Copyright Education

Photography Copyright Laws across the World: What are the main Differences?

This article explores the differences in photography copyright laws across various countries, highlighting the nuances that govern this way of artistic expression.

Photography is a universal language that transcends borders, cultures, and languages. However, when it comes to copyright laws, different countries have their unique perspectives on protecting photographers' creative works. These intriguing differences in photography copyright laws add complexity to the global artistic landscape. This article delves into some of the most interesting distinctions found in photography copyright laws across various countries, shedding light on how different legal systems balance the protection of artists' rights and the public's access to visual art.


So, here are the main distinctions:

1. Duration of Copyright

2. Copyright Registration Requirements

3. Fair Use and Educational Exceptions

4. Freedom of Panorama

5. Originality vs. The Notion of "Sweat of the Brow"

6. The Role of Moral Rights

7. Dealing with Orphan Works

8. Commercial Use and Model Releases

9. Digital Rights Management


1. Duration of Copyright

The duration of copyright protection varies significantly from country to country. In some nations, copyright extends for the life of the photographer plus a fixed number of years, such as 50, 70, or 100 years. For instance, countries such as China, UAE, and Belarus adhere to the "life plus 50" principle, while EU member states, the US, and the UK adhere to a "life plus 70" guideline. On the other hand, countries like Mexico have adopted a distinctive "life plus 100" approach. 

These differing copyright durations can significantly impact the public domain and the availability of historical photographs for future generations.


2. Copyright Registration Requirements

In the majority of countries, there is no requirement to formally register your copyright to secure it. In today's global context, copyright protection is granted automatically upon "fixation" of the work – essentially, as soon as the work is expressed in a tangible form. This universal standard is internationally upheld by the Berne Convention (1886), an agreement that has been embraced by most countries worldwide.

Interestingly, some countries require copyright registration to grant legal protection, while others r automatic protection upon the creation of the work.

In the United States, for example, copyright registration is not mandatory but is a prerequisite to filing an infringement suit and can provide significant legal advantages in case of infringement. On the other hand, countries like Canada and the UK do not mandate registration to pursue copyright infringement.

To learn more about Copyright registration, check out this article.


3. Fair Use and educational Exceptions

The concept of fair use, allowing limited use of copyrighted material without permission for purposes like criticism, education, or news reporting, varies across jurisdictions.

The United States has a well-established fair use doctrine, which provides flexibility for certain uses of copyrighted photographs under specific circumstances. However, countries like e.g. the United Kingdom have more rigid fair dealing provisions, which outline narrower exceptions to copyright infringement.

Moreover, several nations do not recognize the concept of fair use at all.


4. Freedom of Panorama

Freedom of panorama refers to the right to take photographs of public buildings, landmarks, and artworks without infringing copyright.

While countries like the United States and the United Kingdom have relatively liberal freedom of panorama laws, enabling the unrestricted photography of public spaces, other nations like France, Belgium or Estonia impose restrictions on photographing copyrighted architectural works. In these countries, commercial use of images featuring copyrighted architecture may require prior authorization from the copyright holder.

We recommend reading our article titled "7 legal aspects of Photography you need to consider while traveling" for further insights.


5. Originality vs. the Notion of "Sweat of the Brow"

The concept of "Sweat of the brow" is a principle within intellectual property law, particularly associated with copyright. This doctrine asserts that an author acquires rights based on their diligent effort while creating a work, without necessitating significant creativity or "originality."

For example, In the US, a photograph is considered an original work, irrespective of the amount of effort required to capture the image. This means that even candid snapshots are protected under copyright law.

In contrast, countries like Israel do not recognize this notion. Under Israeli law, a certain level of uniqueness is necessary for a work to qualify for copyright protection. Nonetheless, the demanded level of originality is modest and copyright encompasses tasks such as transliterating or interpreting an artifact.


6. The Role of Moral Rights

In many continental European countries, moral rights are an essential aspect of copyright law. These rights go beyond economic interests and protect the photographer's reputation and integrity. For instance, France, Italy, and Spain recognize the droit de suite, granting photographers a share of the resale value of their artworks.

Moral rights stand apart from the economic rights associated with copyrights. Even if an artist has transferred their copyright privileges for a work to a third party, they retain moral rights for the work.

These moral rights ensure that photographers maintain control over the use and treatment of their photographs, even after they have sold the physical copy.  In some countries, like France, moral rights are strongly upheld, granting photographers the right to attribution and protection against unauthorized modifications that could harm their reputation. However, many countries, particularly common law jurisdictions like the United States, do not fully recognize moral rights or only provide limited protection for them.


7. Dealing with Orphan Works

What exactly are orphan works? Orphan works are copyrighted works whose owners cannot be identified or located. Dealing with orphan works can be a legal minefield for those seeking to use or reproduce photographs.

Various countries have implemented distinct approaches to handling orphan works, which can range from extensive efforts to find the copyright owners (like in Canada) to limitations on liability for those who use these works in good faith (as exemplified by the European Union's Directive on certain uses of orphan works).

Nations such as Hungary, India, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea have implemented governmental licensing alternatives for handling orphan works.


8. Commercial Use and Model Releases

The regulations concerning the commercial use of photographs and model releases are also distinct in different countries.

In the United States and many European countries, photographers need model releases from identifiable individuals appearing in their photographs before they can use those images for commercial purposes. Similar requirements exist in countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, and India. However, regulations differ based on legal systems and cultural norms, emphasizing the importance of understanding local laws and seeking legal advice to ensure compliance.

These releases serve as legal agreements granting permission for the commercial use of an individual's likeness in the photograph. Failure to obtain proper model releases can lead to legal consequences.


9. Digital Rights Management

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is the practice of employing technologies to safeguard digital content, including photography, against unauthorized copying and distribution. DRM is used to control access and usage of digital images through methods like watermarking, encryption, and licensing agreements. 

As technology continues to advance, countries have different approaches to digital rights management (DRM) for protecting digital photographs. Some nations, like the US, Japan, China, and EU countries enforce strict DRM laws that render it illegal to remove or bypass technological protection measures

In contrast, others, like Norway and Iceland, have more lenient DRM policies, emphasizing the importance of balancing copyright protection with users' rights to access and use creative content.



Photography copyright laws are complex and diverse across the globe, significantly impacting how photographers protect and monetize their creative works. The duration of copyright, registration requirements, fair use provisions, moral rights, and approaches to orphan works all differ from one country to another. As photographers operate in a global digital landscape, understanding these variations becomes crucial in safeguarding their intellectual property and ensuring their creative contributions are respected and acknowledged worldwide. It is advisable for photographers to familiarize themselves with the specific laws and regulations in their respective countries and seek legal advice when dealing with cross-border copyright issues.

We also suggest you read our Photo Copyright Guide to stay aware of your rights as a photographer and learn the techniques for protecting your photos from copyright infringements.

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