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Who owns the photos?
Have you ever wondered who owns the photos from a photo shoot? “I bought the session package, that means I own the photos, right?”
I see a lot of confusion regarding the rights you need or are entitled to as a consumer. Let's clear up the confusion. Ownership of photos is really asking: who owns the copyright? Ownership of the copyright depends on if you hired the photographer for a private, personal session or if your legally owned business hired the photographer as a temporary or permanent employee.
If you bought a session package from your photographer, you probably did not buy the copyright. By US copyright law, copyright ownership of an artistic creation (photography being one), stays with the creator of that art, unless they were hired as an employee for the purpose of doing photography.
An example of hiring an employee for photography would be a company, such as Nike or Coke, hiring a photographer to shoot a campaign for them. The images from that campaign would belong to the company who hired the photographer. In those cases, the cost of copyright ownership would be part of the negotiated price package. In cases such as these, who owns the photos is the company who did the hiring.
Most private photography sessions, such as maternity, newborn or family, are for personal use and do not include the copyright ownership of the images. You can, of course, buy the copyright, but that could cost you as much as thousands of dollars…per image.
Buying the copyright to an image or set of images essentially prevents the photographer from ever using that image again. It's also not necessary for most applications. In most cases, a simple photographer's release will suffice.
When a photographer provides a gallery of images that you have paid for, they should also provide a photographer's release or print release. The release allows the purchaser (you) to take those digital images and put them on social media or have them printed anywhere, as many times as you like. Typically, that's all a consumer needs.
So, when would you need or want to own the copyright? Where you may need to purchase copyright is if you want to use the images commercially. In other words, if you want to make money off the images, you need the copyright. You can approach buying the copyright in two ways: you can purchase a commercial use license which gives you the ability to use the images for marketing or products but only for a limited time or you buy the copyright outright and own it forever. Both options are going to be more expensive than just getting a print release.
Let's look at one possibly sticky situation regarding copyright. What if you want to enter your private images to a magazine or in a contest? Can you do that without the copyright? For magazines, the answer is straight up no. All magazines require that copyright must be held by the submitter of the image(s). For a contest, you must read their rules. If the contest rules require that you “own” the images, then no. You do not have the legal grounds to enter the image.
You do have options, however. Talk to your photographer. They can enter the contest or magazine using your image. Any winnings, however, would revert to the owner of that image: the photographer.
So, let's summarize: who owns the photos or copyright? Do you plan to produce products with this image, author a book with this image in/on it or use the image to win a prize or make money in another way? Then you need to buy the copyright. Are you just wanting to get new family images to share on social media or print a canvas to hang on your wall? Then you do not need copyright, you need a photographer's release/print release. You won't “own” the photos, but you will own the right to print and share them.
To further understand the differences between copyright and print release, here is an excellent article by TheLawTog.com: Copyright vs Print Release