iPhones and Copyrights in Photos

Imagine you’re somewhere in public.  You set up your iPhone camera, hand it to someone and ask them to take a photo of you.  You suggest they shoot you on your good side.  The person complies and hands you back your phone.  Now comes the interesting part.  Who owns the copyright?

Here’s a great piece from Technology & Marketing Blog that examines that question in some detail.  The article concerns the case of Vivek Shah. Mr. Shah attended a number of Hollywood parties and got his picture taken with various celebrities.  He posted those photos on Facebook and his IMDB page.  When you later got into trouble with the law, news outlets published the photos in their coverage.   He sued for copyright infringement.

In the court’s view, it wasn’t a tough question. As it noted:

“Shah alleges that he gave the camera to another individual to take each photo. Because those individuals, not Shah, captured the photographs, they are the “author[s] … who actually create[d] the work[s]” and would be entitled to copyright in those photographs. Shah has thus not alleged that he is the sole author of any of the photographs.”

That finding led the court to dismiss the copyright claim.  So, what is the takeaway?  If you are the subject of the photo and want to own the copyright, you’ll need the person who snapped the photo to sign a written agreement transferring the copyright.  It might be easier to take a selfie.

And if you are an outlet looking to run a photo of the subject of a news story, don’t assume you can simply scrape it off of Facebook.  Someone owns that copyright, and it’s likely not the subject of the photo.  Better to be safe than sorry.