Advice - Photography / Copyright / Moral rights

The most important moral rights are the right to object if your work is distorted - to defend its "integrity" - and the right to an accurate credit. These are obviously important to protecting and spreading your reputation - and without your reputation you have no work.

The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (see link below) made moral rights explicit for the first time in UK law. The exact rights are:

  • the right to be identified as the author of the work;
  • the right to object to false attribution of the work - that is, having someone else's photo credited to you, or presentation of an altered photo as your work; and
  • the right to object to "derogatory treatment" of the work - also referred to as the right to protect the integrity of the work.

In plain English, photographers have the rights to a credit, to prevent anyone else claiming authorship, and to protect the authenticity of their photographs. This last is particularly important now that computer technology makes digital manipulation so easy and so hard to detect.

The "integrity" of a photograph can be damaged by manipulation that distorts its content - for example adding or removing a person or an object. It can also be damaged by the context in which the photograph is used - a fairly clear example would be using a news picture in advertising to imply endorsement of a product. This can, though, be difficult (and therefore expensive) to argue in court.

But there are (of course) exceptions to the above.

  • In particular the moral rights to a credit (identification) and to object to derogatory treatment (to defend the integrity of the work) do not apply to any work made for the purpose of reporting current events, or for newspapers, magazines and similar periodicals, or appearing in encyclopaedias, dictionaries or yearbooks.
  • The right to a credit is effective only if it is "asserted": the phrase "Moral rights asserted" or even "All rights reserved" on photo identification stickers and their digital equivalents and on invoices seems to be sufficient "assertion".
  • Employed photographers have no right to a credit on photos taken in the course of their employment.
  • Employed photographers have no right to defend the integrity of any picture that is used to report news or current affairs or appears in a newspaper or magazine. They do have this right in other work that has appeared with a credit.
  • UK law makes it possible for these rights to be given up or "waived" anyway.

Clients using laundry-list contracts often demand that photographers "waive" their moral rights, even where the law already rules them out for the uses that the photographer is licensing. Such pressure needs to be resisted. The point of it, in so far as there is one beyond grabbing everything the lawyer can think of and most things they can not, is to create the impression that waiving moral rights is normal business practice.

We are not aware of any court cases that have settled the question of whether the exception that excludes important moral rights for work in newspapers or magazines applies to online publication. (If there were one, it would be hard to establish what Parliament intended in 1988, when the World-Wide Web was launched in 1990.)

Of course in the case of photographs, publishing a picture that has been altered in any way beyond correcting colour balance, reasonable cropping and so forth is wrong - unless it is clearly labelled as manipulated and therefore an illustration, not reportage.

And another thing...

Photographers who do studio or wedding work as well as the kinds covered in this Guide need to know about the "fourth moral right". This forbids them publishing, broadcasting or exhibiting photos taken for "private domestic" clients (without the client's permission). It also appears to mean that it is illegal for newspapers to publish a "pick-up" photo - for example a studio photographer's family portrait - unless it has the explicit permission of the person who "commissioned" it as well as the holder of the copyright, and as well as permission to borrow the physical photo.

But remember, you own copyright

Some photographers are confused by our complaints about the exclusion of moral rights in work done for newspapers and magazines. Remember: you own copyright - the economic rights - in every picture you take as a freelance, until and unless you assign it to someone else.

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Text © Mike Holderness & previous contributors; Moral rights asserted. The collection (database right) © National Union of Journalists. Comments to please. You may find the glossary helpful.

The National Union of Journalists must not, can not and would not wish to dictate rates or terms of engagement to members or to editors. The information presented here is for guidance and as an aid to equitable negotiation only.

Suggestions apply to contracts governed by UK law only. In any event, nothing here should be construed as legal advice.