Photo Licensing and Usage Rights Agreement

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Finding the right photographer for your company is key, but understanding the photography usage rights agreement specified in your contract can save you a boatload of trouble. As a business owner, you know how important high-quality visuals are to your marketing and advertising campaigns. But you’re not a legal expert and any contract can be confusing – especially when you’re working with a professional photographer.

In this article, I’m going to break down everything you need to know about photo rights as the client of a commercial photographer. Continue reading to learn about the copyright ownership of photographs, what a photo license is, different types of photography rights and more.

When You Hire a Photographer, Who Owns the Pictures?

You’re paying your photographer so the pictures are yours, right? Oftentimes, that’s not the case. When you hire a professional photographer, the engagement is defined as a contractual relationship. That means you are paying for their services – not the actual pictures.

In a typical contract, the photographer retains ownership of the photos. Photographers can grant you an unlimited license – which allows you to use the photos in any way. But legally, the photo copyrights remain under their ownership. The only time you’ll own the photo rights is if you hire an employee dedicated to photography or have a staff member take the photos on their iPhone (which I don’t recommend if they’re not experienced professionals).

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Are Photos Intellectual Property?

Intellectual property is defined as the creation of the mind. Professional photographers certainly use their minds to frame, compose and capture iconic images for your corporate brand. So yes, photos are intellectual property.

There are two different components to photography rights: copyrights and licensing. In the sections below, I’ll explain the two in greater detail.   

Copyright Ownership of Photographs

The first element of photo rights to understand is copyright. Copyrights protect the owner of the image. As I mentioned previously, unless the contract specifies otherwise, the photographer retains copyright ownership of their images.

What does it mean to own the copyrights to an image? In order to protect the owner, the U.S. Copyright Act grants them exclusive rights to: 

  • Reproduce the photo 
  • Prepare derivative works, or new works based on the photograph 
  • Distribute copies of the image by sale or transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease or lending 
  • Display the photo publicly

Photo Licensing

Now to the important part for you, the client – photo licensing. In general, photo licensing is when a photographer (or anyone else who owns the copyright) grants permission to use a photo. The permission is legally defined through a photo license. Copyright owners can license photos to a variety of sources – stock photo libraries, magazines, publications and other platforms – to earn money from their work.

As it applies to commercial photography, the client and photographer typically agree on an exclusive license. I’ll break down the different sections of a license later in this post, but an exclusive license means only the licensee can use the photos.

The photographer will retain the copyright, but often they only want to add the photos to their portfolio. The client pays for the photographer’s services and, in return, obtains a license to use the photos for marketing, advertising, promotional and other uses.

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Types of Photography Rights

When a photographer decides to license their images, there are multiple considerations. Photo licensing isn’t one-size-fits-all. Typically, there are three components to a photo license: type of usage, exclusivity and duration.

Types of Usage

The type of use determines how the licensee is allowed to use the images. The main two use types you’ll find are commercial and editorial.

  • Commercial use is when you use images to sell or promote a business and its products and/or services. 
  • Editorial use is when the images are used in a magazine, newspaper, or other editorial publication.


Some photographers license the same image out to multiple sources, while others give exclusive rights.

  • Non-exclusive rights give an individual or entity the right to use the photos in a predefined way. The photographer can grant non-exclusive rights to several people at the same time. 
  • Exclusive rights grant one source the sole rights to use the images. The photographer cannot license the photos to anyone else and often cannot use the photos for anything other than their portfolio.


The final consideration when licensing photos is for how long the licensee has the rights. License duration can range from several months to unlimited – meaning the licensee has the right to use the images as long as they would like. 

A typical commercial photography license will grant 1-2 years of usage rights. When thinking about your business’s marketing and promotional plans, it’s a good idea to have fresh images taken every few years.

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What is a Photo Usage Rights Agreement?

A photo usage rights agreement is exactly that – a written legal agreement granting an individual or entity the rights to use images that a photographer owns the copyrights to. This is synonymous with a photo license, though on rare occasions a photographer may also transfer the copyright to the client. 

When working on a corporate photography project, a photographer usually grants the client exclusive rights to all of the photos. While the license agreement is secured in the contract, the actual licensing process looks something like this: 

  • The photographer takes the photos, which they possess the copyright 
  • The photographer grants the client permission to use the photo, via a license 
  • The client can share images online and in-person, but they cannot transfer the images to any third party
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Work With Casey Templeton Photography To Ensure Your Photo Rights Are Covered

Now you have a better understanding of photo usage rights and image licensing. As a business, your main goal is to obtain a diverse library of high-quality images that you can use to promote your organization. The biggest takeaway from this post should be to ensure you secure exclusive rights for the images from your session. 

Casey Templeton Photography works with all of our clients to make sure they understand the terms of the contract and answer any questions regarding the rights to use photos. If you want to learn more about photo usage rights or inquire about a project, fill out our contact form to get the conversation started.

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