Copyright law originated in the United Kingdom from a concept of common law; the Statute of Anne 1709. It became statutory with the passing of the Copyright Act 1911. The current act is the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, which states - copyright of a photograph belongs to the person who took it, the only exception being employed photographers, where it is his or her employer who owns the copyright unless they have a contractural agreement to the contrary.
In practice, this means that clients may only use photographs taken by a professional photographer in ways that have been agreed at the time they were commissioned. If further uses are required at a later date, permission must be sought from the copyright holder and an additional fee agreed.
For this reason, it is essential that clients specify the uses to which images be used when briefing a photographer and requesting a quotation. This agreement then forms part of the contract. The contract should cover how the work will be used, where (geographically) it will be used and for how long it will be used. Some photographers may grant the use of the images for a specific period at the time of the shoot with on going fees beyond the initial photography charges.
Copyright can be assigned to another person or company, but only if the photographer agrees. With simple images that are unlikely to have no wider commercial value, such as a pack-shot of a recognisable product, some photographers may be happy to asign copyright to their client. However, where the picture is more creative, uses models or is specific in content or has further economic potential, for example as a library stock shot, it is essential that copyright remains with the photographer.
It should be noted that while the client who commissioned the work may hold onto it, the photographer, being the copyright owner, has a clear right of access to the material. Once the licensed period has expired, the photographer has the right to have the originals returned in good condition.
Copyright lasts for 70 years after the end of the year in which the author dies and offers protection against unauthorised reproduction of the photographs and entitles the owner to economic benefit from it.