When a photographer clicks the shutter on a camera, they almost always 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 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.