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Copyright: Photographic Reproductions

Some basic tips and links on copyright law.


In general, determing the rights associated with photographic reproductions is complicated, in part because an image may be encumbered by different "layers" of intellectual property rights, any of which potentially may restrict its use in certain ways. For this reason, when it comes to graphics, rights must be assessed on an individual, item-by-item basis. Factors to consider include whether the photographic reproduction is an exact replica of the underlying work and if the underlying work is protected by copyright. 

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From the Visual Resources Association Copy Photography Computator

Underlying work: original created entity, which is the subject, or content, of a photographic reproduction. This subject can be unique or a work produced in multiples, as long as it is somehow "fixed" in a tangible form.

Photographic reproduction: a surrogate image, the purpose of which is to record the physical appearance of an underlying work. There are two broad categories of photographic reproductions, which differ both in their intent and status as intellectual property:

  • Photographic documentation: an exact visual record of the underlying work that lacks both creative interpretation and commentary. For this reason, most photographic documentation reproductions are not protected by copyright since they lack the significant and discernible degree of original intellectual content needed to qualify.
  • Photographic interpretation: a photographic reproduction of an underlying work characterized by highly subjective variables, including angle of view, selection of background, and creative use of natural or artificial illumination. By virtue of these characteristics, photographic interpretations may be regarded as unique, derivative works in their own right and subject to copyright protection.

Licensing Agreements

Possession of a photographic reproduction does not constitute permission to distribute or publish it. Often, these rights must be obtained from the copyright holder through a licensing agreement, which outlines the terms of use for a photographic reproduction of a copyrighted work. Note that the permission granted in a licensing agreement is often restricted to "one-time use," meaning the user must obtain additional permissions in order to use a photographic reproduction multiple time or for a new project.