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An amateur photographer at a scenic rest stop sees a couple trying to compose a decent photo of themselves with the beautiful river in the background. This happens so often that as he approaches nobody even needs to say a word: They hand him their camera, and then step back so he can take their picture with it.

But in this hypothetical scenario something extraordinary happens: As he takes their picture a commercial airplane doing an emergency landing hits the river in the frame of the photo. So he happens to have pressed the shutter button on what turned out to be a very valuable picture. Let us supposed that a media buyer offers $10k to license the photo. Who owns the copyright to that photo?

On the one hand, the camera owners could argue that the photographer exercised no more "creative expression" than does a tripod or selfie stick. They just didn't have one handy, so they composed the photo and the photographer was just a mechanism to hold the camera and release the shutter. Therefore, they must own the copyright.

On the other hand, the photographer could argue that he "fixed the expression" of the creative work. As an experienced photographer he made subtle decisions regarding framing and timing of the photo that were outside of the control of the couple. Alternatively, if he hadn't been volunteering to photograph the couple with their camera, he could have instead been holding his own camera and captured the valuable element of the photo, which was the serendipitous emergency landing.

Does any law or jurisprudence inform who owns the copyright in this scenario?

If the aforementioned facts suggest it is the couple (and owners of the camera), then let us change one fact: After taking the couple's desired photo, the photographer sees the airplane out of the corner of his eye and, with no time to spare, shifts the camera to capture a separate spectacular photo of the water landing. Does he now have firm claim on the copyright to that photo?

And if so, can the photographer enforce his property rights in the photo, given that it was captured and is stored on equipment he does not own and cannot legitimately possess? I.e., can't the camera owner say, "OK, you own the photo copyright, but I own the medium where you put its only copy, and I will not sell or grant you access to that medium except for the full value of the photo."

2 Answers 2

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What a lovely question!

US Copyright law is clear: the author of a creative work owns the copyright unless it is work for hire. In this instance, the photographer is not doing work for hire so they own the copyright.

However, the photographer does not own a copy of the photograph – that is owned by the owner of the camera. The photographer cannot demand that they give him a copy but the parties can agree on such a transfer on whatever terms they like.

As the owner of a “physical” copy they can do what they like with that copy but they cannot duplicate it except as fair use or as licensed. They could sell the memory card to whomever they like but the new owner couldn’t copy it either so it would seriously limit publication. Similarly they could move the file provided there was only one copy. Arguably, they could make a print of it providing they deleted the electronic version without copyright violation.

Which brings us to who owns the copyright now. The camera owner can argue that the photographer has gifted the copyright to them. This is quite a strong argument as the parties' intentions at the time of arranging the taking of the photograph is that the photographer would have no further interest in it – after all he probably doesn’t want to hang a photo of some strangers on his wall. However, in many jurisdictions, including the , copyright transfers must be in writing.

As a fallback position the camera owner can argue there is an implicit license given even if copyright was not transferred. The scope of the license then becomes an issue. It is probably indisputable that the license is perpetual and royalty free. What is arguable is if the license allows commercial exploitation or only personal use. This is where the battle lines would be drawn and I don’t know how it would play out.

Other jurisdictions are different

For example, in Australia, copyright in a photo commissioned “for valuable consideration” for a “private or domestic purpose” vests in the commissioning party, not the photographer; even though this is not work for hire by an employee.

For the circumstances you describe, the purpose is “private or domestic” but there is no “valuable consideration” so the photographer owns the copyright in this case. However, if there was an agreement to “pay” the photographer (even one as simple as “I’ll take your family photo if you’ll take mine”) then the person who asked for the photo to be taken owns the copyright.

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A case this year (2023) addresses this:

Shah v. NYP Holdings, Inc., 2023 WL 266511 (N.D. Ill. Jan. 18, 2023).

From the court's ruling:

Shah’s claim raises an interesting question: who should hold copyright in a photograph when the photographer only takes the photo upon being asked? The law, with strict requirements for joint authorship, does not reflect the current circumstances surrounding cellphone photo etiquette. Nonetheless, Shah [the camera owner] has not alleged authorship under current Seventh Circuit law and the Court dismisses his copyright infringement claim.

Analysis by Eric Goldman.

Link to the case.

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    Is there any provision by which a photographer could yield copyright ownership while remaining anonymous? I think many people who would be happy to use a stranger's camera to snap a photo of the stranger would be reluctant to give their name and other identifying information to such a stranger. On a related note, if a film photographer were to photograph a person standing in front of a scene, and that was followed on the roll by a photo of them holding a sign agreeing to be featured in the preceding photograph on the film, would that be adequate a model release for purposes of...
    – supercat
    Apr 14, 2023 at 15:04
  • ...exhibiting the earlier photograph, even if no name or other contact information were given? With digital photography it may be harder to prove the authenticity of the sign or what photo it was associated with, but pictures on a photographic camera negative have a pretty solidly established chronology.
    – supercat
    Apr 14, 2023 at 15:06

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