Copyright vs. Print Release - A comparison of photo release forms

Aug 5, 2011

Topic: Copyright
Time Investment: 7 Minutes
Suggested Product: Copyright Transfer Agreement, Release Bundle


With the advancement of digital cameras and consumer demands for digital files, I understand how it can be confusing and scary to deal with the legalities.

If you hop in one social media group, you're told to never sell copyright.

If you hop in another, they say just give all copyrights away.

Your head is spinning. Let's get you situated and your feet on the ground.

By this end of this article, you'll know your intellectual property rights and will be confident in deciding whether to sell or license your photographs.


The Differences

There is a vast difference in intellectual property ownership and usage based on whether the photographer has released copyright or merely extended a print release to a client.  For the purposes of this article, we are assuming you, the photographer, are the sole creator of the work and are not employed by or contracted by any person/entity for transfer of rights.

In the United States, an owner of a work has exclusive rights:

  • Reproduce the work
  • Prepare "derivative works" (other works based on the original work)
  • Distribute copies of the work by sale, lease, or other transfer of ownership
  • Perform the work publicly
  • Display the work publicly

You, the photographer in this scenario, has the choice to retain copyright ownership or to sell it.


Copyright Release

This document transfers the copyrights from the photographer to the client.  At the moment of transfer, the copyright no longer belongs to the Photographer and she must cease all use of that photograph, including marketing uses.  With copyright transferred to client, the photographer would need a license from client back to photographer for use of the photographs in photographer's marketing.

Normally when client's say "I want all rights" what they mean is print rights, as we will discuss below.  However, a client may request a copyright release for privacy reasons, or simply to have rights management. Think for example, you take photographs of my family.  You do not transfer the copyright ownership to me. All of a sudden the photographs with the faces of my sweet babies end up on some not-so-awesome sites.  I am beholden to you, the owner, to financially and administratively invest in taking down the photograph.

In determining if you want to sell copyright, consider what you would actually do with those photographs if you retained copyright.  Are you willing to pursue infringers? Are you going to invest in copyright registration for when they are infringed? Do you plan to license them for stock sites, etc.? If the answer to most of these is no, consider selling your copyrights to your clients in situations where they request.


Print Release

In contrast to the copyright release, a print release extends a license the client to print for personal use while preserving the intellectual property ownership rights of the Photographer.  Note of caution, be sure to check the language of the print release. Here at TheLawTog®, we draft it specific to personal usage and allow commercial uses under a commercial license.

A print release is typically what clients are seeking.  The majority of time they simply want to print for their use and post on social media. This is the proper documentation to do so.

If you use a print release and retain the copyrights, you don't license a license back to use the photographs in marketing.  However, you may need a model release.  A model release is connected specifically to the property right of publicity, while copyright and print release are about the ownership of the photographs themselves.


As you can see, there are a variety of ways you can own photographs, sell licenses and work your photography business. It's all up to what you want to do, the benefits those actions will give you and the investment in legal protection.


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Snag our lawyer-drafted, all-in-one photography contract bundles that are instant-download, fill-in-the-blank here.



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