I am digitally archiving photographs taken by my deceased relative. Most of the time it is clear they took the pictures, but once in a while in a film roll there is a picture of the relative, clearly taken by someone else, in the scenery otherwise photographed by the relative. Presumably the relative arranged the scene and set up the camera, the other person just pushed the shutter release button.

Is there a case to be made that my relative holds the copyright to such not exactly selfie images, or should I state "copyright unknown" on them?

These images are private in nature and have never been published, though sometimes they might have some historical interest as they depict structures and landscapes long gone, and such images will be published (not for profit). This obviously doesn't matter from the copyright point of view, but might still affect the answer.

  • Vote to reopen as per my stance on mod closure. May 4, 2021 at 23:22
  • 1
    A duplicate is a duplicate, and questions being correctly closed should not be reversed purely because it was done by a moderator.
    – user4657
    May 8, 2021 at 22:04
  • @Dale M This is not a duplicate. quite similar, but significantly different. In the so-called duplicate the "volunteer" took a shot never intended by the camera owner. that makes a difference Voting to reopen May 8, 2021 at 23:15

1 Answer 1


Copyright is held by the person who creates the work, not the person who owns the device (typewriter, camera, chisel). However, copyright may be held by the person who hired the creator to create the work, that is, the work may be a "work for hire". In the US, this refers to "a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment". As you describe it, this is not a work for hire. It is also possible that A might have a contract with B where B takes pictures for money and transfers copyright to A (presumably not applicable).

Copyright in pictures taken by the relative is held by the relative. Copyright in the pictures of the relative might be jointly held by the relative and the person operating the camera. The creative (protected) elements include not just the act of pressing the button, it includes all sorts of setup stuff. Then the relative and the other person may hold joint copyright in the work. Since copyright is about protecting a person's creative work and it is unclear whether the operator contributed creatively to the work, it's impossible to say whether certain of those pictures are "Copyright Relative and Anonymous". If I hand a person my camera and say "Take a picture of me", that doesn't constitute the kind of creativity on my part that is protected by copyright law (whereas a more detailed description of what should be the camera angle relative to the rock and the sun etc. would involve requisite creativity). Lacking any substantive information on how the picture was created, it is hard to assert with confidence who holds copyright.

In the 19th century, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the photographer as owner of the photograph in Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony, 111 U.S. 53 (1884).

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