The question of who owns a second shooter's or assistant's images comes up a fair amount amongst wedding photographers. Often times, they'll have another photographer working alongside them shooting the wedding day. This other photographer is frequently someone starting out but sometimes is an established pro with their own business. In either case, it's not unusual for the second photographer to publish the images on his or her blog, website or even Facebook page. And that's where the problems come in.

Because the images are now being used to promote the second photographer's work, the hired wedding photographer may find herself in the uncomfortable position of competing against images shot at a wedding that she was hired to photograph. Photos of her client now appear on her blog as well as that of the second shooters - often creating confusion among perspective brides and unhappiness for the hired photographer.

In many of the cases I've seen, the photographer and second shooter have an informal agreement that either limits the second shooters right to use the images or requires that the second shooter credit the hiring studio for the shoot. Not surprisingly, deals get broken and people get upset. Quickly, the question becomes "Who owns the photos?"

I've heard many photographers counsel that the hired wedding photographer owns the images since he or she paid the second shooter for the images. Seems logical - but it's completely and totally wrong (at least in the US). In the good ol' USA, the copyright to images belongs to the creator regardless of who was footing the bill. That doesn't mean that the photographer can do what he or she wants with the images, but it also means that it's very difficult for the hired wedding photographer to stop the second from publishing their images.

There are ways around this however. There's no better way to avoid confusion and misunderstanding than having a solid agreement in place before the photography begins. Oral agreements are pretty much impossible to enforce and memories on what was agreed to quickly fade. If you're okay with images used on a blog but not on Facebook - and definitely no tagging, put the deal in writing. Even though copyright may be owned by the second, photographer and second can agree that the hiring studio has exclusive use of the images except for the second's blog so long as the images are credited to the hiring studio.

The most absolute protection is for the hiring studio to have the second photographer sign an agreement that includes a "work made for hire" clause which grants ownership of the images to the studio. The Associates/Assistants Contract Kit from the Photographer's Toolkit includes this clause among everything that it covers. When all the images are owned by the studio, then it's in a much better position to control their use.

There's a couple of things to consider in all of this. The second photographer does not have permission from the bride and groom to publish their likeness. It's possible that the client may not approve of this additional use and either prevent the second from using the images or even sue. If that's the case, both photographer and second may find themselves in court together.

The other thing to consider is that, assuming no agreement to the contrary was signed, it is possible for the second photographer to actually prevent the hiring studio from using the images since the second owns the copyright. For example, if the hiring studio attempted to stop the second from publishing their images on their blog, the second could retaliate by blocking the studio from using the second's images. This scenario quickly degenerates into a fairly complex legal quagmire with too many variables to warrant discussion here. Suffice it to say that it's a hassle worth avoiding.

The best way to resolve most issues is to prevent them from occurring in the first place. I recommend always having a signed agreement in place between hiring studio and assistants/second shooters. The Toolkit contract not only addresses ownership but other issues that can save your butt down the line as well (such as IRS issues). The other thing you can do is provide your CF cards to the second and collect them at the end of the night. (Just because they were shot to your cards doesn't mean you own the images however.)

Finally, what do you do if you're in a situation where your second is now using images in ways that you didn't agree to? My suggestion is to have a direct discussion to see if you can resolve the situation. If the other party wants to keep the relationship intact, odds are good you can figure things out. If, on the other hand, the relationship has already gone sour, there's not much you can do. In cases like this, it's best to just learn your lesson and do things right the next time.

John Mireles

(To see me in action, shooting the photos in this article, check out my Shootout Video with Parker Pfister, Julia Woods and others at Photo Vision. It's pretty cool.)