My wedding photos were taken by a professional photographer. Do I have a right to post them online?

The question of who retains the rights to wedding photographs—the photographer or the bride and groom—arises often. Unfortunately for most couples, professional photographers commonly retain their copyright interests in the photos they take. While the photos may be of your special day, ultimately it is the photographer that created them. In the past, this meant that they kept the negatives. In the digital age, it usually means that they keep the “master” digital files that they created with their digital cameras. In the Internet age, photos are shared in more places than ever. This can create copyright issues for both the couple and the photographer.

Today, Facebook and Flickr have replaced the traditional photo album. In addition, with the proliferation of online outlets to share photos has come a radical change in how professional photographers structure their contracts. More than ever, it's essential that both you and the photographer have upfront discussions about ownership and use of the photographs you are commissioning. If nothing else, it is always important to read the fine print in a contract before signing on the dotted line.

Discussing Ownership of Wedding Photos Example

The following is an example of the type of upfront discussion you should have with your wedding photographer and how it can affect your rights to your wedding photos and negatives. I have learned what to do and what not to do from experience. My wife and I hired a photographer that happened to be someone we were previously acquainted with. We told her, our photographer, upfront that we had very little interest in a “traditional” wedding package. The number one thing we wanted was to own all of our wedding photos and videos outright. Essentially, we wanted her to work for hire. 

The photographer, who works 100% digitally, knew exactly where we were coming from. While she did offer services such as custom physical wedding albums, online ordering and the like, she understood that we were web-savvy and cost-conscious. So we negotiated a deal that simply stated that she would take pictures and video and then turn the raw files over to us to do with what we wanted. No prints. No albums. No DVD. She took the pictures, put the files on a disc, and gave them to us. She kept a few to use as samples, which we agreed to in exchange for a discounted quote.

Because we “own the negatives,” we are free to do, literally, whatever we want with the pictures. They are ours. The wedding photographer retains no legal or financial interest in them. So we printed what we wanted, shared what we wanted, and have the files if we ever decide to do something else with them. The only downside is that we are responsible for their preservation. If the photographer retained control of the files, she would have retained backups as well.  

Common Issues with Wedding Photographers and Who Retains Rights

Some photographers may be stuck in the dark ages. Perhaps they do not use digital cameras. Perhaps they will not negotiate regarding who retains the “masters.” Perhaps they derive their income from the ordering of prints. Some photographers even maintain their own wedding-specific websites where you and your guests can enter a username and password and view and order wedding photos right from the web. For these photographers, allowing their work to be shared indiscriminately is unacceptable. From their perspective, it costs them revenue. Therefore, it is entirely possible that if you are scanning in purchased prints or linking to online versions provided by the photographer, they will come after you for money they believe you owe.  Whether or not you actually owe them money is entirely dependent on the contract negotiated.

Negotiating Ownership of Negatives

If you want to be able to use your wedding pictures in any way you choose, without fear of litigation or harassment from the photographer, you must negotiate ownership of the negatives or master files upfront. Make sure your contract states who owns the master files or negatives, and make sure if you do not get ownership, the contract specifically details how and where the photos may be used. 

Some photographers will provide (for a fee, of course) low-resolution files of your photos to be used on websites. They are often stamped with a digital watermark that prevents printing a usable copy of the photo. If you want to own the master files or negatives, be prepared to pay a premium for this arrangement. I have seen many photographers charge hundreds of dollars more to relinquish their interest in the photos, but from their perspective they need to make up for the lost revenue they would get from prints. If you do not negotiate use and ownership upfront and you are caught bootlegging your own wedding photos, you will lose should the case ever go to court.

Understanding Contracts and Negotiating in your Best Interest

A contract with a photographer is no different from a contract with a roofer, plumber or car dealer. You agree to the terms, sign the contract, and are bound by them. If you do not read or understand the fine print, you are still bound by the contract. Photographers use the contract to protect their rights. My suggestion is that you do the same. Negotiate upfront, get what you want, include everything in the written contract, and make sure both you and the photographer sign off. That way if you ever have to go to court over your use of the photos, a judge can look at the contract and make an easy decision regarding your rights. If you do not negotiate for what you want, and you do not read the contract the photographer asks you to sign, you will likely have little recourse if you are sued. Be your own best advocate.

Getting Legal Help

If you find yourself in a dispute with a photographer over your rights to your wedding photos, an attorney can help. Gather all of the documentation you can, then contact a copyright attorney in your area today.