Photography & Filming

Photography and the law: Top 3 legal issues in 2023

So, you’ve invested countless hours perfecting your photography skills and are finally ready to share your work. But after publishing your photos on social media, you find someone has used your work without your permission.

Imagine posting a beautiful photo on Flickr, only to have a big company use it without your permission. That happened to Art Dragulis when Kappa Mag Group found his photograph of Maryland. Dragulis had licensed the image under Creative Commons BY-SA-2.0, which allowed commercial use with attribution. But when he sued Kappa Mag Group for not obtaining his permission, he lost the case — a cautionary tale for photographers.

Protecting your creativity is more than just being creative. To thrive in your photography business, you should understand legal matters like taxes, contracts, and essential photography laws, including copyright.

Don’t let legal issues kill your photography passion. Our article helps you choose a suitable registration model and navigate copyright issues. Protect your art and stay in the industry for years to come.

Registration and tax legalities of running a photography business 

Running a photography service in the United States requires understanding and complying with several legal requirements. The first thing you need to settle is whether or not you should register your business and which registration option suits you best.

As a self-employed photographer, you can register an enterprise, including sole proprietorship, partnership, Limited Liability Company (LLC), or corporation. Your choice of registration will determine the nature of your tax burden, as photographers are required by law to pay federal, state, and local taxes on their income, as well as sales tax on any products sold.


A corporation is a separate legal entity from its owners, meaning they are not personally liable for the business’s debts or legal issues arising from its commercial activities. That means the owners can’t get in trouble for the business’s debts or any legal problems that happen because of it. The cost to register a corporation differs depending on your state, but it’s usually between $120 to $1000.

Regarding taxes, corporations have two options: “C” or “S.” The “C” corporation offers the most protection from liability and has publicly owned shares, but it also comes with a heavier tax burden and complex reporting requirements. On the other hand, the “S” corporation is only for taxation and is available to privately owned shareholders with limited liability protection.

Both types of companies can exist indefinitely unless shareholders decide to dissolve or merge the company with another one.


A Limited Liability Company (LLC) is a popular option for photographers seeking limited protection from debt and legal issues.

The cost of registering an LLC can vary between states and ranges from $50 to $500. LLC owners can file their taxes as a pass-through entity, either as an “S” corporation or a separate legal entity. Pass-through entities include sole proprietorships, partnerships, LLCs, and “S” corporations, which pass their income and tax obligations to their owners.

Entities like this don’t have to deal with double taxation — when the corporation pays tax on its returns and again on the shareholders when it distributes profits as dividends. So, self-employed photographers can save money by paying taxes as a pass-through company instead of as a separate legal entity.


A partnership is like a dance between two or more people moving in sync toward success. Whether you want general or limited liability protection in partnership, the registration cost is usually less than $500.

Just like in a sole proprietorship, partners in a partnership don’t have a legal separation between them and their business. They report all income and losses as part of their tax returns.

Sole proprietorship 

A sole proprietorship is the most accessible type of business to set up. Depending on the state, it usually costs less than $300 to register. In this kind of business, the owner and the business are seen as the same thing by the IRS. So, the owner reports the business’s income or losses on their tax return. This way of filing taxes can lower the tax bill because personal tax rates can be lower than corporate rates.

Additionally, sole proprietors can take advantage of deductions and credits available to small businesses, such as home office, internet, health insurance, travel expenses, or retirement plan contributions deductions, further reducing their tax liability.

Female photographer working in her studio hands close up and digital camera on foreground

FAQ for photographers: Copyrights and model releases

In the era of social media, copyright infringement is on the rise. Photographers are often the victims of a violation by individuals or corporations. But what about when photographers don’t understand their actions’ implications? We’re here to answer some of the photographers’ most common questions about copyright law and help you protect your creative work.

Do I own the copyright in my photographs?

The answer is yes, but there are some exceptions you need to know. For example, if you take a picture as part of your job, your employer might own the rights to it. Depending on your agreement with the company, you may still own the rights to the images you create, but the company can use them for a specific purpose and for a certain amount of time.

As a photographer, protecting your work and getting paid fairly are crucial. To ensure this, you should understand your rights as the owner of your photos and the rights of others to use them. Learn about copyright law and the different licenses you can use to make the best decisions about how others can use your work.

Do I need a model release form?

It may not always be required, but having a release form on hand can protect you from potential photographer legal issues.

A model release form (or a photo release form) grants permission from the person or people in the photograph to use their likeness for commercial or promotional purposes. Creating a model release form is relatively simple. Just ensure the document includes the name and contact information of the person giving permission, a description, and the intended use of the photograph. Be clear about the intended use to avoid confusion or misunderstandings.

Should I register and trademark my business name?

The short answer is yes. If you own a photography business, it’s crucial to trademark your business name to protect your brand from imitators. Registration costs up to $350, and the process may vary depending on whether you already use or intend to use the trademark.

Once you have registered your trademark, you will have the legal right to exclusively use your business name in connection with your photos and services. This will prevent others from using a confusingly similar name and protect your brand identity. Additionally, registering your trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) will make it easier for you to enforce your rights in court if someone does infringe upon your trademark.

How do I trademark my business?

There are four steps to take:

  1. Search your brand name on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database or state and local registries to ensure no one else is using it.
  2. File an application with USPTO with relevant information about your business and service. You’ll also need to choose the type of trademark you want to file for (word mark, design mark, or combination mark).
  3. Wait for USPTO to review your application. The length of the review process depends on USPTO’s backlog and the nature of your application and can take several months or years.
  4. If your application is approved, you’ll get a trademark registration certificate. This will give you legal protection against other businesses infringing on your trademark.

It’s important to note that you can also hire a trademark attorney to help you with the process. They can conduct a more thorough search of existing trademarks, advise you on the best type of trademark to file for, and handle the application process.

How can I protect my trademark once it’s registered?

Use the ® symbol as soon as you register a trademark. Keep an eye on the USTPO register for any sneaky copycats. If you find any unauthorized use, don’t hesitate to take action. Send a cease and desist letter or notify the USTPO. And if all else fails, lawyer up and seek damages for any harm to your brand.

If you plan to expand your business overseas, it’s a good idea to consider registering your trademark internationally. Register your trademark internationally to keep it safe in countries where you have customers or business partners.

How do I protect my images on social media?

Even though you have automatic copyright to your original work, you may consider registering your ownership with the U.S. Copyright Office (USCO). Registration means you can put a copyright notice and symbol © alongside the work you publish. You may also use watermarks to discourage theft and unauthorized use.

To prevent other people from using your work without permission, use reverse search tools to find similar images online. If you see anyone using your work without permission, you can ask them to remove it or take legal action against them.

How do I protect the images on my website?

Use copyright notices and watermarks to deter unauthorized use. Consider leveraging digital rights management (DRM) tools such as licenses, encryption, and keys that prevent people from downloading or copying your pictures without providing the necessary keys. Lastly, ensure that your website has a terms-of-use policy that describes how people or institutions can use the photos on your site.

Even with all these measures, using your images for commercial purposes without permission may be possible. But the point is to make the copyright so apparent that any violations expose the relevant individuals or institutions to liability.

What should I do if my images are used without my permission?

You should always take action to defend your rights. Start by contacting the person or company using your images and asking them to take them down immediately. If they refuse, you may need to seek legal action by sending a cease and desist letter or filing a lawsuit to enforce your rights.

To show that you own the rights to the images in question, provide proof of ownership, such as registration documents. Keep detailed records of any communication or agreements related to the use of your work. Remember, protecting your images proactively by using watermarks or registering your copyright is better than waiting for someone to infringe upon your rights.

Two business partners signing a document

Agreements and relationships with clients 

If you’re a photographer, it’s essential to keep those communication channels crystal clear between you and your clients. Documenting the terms of your agreements is a great way to keep everyone on the same page throughout the project. This will prevent any disagreements or conflicts from popping up. Moreover, having contracts demonstrates that you are a professional who takes your clients’ business seriously and always fulfills your responsibilities.

Should I have a contract with my clients?

The short answer is yes. A good photography contract sets clear expectations and responsibilities for both parties, helps prevent misunderstandings, and includes dispute resolution mechanisms. It’s not legally binding without signatures, so make sure you and your client sign on the dotted line.

What should I include in my photography contract?

A photography contract must contain specific provisions for it to be legally binding between the parties. Further, it must articulate the exact terms of engagement between the parties, including payment terms and contract duration. Though the specific provisions may differ, depending on the context, a standard contract includes the following:

  • Full legal names and contact information of the parties;
  • The scope of services you will provide to the client indicating relevant details such as the nature of photographs and format for final images;
  • Payment terms specifying the amount and due dates of fees, deposits, final payments, or penalties;
  • Copyright and usage rights, including ownership, usage fees, licensing, or restrictions on use;
  • Cancellation and refund policy that specifies the circumstances under which either party may cancel the agreement and any fees or refunds that apply;
  • Liability and insurance indicating each party’s responsibility for damages or injuries during the photography session and any insurance cover that should be in place; or
  • A governing law clause naming the state laws and legislation that govern the contract.

As a photographer, there are many legal matters to take into account, so it’s important to take advantage of any opportunity to lighten the load. Working with legal documents can be challenging, requiring thorough preparation and a clear understanding of the topic to ensure everything is done correctly and essential details aren’t missed. Thankfully, services like Lawrina offer premade photography contracts that make the process easier. Simply enter the necessary information, download the document, and sign it.

Other photographer legal issues you should know

Legal matters for photographers go beyond creating contracts and copyright laws. There are three additional points to take care of.

  • Private property and shoot locations
    Always remember to get documented permission from property owners before capturing their property in your work. And don’t forget to check for permits when taking commercial photographs in parks, beaches, or other public spaces.
  • Consent forms for minors or animals
    When working with minors or animals, obtaining consent forms from their parents or guardians is essential. The consent form should outline the details of the shoot and explain how the footage will be used. And, of course, always make sure your subjects are comfortable and safe throughout the shoot.
  • Drone and aerial photography regulations
    Don’t forget to stay grounded in the law even when using a drone. If you plan to use drones or take aerial photographs, comply with all regulations and obtain any necessary permits. Sometimes, you may need to apply for a special license or receive clearance from local authorities.

Wrap Up

Protect your photography business by knowing the legal nitty-gritty. Have a solid contract and get appropriate photo releases from your subjects. Carefully consider the scope of licenses you issue alongside usage rights. And don’t forget to consult with a legal professional if necessary. You may join an association like the AOP (Association of Photographers) for free legal advice and industry updates.

If photography is not just a hobby but your whole life, it’s better to deal with all the legal aspects right away and focus on what you love.

This post is sponsored by Lawrina

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