purchase a license to use a photograph will usually request a signed model's release or property release for every identifiable person or piece of private property depicted in the photo, according to the American Society of Media Photographers. The license for use of a photograph can be a general or blanket license allowing the license holder to use the picture however he wants, or it can be limited to a specific use or publication.

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