Copyright Uncovered: What do I need to know about copyright and photographs?

    Every quarter our Legal team answers your questions about copyright. This quarter, they look at who holds the copyright and the length of copyright protection in photographs.

    Photography has changed – and so has its copyright laws!

    A century ago, the most popular camera was the Kodak Brownie, and yet now smartphone makers claim more photographs are taken on mobiles than on cameras! Just as photography has changed dramatically throughout the 20th century, so has copyright law with three revisions in the last 100 years – in 1911, 1956 and 1988.
    Each time the law was updated, changes were made to copyright ownership and copyright duration. Good news, under the current law, the Copyright Designs and Patents Act (CDPA) 1988, artists and photographers enjoy the most creator-friendly copyright to date.
    If you’re a photographer with a long-spanning career who may have created work before the 1988 law came into force on 1 August 1989, then this is right up your lens and worth a read.  

    Who owns the copyright?

    Well, it depends on when the photograph was taken.
    Before the 1988 law, photographers didn’t always own the copyright in their work automatically - other factors played a big role in ownership.
    In the previous copyright laws, if the photograph was commissioned by someone, it would be the commissioner – not the photographer – who owned the copyright in that photograph.
    The 1911 law also had a provision that the person or company who owned the negatives at the time they were made was considered to be the author of the photograph.
    Copyright reform in 1988 changed this, recognising the importance of rights staying with creators. Since the 1988 law, copyright is now owned generally by the person who created the work, or by an employer if the work is created in the course of employment.
    An employee tends to be someone who has signed an employment contract or receives a salary, but check how your working relationship is considered by those you work with.
    Copyright ownership of photographs can be changed by contract, so it’s important to know your rights. Check out our article on contracts or visit our Knowledge Base for more information on copyright.

    How long does copyright last?

    The current copyright law grants a long period of copyright for all visual artists. For any photographs taken after the 1988 Act became law – on 1 August 1989 – copyright will last for the life of the creator plus 70 years.
    But many photographers enjoying long-spanning careers could have produced works under the previous copyright regime. The previous laws only gave a copyright term of 50 years after the photograph was taken.
    To deal with this shift into the current legal framework, the law made extra provisions depending on factors such as whether the photos were published, or the date the photographer died.
    If you are a photographer, or the beneficiary of a photographer, and the photographs were taken before 1989, you can figure out when copyright expires based on your circumstances in our detailed factsheet


    As a photographer and visual artist with works published in UK books or magazines, don’t forget to apply for Payback  and receive your share of millions of royalties!
    Payback is an annual scheme run by DACS which distributes royalties to visual artists and estates for the re-use of their copyright-protected work in UK books, magazines and TV programmes.
    It’s worth it! In 2022, over 96,000 artists received a share of over £4.6 million.

    Apply now for Payback as an artist 
    Apply now for Payback as a beneficiary or heir


    Copyright advice for members

    Are you a Copyright Licensing or Artist’s Resale Right member at DACS? Remember to take advantage of our free copyright advice service for these members:

    Find out how it works

    We also have lots of useful information about copyright on our website. Browse related pages:

    Copyright uncovered 
    Knowledge Base 
    Photography factsheet

    The content of this article is not intended to apply to individual circumstances. It does not constitute legal advice, it is not a substitute for independent legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. 

    Photo Op, Lanzarote, Museo Atlantico © Jason deCaires Taylor. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2018. Photo: Jason deCaires Taylor.

    Posted on 12/03/2018 by Laura Ward-Ure