Pet peeve of the day? Photographers who sell “a full CD of images with copyright!” for $20-$40. From that information alone I know that 1. this person is not a professional and 2. they are unaware of copyright laws and usage rights. Their work may be top notch, mediocre, or mommy on auto caliber – but no matter the quality, it would serve the business well if the ‘professionals’ knew exactly what they were selling.

Fact: In the digital age, demand is up for digital files on a CD that the client can print to their hearts’ content. Supply and demand, people. Print packages are becoming less popular. Some photographers require a minimum print order before selling a CD, some don’t. I’m not here to judge what others see fit for their business, and that’s not what this is about.

When a photographer (or anyone) clicks the shutter on a camera, they automatically own the copyright to that image. They can do whatever they want with it (until you get into people/private property). They can sell it to be used as an ad and profit from it. They can use it for advertising. They can edit it. This automatic copyright law lasts for 70 years after the photographer is dead. You can go a step further and include metadata or register the images with the copyright office for a fee (essentially makes any lawsuits a lot cheaper on the photographer’s end!)

Copyright release: Exactly what it sounds like. If a photographer sells you the copyright (and it should NOT be $30; more like hundreds for a set of images), they are selling you exactly that. The photographer no longer retains the right to use those images as they please. They can’t use it for advertising. They can’t sell it to an ad company and profit from that image (with model release if it includes recognizable people). YOU, who bought the copyright, now has these rights. Generally copyrights aren’t sold in portrait photography, though I’m sure there are exceptions. The commercial industry probably has the most use for selling copyrights.

Print release: Again, exactly what it sounds like. Permission (a release) from the photographer/copyright owner to print images provided. Sometimes this will include a specific printer to be used. I don’t do this, but PLEASE know that using MPIX or another professional lab will be more accurate in tone/color, will last longer, and be higher quality than Walgreens or WalMart. It does not include rights to edit or alter the image, sell them, etc. That right remains with the copyright owner/photographer.

My system? Whenever I shoot a photography session for someone, I include a CD with 1. high resolution images 2. web/low resolution images (understanding resolution is a whole other post!!) with a small watermark. I also include a release defining usage rights – the high res images are for personal printing only, and the web res images are for online sharing, email, etc. My release is more detailed than that, but you get the idea.

There is no single correct way to offer/sell digital files, but this works for me. I figure clients will make prints with or without a release (no matter how illegal…), so I would rather them have those quality resolution files so my work is reflected as well as possible. I also figure clients will put the images on facebook, and I would rather have a web res file with my watermark (hello, free advertising!) than the high res (= easier to steal) with no watermark or record of who took the image.

These releases aren’t meant so much to be stingy with photographs, but to protect the photographer and their work, and maintain respect for their craft and business. Usually if you contact the photographer with a reasonable request that falls outside the release/contract, they will work with you.

So there it is. Part rant, part educational (hopefully!). Anytime you hire a photographer you should be clear about the rights. Know exactly what you are getting and what you are paying for. And if they claim to sell the copyright for $30, please think twice before booking that person.

And since this is a photography blog, here is a photo! You may have seen this before but it’s been a while since I shot film and this reminds me of the beauty and simplicity of it!


13 thoughts on “Copyright vs Print Release

  1. Thank You so much for your insight! After many years of being the so called “Family Photographer” for everyone and nudging from other people I started on my photography career! Although I sell my cd (for obviosly way too low) I did not understand what I was doing in the copyright/print release area! Recently I started in music photography (trying to buil my portfolio) and I had another photographer, who was at the same show, contact me and ask me for a Cd of all of the images from one of the bands…she wanted me to sign a copyright release form! I read this and told her that I would sign a “print release” form and she got really upset with me! She said that they are one in the same and a whole bunch of other crap…obviously she was after my photos (even if they aren’t the best)! I am so glad that I did my research on this! And truly appreciate the time you took to enlighten photographers like me…lol! Ince I gain some more confidence I will most definately reconsider my prices! If you get a chance take a look at my music photography site on facebook and let me know what you think! Have a wonderful day!

  2. I completely agree with Lynn. I have always had an interest in photography but have just recently started to really get into it knowing that I would like to make a career out of it. This article was very informative for me. I know the basics but still have a lot to learn! I am starting to build my portfolio by shooting family and friends. They want to have the images but I want to make sure it that my work is protected ass well. Thank you so much for explaining the difference in release forms.

  3. Great advice! I did not know there was a difference between these two, but took the time to read this blog, because I thought: If there’s two names for each form, there must me two different meanings. Glad you were here to clarify those meanings to me.
    Thanks again for taking your time to help other photographers out there.
    Please check out my photography website on Facebook:
    and my website:

    Take care!

  4. I’m interested in knowing if anyone has ever gone after a studio/photographer for full copyright based on such an advertisement, and whether they’ve been successful.

  5. Thank you! I am just now starting to sell some of my photography, and without reading this article, I definitely would have made the mistake of giving a “copyright release” instead of a print release! I learned early on that I do NOT want to be in the printing business, so I intend to sell CDs. Your idea of including Hi Res photos without watermark and web-ready low res photos with a small watermark is absolutely BRILLIANT! I’m so glad I stumbled upon your article before I gave away all my rights! Thank YOU!

  6. Thank you for this post! I did my first family shoot this weekend, its not something I plan on doing often (I prefer landscapes, flowers, things that hold still LOL) but this really helps me know what to give the family. Thank you for such a clear, easy to understand post!!

  7. I fail to see how including a copyright release in a package is unprofessional. Gone are the days when everyone needs to run back to their photographer to order prints for every single occasion until the end of time. Watermarks are so easily removed, I find it laughable that anyone even uses them any more. I don’t want the hassle of dealing with a client for months or years after I’ve produced their photos. My work ends at the portrait session. Once they have the images, I wash my hands of them. I give them a copyright release so they are free to do exactly as they please with no need to come running to me. Do I worry that a client is going to use any of my images for financial gain? Absolutely not! It is ridiculous to me that photographers feel the need to cling to some vestige of “professionalism” by holding onto a obsession to own every aspect of their images. It speaks to a complete lack of understanding of the digital age.

    1. I don’t think it’s unprofessional to offer a copyright release – but I do think it is unprofessional to do so without understanding exactly what you’re giving away and to think that it is worth $100 or less. A copyright release gives exclusive rights to an image. When a photographer puts so much in to create a final product/image – that is giving away a lot.

      I think many people offer a copyright release when what they really mean to give away is a print release. They don’t understand the difference, which was the point of this post.

      I am all for allowing the client to have digital files to make prints for personal use – but I do NOT want them to have the right to take a carefully edited image representative of my work, throw a few filters, vignettes, and selective coloring on it, and have it become a negative representation of what I do.

      Might a client do those same edits/crops/adjustments to a photo with or without a copyright release? Possibly. But that doesn’t make it okay or legal. Digital age or not – photographers are artists and business owners who put a lot of effort into creating a specific style and product. Offering the correct release form and informing the client that they may print but not alter the images shows a respect for the art of photography and protects their professional image. If a photographer wants to sell the copyright (at a fair price – we’re talking thousands if not more) then more power to them.

      My hope is that all photographers (and clients, for that matter) understand the difference between giving away all rights to an image, and creating a release for a specific (online, print, etc.) use. Once you understand the difference, you can make an educated decision as to what is best for your business.

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