Own-it | Intellectual Property Know-How for Creative Businesses


I'm a photographer – what do I need to know about IP?

Published 20.01.10 at 14:15

Two key intellectual property (IP) issues arise in relation to photography:

  • What rights does the photographer have?
  • What infringements must the photographer be aware of?

The principal IP right relevant to a photographer is copyright.  A photograph will be protected by copyright if it is an original work, in the sense that it has originated from the photographer rather than being copied (see 'infringement' below for further details).

Unless the photographer is taking photos in the course of his or her employment or has otherwise agreed to assign copyright in the photographs, the photographer will own copyright in his or her photos.

The owner of copyright in the photographs has the exclusive right to reproduce or issue copies of the photo to the public. 

The World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO) provides a list of works protected by copyright that is routinely infringed by such works being photographed. These works are:

  1. Literary works (such as books, newspapers, catalogs, magazines);
  2. Artistic works (such as cartoons, paintings, sculptures, statues, architectural works, computer and laser artwork);
  3. Photographic works (such as photos, engravings, posters);
  4. Maps, globes, charts, diagrams and technical drawings;
  5. Advertisements, commercial prints, billboards and labels;
  6. Motion pictures (such as films, documentaries, television advertisements);
  7. Dramatic works (such as dance, plays, mime); and
  8. Works of applied art (such as artistic jewellery, wallpaper, carpets, toys and fabrics).

It is an infringing act to reproduce the whole or a substantial part (judged qualitatively rather than quantitatively) of a work protected by copyright. This includes reproducing the whole or a substantial part of a work by photographing it. There are a number of defences to this general rule, the most relevant for these purposes being using the photograph for:

  • non-commercial research or private use/study;
  • criticism or review; or
  • education, although this is a narrow exception and you must be an educational establishment to benefit from it.

Photographing a building or sculpture situated in a public place or premises open to the public is also not an infringement of copyright in such building or sculpture.

If a work is protected by copyright and none of these defences apply, then you should obtain prior consent from the copyright owner before photographing it. 

Content supplied by College of Law students at the Moorgate Centre supervised by Tim Harris of Bird & Bird LLP. Photo credit: Klearchos Kapoutsis


Please note that this article discusses the legal position in the UK at the time of publication. It provides general information only but is not to be regarded as legal advice. You must take advice from a specialist lawyer in relation to your specific circumstances. Further, you should seek additional legal advice when dealing with parties based in other parts of the world or works originating from other parts of the world as the legal position may vary.


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