This is aimed at all photographers creating images for customers, especially wedding and portrait. This is aimed at no photographer(s) in particular.
What do your customers know about copyright? Perhaps I should ask what you, as a photographer, know about copyright? This is an important issue that is as timely now as ever.
Having worked for the past decade in photo specialty retail and photofinishing, this is a topic that I am quite familiar with. I don't claim to be an expert, yet I have done my best to inform myself with the resources that are available. If you need expert advice, please consult an attorney that has experience in this area, I can not be held liable for any actions based on what I have written here.
Key points about copyright.
You, as the photographer, own the copyright to the image the moment you press the shutter button.
The customer's possession of a print/memory card/CD, etc. does not imply or provide permission to make copies.
A person's appearance in a photo or video does not give them ownership for purpose of copyright.
There is no automatic fair use.
A copyright is literally the right to make copies.
Customers do not understand copyright. Many people feel that because they have paid a photographer to take some photographs, and they now have prints of some of those photographs, that they can do whatever they want with them. "But I paid for the photographs" is a common argument that I have heard. Better yet, "I paid $1500 and I can't even make a copy of this photo?"
As photographers we need to do a better job of educating and informing customers about what they are actually paying for, and what they can and cannot do with the images.
Providing permission to your customers. Although it's not a business model that I would choose, there are many photographers that shoot a large number of photos and then provide a CD/DVD with all the images to their client.
I'll be brutally honest here, many of the photographs providing discs are quite new to photography, and often there is nothing to distinguish these images as "professional". As a photo finisher, I would probably believe these to be snapshots provided by friends and family, and would have no problem with making prints.
If the images do indeed look professional, or if the photographer has put their name on the disc, or left other indication of who took them, I simply will NOT print them without a written release. The risk is simply too great. This, of course, frustrates the customers who paid a photographer to get a disc of images.
Verbal permission is NOT enough. "They said I could get prints made anywhere." That very well may be true, or maybe it isn't. If all you do is hand your client a CD and tell them to go make prints, you are setting them up for trouble. If you are giving you clients permission to make copies, always give it in writing.
One of my favorite forms of release is provided by Sears portrait studios. If a customer pays to have their images on a CD, a written release is provided on the CD itself. It is always there with the images. I know that Sears does this, so I don't even need to open the release file and I will make whatever prints the customer wants. I will check other CDs for similar releases, although it seems that I rarely find them.
If you don't put your release on the disc, please do provide a written release that your client can use when trying to make prints. It doesn't have to be fancy, just a general statement saying that you give permission for them to make prints.
Don't give everything away. I've seen a number of releases. Some are very simple, providing printing rights, and others just give away all rights to the images.
Recently I received a release that stated, "I [photographer] of [studio] release all right to [client] to copy, print, email, etc..." It was sufficient for me to go ahead and do the printing for the customer, but it's also sufficient for the customer to do whatever he/she wants to do with the images, including using them for commercial purposes.
One of my favorites of recent times is much better worded, in my opinion. It says, "I, [photographer], photographer and owner of [studio] hereby grant permission to the following customer to make duplicate copies of the photographs in hand. These photographs are to be used for the customer's personal use only and not to be sold or displayed publicly." I love the "personal use" statement as it limit what the customer is allowed to use them for. Note that they cannot sell them and they can't put them in a gallery somewhere, two things which would be allowed by the former release.
Another release that I have on file abides by "personal use", but it also states that "[studio] shall always maintain the image copyright." Despite giving the client permission to make prints, it is important that the photographer asserts and maintains their ownership of copyright. I would think that it would be only in very rare or extreme cases that the photographer would choose to give up any claim to copyright.
This release further on states that "Altering any editing I've done to your image is prohibited and protected under copyright law." The photographer has added this statement in an effort to protect their artistic vision. The extent that "altering" is truly prohibited by law would best be determined by a copyright attorney. Regardless of actual protection by law, a clause of this sort is likely to have the desired affect. Most customers will not want to challenge this.
Reasons not to provide a copyright release. It's sad to say that many people now expect to have a CD/DVD of all their images, and the rights to make whatever prints they want. For the serious professional there are reasons not to do this.
1. Make more money. The client has to come back to you for reprints.
2. Maintain quality control. Use know and trust where the prints are being made.
3. Protect your reputation. See #2, only a quality product bears your name.
There may be more reasons that you can think of, but I think that these three are some of the most important reasons not to be handing out copyright releases to every client.
As always, it is up to you how you run your business. Copyright is an area where you owe to yourself to be educated and informed, and to make sure that your customers are too. One of the easiest ways to brush up on copyright law (at least in the United States) is to visit copyright.gov. Not only can you read the full text of the law, which can be a bit intimidating, yet helpful at times, but they also have the key points in an easy to read format and a FAQs section. Again, if there is something that you are not clear on, a copyright attorney will always be your best bet.
I hope that this has been helpful, and at the very least made you think about this important subject.