My wife and I wanted to save money as we were preparing to get married a few weeks ago, so we had my sister take our engagement photos with my Canon EOS 7D. She's not exactly a professional photographer, so I chose all the locations, framed the shots, and chose all of the camera settings. All she had to do was point and click. They turned out really well, so I did some massaging in Photoshop and sent one to Walgreen's to have it printed.

We got a call from the photo lab saying that we needed a copyright release form from the photographer before they would give us the photos. We explained my sister took the photos with my camera and that I personally did all of the editing. He explained that since the photos looked professional, he had to assume that they were and insisted on a copyright release form, even though they were taken by my sister with my camera. Since I was over 1,000 miles away from my sister and I was in no mood to argue with this man, I kindly explained to him that we'd take our photo to Costco to have it printed there instead. We got the photo from Costco the next day, no questions asked.

I'm not saying that the man at Walgreen's was wrong or that Costco doesn't follow the rules. I'd just like to know the U.S. laws for copyrights on photographs for future reference.

When does a photographer obtain a copyright for their photo?

How does a photographer write a copyright release form?

Who does the photo belong to once a copyright release form has been given to a client?

What does the release form allow a client to do with the photo?

I'd like to know just in case I take any 'professional-looking' photos in the future (which would be flattering, really).

  • \$\begingroup\$ This strikes me as the odd part of this story: how did Walgreens get the idea that the photos weren't the copyright of the person who sent them to be printed? The 'they looked professional' part doesn't add up and when they phoned up why not simply state that they were your photos? \$\endgroup\$
    – user9817
    Aug 28, 2012 at 8:32
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @ClaraOnager: I think they have probably been sued before. They're taking as many precautions as possible so that it doesn't happen again. Thinking back on it, it would have been much easier to say that I took them using a tripod and a timer, but when I talk to people, my first instinct is to be painfully honest when answering their questions. I'm not that quick a thinker. \$\endgroup\$
    – Justin
    Aug 28, 2012 at 17:29

1 Answer 1


Copyright is granted to the photographer at the moment the photgraph is taken. The photographer does not have to do anything to obtain the copyright.

Your sister owns the copyright and thus has the right to make copies of the image. Technically you do not. Even if you took the images yourself, Walgreens doesn't know this, and is covering themselves against a potential lawsuit if they print professional images which you did not have permission to reproduce.

They are looking for a document which says "I own the copyright to these images and grant Walgreens permission (royalty-free) to print them for John Doe".

A copyright release could grant permission to do all sorts of things with the images, but in this case would be limited to printing them.

Here is Walmart's policy, with downloadable forms. You'll note there is one if you are the owner of the images.

  • \$\begingroup\$ His camera + he sets up the shot + she presses the shutter button = she owns the copyright? \$\endgroup\$
    – DHall
    Aug 22, 2012 at 19:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't believe the law is that cut and dried. Instructing somebody else to push a button doesn't mean the button-pusher owns the copyright. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eric
    Aug 22, 2012 at 20:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MikeW - I totally disagree with your statement - in this case it is not possible to determine a single copyright owner, given that the shots were a "team effort" - that would be like saying that the guy who paints "STOP" on the road owns the copyright to that "artwork". Justin - good on you for getting professional results :-) \$\endgroup\$ Aug 23, 2012 at 7:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ Any reasonable person would agree, but if you are asking technically who owns the copyright, it is the person who pressed the shutter. Even if you argue it was a team effort, the sister at least jointly owns copyright on the images and a printer might reasonably require a release. Next time use the self timer! :) \$\endgroup\$
    – MikeW
    Aug 23, 2012 at 10:40

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