Do I have the right to enforce my copyright on product photos taken whilst employed by the manufacturer?
July 5, 2011 7:13 AM   Subscribe

What are my rights regarding photos taken of a company's products while I was employed there?

I worked for a local company until recently and had been shooting product photos to fill out my time. I got canned unceremoniously and in the meantime the photos I've taken have appeared on the NY Times food blog and in the printed edition of Men's Journal.
I'm trying to see past the usual "fuck those guys" mentality and see if there isn't a way to enforce my copyright on the photos so I can get paid. I retained the RAW images and the originals had my name in the EXIF data.
I'm assuming that if I do this properly I'll need to submit copies of the images to the US Copyright Office, but after that?
I'm not sure I have any recourse considering that the images contain copyrighted product imagery.

Should I pursue this or should I just take a live-and-learn approach and forget about it?
posted by tmt to Work & Money (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I should mention that this was never listed in my job description.
posted by tmt at 7:15 AM on July 5, 2011

was there a NDA or something like that signed, or did you sign anything when you left saying you can't use it?

Further, for what purposes were the photo's taken, for work? or for (lack of better work) pleasure/personal use? Regardless of if it was in your job description, if it was taken for something and/or used for work related purposes, you are not in a good place... if they were taken for your own purposes and you had permission, you should be fine...
posted by fozzie33 at 7:19 AM on July 5, 2011

Best answer: (Not a lawyer)

You took the pictures as part of your job? You might be out of luck.

" Q. Who owns the copyright?

A. Generally, the person who creates a work is the owner of the copyright. Thus, independent artists, photographers and writers own the copyrights to their works. The only exceptions to this rule occur when a work is created by an employee as part of his or her job duties or when a work is created under a written ìwork-for-hireî agreement.

For example, free-lance photographers own the copyrights to the images that they allow to newspapers or magazines to publish. However, absent an agreement that provides otherwise, a newspaper or magazine will own the copyright to all works that their staff journalists and photographers create as part of their job responsibilities. The same is true for art directors working in advertising agencies. The only way that the copyright could belong to the creator in these situations is if there is an assignment of the copyright. Of course, any stories, photographs or artwork created by employees on their own time, would belong to the authors of the works."

posted by ghharr at 7:19 AM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Were you shooting on company time? Did you have a deal worked out to retain copyright? It sounds to me like this stuff belongs to your employer now. I think you would have a hard time proving otherwise.
posted by Gilbert at 7:20 AM on July 5, 2011

you can contact this person, seems like they are kind of an expert...
posted by fozzie33 at 7:23 AM on July 5, 2011

Best answer: If you did it on company time (and especially if you were asked to do it, whether it is in your job description or not) then it is unambiguously work for hire.

You do not have any claim whatsoever on the copyright. You retain the right to display the work in a portfolio for self-promotional purposes but that's about it. Do not attempt to fiel for copyright or, worse, resell the photos elsewhere. You will be in for a world of financial and litigious hurt.
posted by 256 at 7:25 AM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: There was no contract or NDA signed. The photos were taken for use on their website and they have since expanded on it. Their policy when responding to requests for photos was to just dig around and find one that met the requirements for the article or story.
posted by tmt at 7:26 AM on July 5, 2011

Response by poster: I think you guys have roundly answered my question. Live and learn, I suppose.
posted by tmt at 7:28 AM on July 5, 2011

A contract or NDA could only help you here. Lacking a specific contract assigning you some rights, the default position is for your employer-not you- to be considered, for all legal purposes, the author of the work.
posted by 256 at 7:29 AM on July 5, 2011

Best answer: Yeah, I'm not sure why you think you have claim to those images. It's not your product, you weren't hired as a freelancer or contractor to create those images. And, even so, if you were hired as a freelancer, most companies won't sign something saying that images of their product can't be used in the way they see fit -- to promote their product.

And, even if they DID sign such an agreement, they probably wouldn't have too much trouble weaseling out of it in court.

If you have any interest in pursuing this field, the publication of those photos can be a boon to you. If you took nice enough shots that they represent well in publication, you can put those in your portfolio. However! I would be cautious about where you put that portfolio. If you have a nice public portfolio on a website, your former employer might get a bit persnickety* about you representing their work as your own. I'd keep several paper copies for a physical portfolio and maybe some digital scans for creating a pdf folio that you would send on request.

Back in the day, the Graphic Artists Guild handbook was the resource for this stuff. Most if not all of the same concepts apply to photographers.

*not a legal term
posted by amanda at 8:24 AM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I will definitely work it into a portfolio. Thanks for the good suggestions.
posted by tmt at 8:55 AM on July 5, 2011

Hey ... I know i is going against the grain ... but

It wasn't in your contract ... and your name is in the exif data ... does that mean it was your camera?

I would suggest that you might have some wiggle room if you were using your own tools to perform an additional function which was not part of your job.

perhaps ... not really my field of law.
posted by jannw at 10:19 AM on July 5, 2011

I think you're in a "work for hire" situation. But, you could request that they give you a photo credit line. Can't hurt to ask.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:41 AM on July 5, 2011

Response by poster: I used all of my own equipment. Camera, lighting, etc.

I think that doing it on the side of my assigned tasks without a separate contract for the creative work has sabotaged me. Had I known I was going to get canned, I probably would have pushed for it.
posted by tmt at 7:34 PM on July 5, 2011

maybe you can get the copyright back so that if it is used again you will get the royalty?
posted by gretchin at 9:10 AM on July 6, 2011

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