Who owns the copyright in a photo?

17 U.S. Code ยง 201(a) sets forth that ownership in the copyright initially is owned by the author or authors of the work. This means the photographer of a photo, the artist who paints or draws a work of art, the author who writes a poem, story, or book, or even the computer programmer who writes code for a program own the work of art. This ownership of the copyright can be transferred via an assignment.

Alternatively if a person is the employee of another and specifically hired to make the work, or the work is commonly made in that type of employment, the employer would own the work under the work made for hire doctrine. Similarly and independent contractor’s work can be classified as a work for hire if a written agreement exists between the independent contractor and the person or company that hired the independent contractor that specifies the work is made for hire. It is vital that this agreement be in writing, so if you are hiring someone to take photos for you, paint a photo, or otherwise create anything artistic for you, get it in writing.

It is also important to note that typically buying a physical representation of a work or even the original itself does not transfer ownership of the underlying copyright. If you buy a work, such as a photo, painting, or book, you cannot reproduce the work beyond what is considered a “fair use” under the Copyright Act, unless the purchase documents specifically state that a copyright assignment is included or a license to reproduce is included.