Skip navigation

0113 237 9900

Book Free Call


Who Owns the Copyright of a Photo in the UK?

Back to IP FAQs Overview

Photographers create hundred of new copyright works every day

But how does copyright work in this context and how can photographers benefit from understanding it better?

Image of someone lifting up a DSLR camera to the sun, there is a lens flare in the image too.

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

Words by Dr Martin Douglas Hendry

If you're a photographer, artist, or simply someone who loves taking pictures, it's important to understand copyright and how it impacts your photographs.

Copyright ownership gives the owner the legal right to control how their work is used, copied, and distributed.

In this blog post, we'll explore the basics of copyright ownership, as well as how this applies to photographs in the UK.



Understanding Copyright Ownership


Copyright ownership refers to the exclusive right of the copyright owner to control the use and distribution of their work.

This means that the owner has the legal authority to decide how their work is used, copied, and distributed.

Copyright ownership is important because it ensures that creators are attributed and compensated for their work and that their intellectual property is protected.

In the UK, copyright ownership is automatic and doesn't require any formal registration. This means that as soon as you create something original, like a photograph, you automatically own the copyright to it.

However, there are some things that photographers can do to decrease the risk that their images are subject to copyright infringement – and that they benefit as much as possible from the legal rights they have as it relates to their images.



Copyright Ownership of Photos in the UK


When it comes to photographs, the rules around copyright ownership can be a bit more complicated. Here are the basic rules:

Ownership of photographs taken by an individual: If you're an individual taking photographs, you automatically own the copyright to those photographs.

Ownership of photographs taken by an employee: If you're an employee taking photographs as part of your job, the copyright ownership will depend on your employment contract. In most cases, the copyright ownership will belong to your employer.

Ownership of photographs commissioned or purchased: If someone commissions you to take photographs, the copyright ownership will depend on the terms of the agreement. In most cases, the person who commissions the photographs will be assigned the copyright as part of the contracted terms. Notably, in such agreements, only the economic rights can be assigned, and the photographer still retains the moral rights (e.g., such as the right to attribution as the creator of the image).



Ways you can use images without ownership or license (or others can use your images)


There are some exceptions to copyright ownership in the UK, which would allow someone to make use of your images.

These include:

When permission is granted by the copyright owner: If you want to use someone else's photograph, you can ask for permission from the copyright owner. If they grant permission, you can use the photograph if you comply with any conditions they set.

Fair dealing and fair use of copyrighted materials: In some cases, you can use copyrighted materials without permission if it's for purposes such as criticism, review, or news reporting. This is known as fair dealing in the UK and fair use in the US. Ultimately, this is a fine line from a legal point of view, and should the image risk forming a substantive part of the new copyright work, the copyright owner may have a legitimate grievance at its unauthorized use. Indeed, within our firm we have assisted photographers to enforce against newspapers who have used images without permission.

The role of Creative Commons licensing: Creative Commons licenses allow creators to share their work with others under specific conditions. For example, they might allow others to use their photographs if they give credit or don't use them for commercial purposes. Again, should images be used in contravention of the conditions of these licenses, it may be enforceable from a legal point of view.



Protecting Your Copyright Ownership


If you want to protect your copyright ownership, there are several things you can do:

Indication of copyright ownership: Although copyright ownership is automatic in the UK, and as such, all images, when created, attract copyright protection – to the extent they are original. Despite this, when and where you share your images, it can be useful to indicate that you consider your works to be protected by copyright and as such will enforce any breaches of your rights. You may also wish to watermark your images, either discreetly (so that it can be identified thereafter) or explicitly. However, many photographers find that watermarking can affect the impact and feeling in their photographs, and as such prefer to keep the image as is.

The role of metadata in copyright protection: Adding metadata to your photographs can help protect your copyright by providing information about the ownership and usage rights. Many modern cameras allow you to automatically embed copyright information into the metadata of each image when it is created. This can be useful if an image is copied directly and used without permission. For many creators it can be useful to keep documentation as it relates to the creation of copyright materials – however, digital photographs (or scans) automatically contain information which confirm their date of creation (although in some cases this can be freely edited).

Monitoring and reverse searching: Copyright infringement can occur online unbeknownst to the creator of the copyright work. As such, it can be useful for photographers to reverse image search their most popular images to see if others have made use of them without permission. This can form the basis of an ongoing monitoring and oversight of the photographers’ copyright.

Legal remedies for copyright infringement: If your copyright is infringed, you can take legal action to stop the infringement and seek damages. It is best to collect as much evidence of the alleged infringement, without contacting the alleged infringer (as this will likely lead them to remove evidence of the same). At which point, contacting a specialist in copyright law is the best next step in order to identify the severity of the infringement and your legal options.





In the UK, copyright ownership of photographs is automatic and depends on the circumstances under which the photographs were taken. Understanding who owns the copyright to your photographs is important if you want to control how they're used, copied, and distributed. Remember to take steps to protect your copyright ownership, such as indicating copyright protection where your work appears, adding metadata, and taking legal action if necessary. For further information, visit the UK Intellectual Property Office website or speak to a legal professional.

Crucially, understanding copyright as a photographer is empowering insofar as it allows you to not only enjoy more protection over the images you create but assert and benefit from your moral and economic rights also.

Happy snapping!


Get in touch





Look at our other guides that relate to this topic here.

How to sue for copyright infringement in the United Kingdom

How to appeal a copyright infringement claim

What is copyright?



Virtuoso Legal is a team of intellectual property specialists based in Leeds and London - operating worldwide. Virtuoso Legal's team of IP experts have successfully tried cases in the IPEC, High Court, Court of Appeals and United Kingdom Supreme Court. In addition, the team assist companies in creating, commercialising and protecting the big ideas that make their business unique. The firm and its professionals are ranked yearly in legal directories such as the Legal 500 and Chambers and Partners, cementing their status as a Top 2% law firm in the world.

DISCLAIMER: The content within this post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Virtuoso Legal does not take any responsibility for those that use this information and waives any liability for any resulting effect on your personal or commercial circumstances.

Want to get started?

Click below to be get started working with us.

Leeds 0113 237 9900

London 0208 088 2367

Get in touch


This website uses cookies. You can read more information about why we do this, and what they are used for on our Privacy and Cookies policy page.

Accept Decline