SEG

Copyright of Photographs

The subject of copyright is one that crops up at regular intervals on the SEmG e-list, and is a very complicated one. Obviously, the rules vary according to which country one is in, but as the SEmG membership is largely from the United Kingdom, and the web site is written within it, this page touches on the subject from the UK (and therefore the EU) perspective.

Below are a few basics:

  • Copyright is an unregistered right (unlike patents, registered designs or trade marks) and comes into effect immediately, as soon as something that can be protected is created and "fixed" in some way, e.g. on paper, on film, via sound recording, as an electronic record on the internet, etc. It therefore follows that one cannot copyright an idea!
  • There is no official action to take, no application to make, forms to fill in or fees to pay.
  • Ownership of a photographic negative does not automatically convey ownership of the copyright.
  • Copyright can pass to the heirs of the original copyright holder under some circumstances.
In the case of photographs taken since 1 January 1996:
  • Copyright protection is generally the life of the author (usually the photographer) plus 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the author dies.

Where the photographer is not known:

  • 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the photograph was made (i.e. taken); or,
  • 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the photograph is made available to the public if this happens during the period of 70 years from making.
  • It is important to note, though, that a photograph cannot be of unknown authorship if the identity of the author is once known and, if at any point the identity of the author becomes known, the life plus 70 year term applies.
  • Where a photograph is taken jointly by two or more people, the copyright term is calculated from the death of the last to die or the last known author to die.
  • Where the photograph has its origin outside the UK or another country of the EEA, the term of protection may also be shorter if it is shorter in the country of origin.

In the case of photographs taken between 1945 and 1996:

  • Copyright exists for at least as long as post 1 January 1996.
  • For a photograph taken on or after 1 June 1957 but before 1 August 1989 attract a term of protection of 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which the photograph was published, although any photographs still unpublished on 1 August 1989 are protected only until the end of 2039. These terms will continue to apply if they are longer than the terms worked out on the same basis as for photographs taken on or after 1 January 1996
  • For a photograph taken on of after 1 August 1989 but before 1 January 1996 and the author or all the authors are unknown, the copyright term is the longer of either 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which the photograph is first made available to the public or the term applying to photographs taken on or after 1 January 1996.

In the case of photographs taken before 1 January 1945:

  • For such photographs, copyright would have expired on 31 December 1994 or earlier. However, if such a photograph were protected on 1 July 1995 in another European Economic Area (EEA) state under legislation relating to copyright or related rights, copyright would have been revived from 1 January 1996 to the end of the term applying to photographs taken on or after 1 January 1996. In deciding whether a photograph was protected in another EEA state, it is, of course, the law of that state which must be interpreted and the criteria used to decide whether a photograph should receive any protection at all would need to be considered very carefully.
    The state where the longest copyright protection may have existed on 1 July 1995 is Germany, which generally had a term of life plus 70 years, but it is likely that not all photographs which qualified for copyright protection in the UK would have been protected in Germany. Copyright law in a number of other EEA states could also have given a longer term of protection for a photograph than in the UK.
    Where copyright in a photograph was revived on 1 January 1996, there are transitional provisions and savings for those who were exploiting or want to exploit the photograph.

Further information is available from:

Or in book form:

This page was written with information from the UK Patent Office web site.
The ABCD of UK Photographic Copyright book recommended by Jack Meatcher.

This page was created 8 June 2006

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