data Fri, Jul, 2022

When Photography Copyright started – The Origins of Copyright

Curious about the history of photography copyright law? Copyright is currently classified among the most basic rights which shall be granted to anyone creating art. But it was not always the case and a lot of photos simply…get stolen. Let’s go on a short journey back to ancient times to see if the first artists had any clue about copyright protection. Then let’s travel through the next centuries to find out more about the history of copyright and image copyright law.



We have just landed in ancient Rome. Except for the emperors feasting in gowns, there are also painters, writers and musicians who have no clue that such a thing as copyright may even exist. Copying and redistributing art for profit was not really a popular practice in ancient times. Probably also due to the fact that the majority of the society could not even read and write. There was simply no need for such a thing as copyright. Artists were just paid for their work. Copyright on images was assumed.



From Rome, we are off to another European country where one of the first documented cases of plagiarism was identified and highly criticized. It was 6th century AD, Ireland. Interestingly the first copyright infringement was coping book. St. Columba who copied a book by St. Finnian. He did that word by word, arguing that the words of God needed to be spread among a bigger amount of people. The dispute was taken to the king and it was St. Finnian who was declared to be right. The king used a simple comparison to justify his verdict: ’To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy‘. We need to remember that back then books were having images painted by mostly authors of texts. Thus, somehow we can assume that the king also recognized copyright on images from St. Finnian.



After this episode, there was not really much going on in terms of copyright for a thousand years. Until the technology and politics started to rule the world. It was the printing machine which evoked the issue of the copyright. In 1501, Pope Alexander VI issued the Papal Bull against the unlicensed printing of books. Not much later, The Worshipful Company of Stationers & Newspaper Makers was created. After the English Civil war, (without the king who was replaced by the Parliament), the Stationers’ monopoly was not that politically useful and finally denied by the Parliament. Right after the association broke up, the newspapers popped up and started to be used as propaganda. It did not take long to notice the importance of copyright regulation. It was Jonathan Swift, an Anglo-Irish satirist, essayist and political pamphleteer, who made a public statement about it, saying:

One man studies seven years, to bring a finished piece into the world, and a pirate printer, reprints his copy immediately, and sells it for a quarter of the price… such things call for an act of Parliament.

In order to address the concerns of the English writers and booksellers, in 1710 Parliament enacted the Statute of Anne. The 1710 act established the principles of authors’ ownership of copyright. A fixed term of protection of copyrighted work of fourteen years, renewable for fourteen more if the author was still alive, also came into force.



From England, we shall fly to the U.S. There the Congress claimed that in order to support a constant development of science and arts, the authors’ and inventors’ rights to their writings and discoveries should be protected. The 1st copyright act was established in 1790 but it was not applicable in the U.S. In the 21st century, the U.S. still continued to take a lot from the rich European cultural heritage for free and weak copyright would make the art really cheap. However, it did not take long until the situation reverted. At the end of the 20th century, America became a dominant cultural exporter. The situation for copyright owners improved. Not only writers and painters were protected by copyright. Protection gained also a new kind of art: photography.

In the following years, the conditions of the copyrights evolved. The duration of copyright protection (also on images) significantly increased From the first extension in 1831 of 28 years with 14 years renewal up to the life of the author plus the 70 years in 1998.  Another important moment in the history of Copyright was the Berne Convention (1886) which differed significantly from both British and American Copyright Laws. While those were rather focused on commerce, the Convention mostly favoured the rights of the authors.



The Berne Convention was followed by the Berlin Act signed by a big number of European countries such as Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Tunisia and the United Kingdom. The United States decided to send a delegation to follow the meetings but did not sign the act. The 1976 U.S. Copyright Act harmonized the U.S. Copyright terms with the international standards. Under this act, a photographer’s work is protected by copyright from the moment of its creation. 6 years later, in 1988, President Ronald Regan signed the bill adding the U.S. to the Berne Convention.

It was the cultural development, scientific discoveries and the course of history which made people understand that the intellectual property is a tangible thing that should belong to its creator. Once you take a closer look at a picture, you can see parts of what was in the photographer’s head while a photo was taken and sense the individual perspective. So the right to a certain piece of work comes naturally. The government is only responsible for execution in case of any violations. Even though the copyright seems to be guaranteed, do not forget to register your artworks. Find out here why it is so important and how to do it.



In the history of photographers gaining their protection, there were three crucial moments throughout the 20th century.

Until 1988, the automatic ownership of the copyright by a photographer was not always obvious. There were other factors that might have had a prevailing influence, e.g. if a third party commisioned an image, the copyright would belong to the commissioner. Digging deeper in the law from 1911, you would find another shocking regulation. According to the law back then, if you owned the negatives, you would be considered as the author of a picture and the owner of the copyright.

Introduced in 1988

The rights finally stayed with the right ones – meaning: creators or employers who requested a certain type of work while the conditions were agreed and the contract signed by both parties.

The next decade brought an important document called DMCA that came into force in 1998. The acronym stands for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that implemented treaties signed at the World Intellectual Property Organization Geneva Conference. This conference took place in 1996. Among the issues covered, there was one of a great value for photographers. The Copyright Act states that when an Internet Service Provider is not legally responsible for transmitting information that could infringe a copyright, the ISP is obliged to remove materials from the websites on which the copyright infringement took place.



The DMCA takedown notice opened new doors and possibilities for the photo rights’ protection. Even though, with years and growing size of copyright infringement, the chances of getting back the money deserved from stolen photos diminished, the power of DMCA should not be downgraded.

Nowadays, there are still some differences between the European and the U.S. Copyright Laws. Common in the U.S. Work For Hire, known only in just a few countries as corporate authorship, can be a good example. Remember that copyright protection rules may differ and depend on country jurisdiction.


 The course of times shows that copyright law needs to be constantly tailored and adjusted. Each case is different and depends on the type of artwork protected by law. That is why, together with a bunch of legal guardians, we keep an eye on the changes in the copyright and help photographers protect their copyrights. Would you like us to take care of yours as well? The application should not take you longer than a few minutes. After that’s done, just go and shoot – create works to which you own the rights!

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