Copyright UK LAW

All the following information is taken verbatim from UK Government website. Relevant links have been included if you wish to read in full...

Copyright in images and photographs

Who owns copyright in an image?

The person who creates an image (“the creator”) will generally be the first owner of the copyright. However, there are various situations in which this is not necessarily the case. For photos, it may depend on when the photo was taken, as different rules may apply if the photograph was taken before 1989. Creators also have what are known as moral rights.

If an image was created as part of the creator’s employment, rather than by a freelance creator, the employer will generally own the copyright. It is also possible that, in instances where a person has arranged equipment and made artistic decisions prior to taking a photo, but wasn’t the one to press the trigger, the person making the arrangements could own the copyright. An example of this could be where a photographer has made the creative choices in setting up a shot, but got an assistant to actually press the trigger.

The creator of an image may choose to allow a person or organisation to license the work on their behalf, license the copyright directly themselves, or “assign” (transfer) the copyright to another person. The term ‘licensing’ means giving another person or organisation permission to use a work such as an image, often in return for payment and/or on certain conditions for a specific period of time. A Copyright Notice on assigning copyright is available.


I want to use photos taken for me by a professional photographer

Where you commission a professional to take photographs on your behalf, for example wedding photographs, the copyright will usually remain with the photographer. This means that you need to get the photographer’s permission before printing further copies of the images, sharing them with your friends or family, or undertaking other acts restricted by copyright such as posting the images to social media sites.

Many photographers will include licence terms setting out exactly what use you may make of images in their contract with you. If you have specific uses in mind, you should ensure these are discussed before contracts are settled. You could also agree with the photographer that the copyright will be assigned to you – this would be done by having a written and signed contract with the photographer saying you had bought the copyright from them. Depending on your needs, a less expensive solution may be to pay for a licence.


Who owns the copyright in commissioned images?

As stated above, if an image is created by an employee in the course of their employment, the employer is the first owner of copyright, unless there has been some agreement to the contrary.

However, when an organisation commissions a third party (such as a freelance photographer, illustrator, artist or cartoonist) to create an image, the first legal owner of copyright will usually be the person or business that created the image, unless there has been some agreement to the contrary.

When an image is commissioned for a specific use, any additional use beyond the terms of that licence will require an additional licence for example, an image commissioned for one purpose or media is subsequently wanted for use for another purpose. Just because a licence exists for one does not automatically permit the use for another, so an additional licence is required.

Sometimes when copyright is not dealt with in the contract to commission the image, courts may be willing to find that there is an implied licence allowing the commissioner to use the image for the purpose for which it was commissioned. This does not normally result in a transfer of ownership. Instead, the commissioner of the work may only get a limited non-exclusive licence.

What are the consequences of copyright infringement?

When someone infringes copyright, there are various courses of action that could be taken by the individual or organisation that owns or administers the copyright. The user of the image may be asked to purchase a licence, and a commercial arrangement might be reached after which no further action is taken. However, legal action might be taken by bringing a claim in court which could result in having to go to court for a hearing.

Court cases can be expensive, as they often result in the user of the image paying the cost to use the photo, plus legal costs of themselves and the copyright owner and possibly other financial compensation for copyright infringement, which may amount to more than the cost of a licence to use the image. Further, the user of the infringing copy could also be asked to take down and permanently remove all copies of the image from websites as well, unless permission from the copyright owner is secured.

Deliberate infringement of copyright on a commercial scale may also lead to a criminal prosecution.

Even in situations where people may think their copyright infringement will not be detected, they run the risk of being discovered and subsequently being pursued through the courts.

Assignment of Copyright

The basics

Copyright is a proprietary right subsisting in original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works, sound recordings, films, broadcasts and typographical arrangements. Ownership of copyright in a work comprises the exclusive right to do certain ‘restricted acts’ in respect of that work, and a copyright owner may authorise others to do those acts by licence. They may also transfer the ownership of their copyright to others. This is known as assignment.

Under UK law, the restricted acts are:

  • copying the work;
  • issuing copies of the work to the public;
  • renting or lending the work to the public;
  • performing, showing or playing the work in public;
  • communicating the work to the public; and
  • making an adaptation of the work.

It is an infringement of copyright to do any of these things without the permission of the copyright owner, so if you wish to do any of these acts you must seek permission, unless your proposed use falls within one of the exceptions to copyright. Usually this permission will take the form of a licence permitting the desired act, but sometimes the copyright owner will assign his rights to a third party altogether.

Just as with real property, you could choose to let your house to a lodger or tenant whilst retaining the freehold, or you could choose to sell your house outright and assign your proprietary rights to the purchaser - so too with copyright.