The law grants everyone rights to their copyright and related rights that enable them to benefit from their creativity and skills. If you don't understand rights and copyright here is a greatly simplified explanation of how it works in the context of photography.
You take a photograph, you could be an amateur photographer, or a professional, or you are just taking a snap for the family album, the law grants everyone the same rights over the photographs they create. The instant you take the photograph the law makes you the copyright owner of that photograph. There are no forms to fill, you don't need to register your photograph, you just need to press the button on your camera. You are now a copyright owner.
What does this mean? It means that no one else can use or reproduce the photograph you have taken without your permission. Being the copyright owner automatically gives you legal rights to control who, when and where your photograph is used, commonly referred to as intellectual property rights of which copyright is a part.
Every country in the world has copyright laws in place to protect creators and their work, without such laws people could freely copy and use other people's work without penalty. This would act as a huge disincentive within society, inhibit the production of new creative works and diminish the rich variety of culture we currently enjoy.
Having said that there are many people and organisations that desire to obtain creative works for nothing, either by straightforward piracy, such as in freely and illegally downloading music, films, photos, etc., or by more duplicitous means in which the public can be legally, but unethically, tapped as a free source of creativity. More about this later.
So lets assume you have a photograph and someone else wants to use it to promote their business in some way, or just to add a nice image to their website. Now if its a close friend or family member you may be inclined to give it to them for nothing and that's fine, its your choice.
But any number of organisations could ask you for the use of your photo if they've seen it on a website and in these cases you should ask them to pay you. You give permission to a company or a publicly funded body to use/publish your photograph in return for a fee payable to you. This arrangement (permission) is known as licensing. In other words, to give your permission you create a license for someone who wants to use your photograph.
The license will set out how long they can use the photograph, what it can be used for (e.g. one specific usage, say in a book, or a particular advert), and where it can be used, in one country for example, or throughout Europe, or worldwide. The greater the rights requested, say usage for two years instead of one, or to have multiple uses, the greater will be the license fee you charge them. It's up to you to decide on and negotiate a fee for the rights requested.
When the license expires the image must cease being used by the person the license was granted to. They can apply to you for another license of course, and you will charge another fee. The law empowers members of the public to benefit from their creativity in this way.
Without copyright law to protect them people would find the products of their creativity being copied and used by everybody without payment. Copyright law makes it illegal to use someone elses creativity without a license or explicit written permission granted by the copyright owner.
Anyone using a copyrighted work without a license issued by the copyright owner can be sued in court for copyright infringement. Your photographs are unique products of your creativity, you should take care to protect your rights, rights freely given to you by the law. Protecting your copyright includes -
- putting a copyright notice alongside your photograph in the form '© Your Name All Rights Reserved'
- ensuring that the metadata embedded within your photograph includes copyright information and your contact details (e.g. use 'File Info' in Photoshop)
- adding a watermark to your image although some photographers feel this is an intrusion on the aesthetic qualities of the image
- ensuring the image is not displayed at too large a size on the internet.
Note that people can buy a photograph from you for their personal enjoyment, hang it on their wall, but this does not give them a right to copy it and sell or distribute it to others. Those who do that can also be sued for copyright infringement.
The Public is being Ripped Off
However, through photo competitions and similar devices the greedy and less than ethical world of some corporate businesses and national governance (e.g. local authorities, government departments) use means by which they can get your images for free to use for ever for any purpose they like, even to license them to other businesses and make a great deal of money from your images. You will never see a penny.
So how is this done? You enter a photo into a competition and you haven't read the terms and conditions. Its really boring all that small print stuff, isn't it? So you didn't notice that by submitting the photo the organisations involved in the contest are claiming copyright of your photo, or maybe they are 'just' claiming the right to use it freely for ever. This practice is known as 'Rights Grabbing' and it is unethical.
Submit your photographs to such competitions and you lose valuable rights to your photo. If they have claimed the copyright it's no longer yours, you could actually be sued for using it in future. Or maybe they have claimed the right to use it freely for ever, to make money from it by licensing it to others, but you'll never see one penny of the money earned by licensing your photograph.
If you feel that such behaviour by companies and publicly funded organisations is wrong then you need to read the rules (terms & conditions) to check whether the competition rules are fair. Fair competitions only use the photographs to promote the competition, and no other purpose.
Help is at hand
A campaigning organisation called Artists' Bill of Rights is exposing this practice by investigating photo and other competitions seeking creative content. They list competitions that are safe to enter on their Rights On List.
If the competition you are thinking of entering is not listed in their lists, use the Artists Bill of Rights contact form and they will check it out for you.
There is more information on the Artists' Bill of Rights including how to understand terms and conditions and lists of organisations from around the world that support the ethical principles set out by Artists' Bill of Rights campaign.
If you would like to support the Artists' Bill of Rights you can do so by including the above logo on your website, facebook page, etc., and link it to http://artists-bill-of-rights.org