Rights to photograph work

Who owns the photographs of work done under someone else's employ? March 23, 2002

Who has the right to use photographs of completed projects? I am starting my own one-person cabinet shop. I would like to send a brochure to potential clients containing photographs of work that I have done. Unfortunately, almost all of this work was done while I was employed by other cabinet shops. If I take the photographs myself and get permission from the designer/architect of the project and the project client/owner, and give them credit in the brochure, is there any legitimate reason that my previous employers would have to bring suit?

Forum Responses
What would your policy be regarding photographic privileges for employees?

From contributor H:
Any photographs of work you did while in the employ of someone else (whose name, not yours, was on the bill head), are that person's/company's. There is no gray area here. Does every autoworker on the assembly line have the right to say they built that car? They only did a portion of that car. Just as you only did a portion of the work in question. You could say, with your past employer's permission, that you were involved in the job but you can't say you did it. You could give your old employer credit, as you did the designer. Your old boss has a very good case.

From the original questioner:
If you employ a journeyman cabinetmaker, and he builds a focal point caliber project by himself from start to finish, would you deny him the right to photograph it? If he photographs it, would it not follow that this photograph, and others like it, would wind up in this journeyman's portfolio? And should this journeyman decide to become self-employed, would he not use this portfolio to help acquire commissions? And if the prospective client expresses an interest in one of the photographs, would this journeyman say that he built this project, or that you built it? And would he be correct?

The statement that the project belongs to the name on the bill head - is that a point of entrepreneurial pride or a point of law?

These are projects that I built by myself from start to finish, so your car analogy doesn't fit. I did not contract the job, do shop drawings, provide shop space or arrange cash flow, but I would not claim this, either. My only claim is that I fabricated the project in the photograph, a visual representation of my skill as a cabinetmaker.

Unless you became self-employed as soon as you could nail two boards together, you must have spent time working for someone else. When you decided to start on your own, how did you represent your abilities to prospective clients? Did you show photos of projects you built while in another's employ?

Perhaps it is the notoriety of a brochure, rather that the notion of a craftsman-like portfolio, that is offensive here.

The above responses are 100% on the money. You don't own the right to photograph other people’s work! I understand that you may have built the job from start to finish, but that was accomplished under the guidance of another entity. The law is very specific about this, as illustrated in the graphic design, advertising, music and film industries under "work for hire law". Images, sound and graphic design production remains the property of the proprietary entity. The professional that produced the work has no right to claim the work, even though that person may have created it entirely on his/her own. You created the work under the employment of someone, which very clearly transfers ownership and rights to that entity. You can probably get away with showing the work to prospective clients in a portfolio, but printing brochures with other's images could lead to a very expensive lawsuit.

Have you talked to your ex-boss? He/she is really the only one to speak to about this. Maybe you can talk them into allowing you to use the work for a period of time while you develop your own portfolio. Maybe, for a fee, they would allow you to use certain images in your brochure?

I started my business with pictures of work that I had done on the side. As time went by I replaced those pictures with better, current works.

From contributor H:
My portfolio contained photos of work I did while in my apprenticeship, with credit due to my instructor. As I did solo work, these pictures were gradually replaced.

What would your policy be if you had employees? I think this is a fair question because what you are asking about is the appropriateness of you using photography of work your employer paid for.

I agree with the above responses, too. I started without photos and got them as I progressed. If I had an employee who wanted a photo of work he helped create, I would let him have the photo for non-commercial reasons. It would seem that using photos of another shop's work would promote that shop, not yours.

From the original questioner:
I have been fabricating architectural millwork for various employers for 28 years but have built little for myself, so all the work I would like to photograph is legally unavailable to me.
If I had employees, I would likely allow the cabinetmaker photography for personal purposes, while retaining the copyright privileges due me under the work for hire provision.

In addition to being an install contractor, I am also a photographer and I never professionally photograph my finished installs. I do occasionally take a photo of a work in progress, if it is something of special interest. I don't photograph my work professionally for a few reasons. First, it may be a beautiful reception desk, but I only assembled or installed it and it's not my work. If I were to photograph something, it would be a perfect cope, cut out or joint or something that would reflect my skills only.

Everyone always asks installers and prospective employees for photos of jobs they have done, but at the same time, they don't want their workers to use pictures of their jobs in their own portfolios. If an installer or cabinetmaker wants pictures of projects, what's the big deal? Someone looking at an installer's portfolio knows they did not manufacture it. Someone looking at a cabinetmaker's portfolio knows that they probably weren't the designer. All projects require the efforts of many, so it's really everyone's work.

You own the copyright to photographs that you take. Using common sense and showing courtesy to others involved in the projects by mentioning the architect, designer, general contractor, etc is the right thing to do, along with an explanation of your part of the project. The same building might be used in the architect's, general contractor's and the exterior cladding subcontractor's brochures. The general contractor may also show a beautiful lobby of a building they constructed, even though they did not design it and a slew of subcontractors did all the actual work.