Copyright Of Photographs


Copyright in photographs taken before 1 June 1957, when the 1956 Copyright Act came into effect, is governed by section 21 of the Copyright Act 1911. This applied a standard 50-year term to all photographs, irrespective of whether they had or had not been published. 

The 1956 Act did not alter this term, for any photographs which were in existence and protected at the time the newer Act came into force. As such, a photo taken on 31 May 1957 would continue to be protected for 50 years and the copyright would then end. Photographs made on 1 June 1957 and later were then subject to a copyright term of the lifetime of the author plus 50 years from the end of the year the author died. 

In 1995 the UK was obliged to introduce changes to conform with European law which increased the post mortem element to 70 years. This law also had retrospective effect on any photograph which was still in copyright on 1 July 1995. In a nutshell, any photograph created before 1 January 1945 would not be affected because copyright in it would have ended on 31 December 1994.

Previously Unpublished Photos:

There is a separate regulation regarding hitherto unpublished photographs that was introduced in 1996 which is also worth knowing about. The new rules said that anyone who legally published a previously unpublished photograph, earned themselves a 25 year period of protection known as 'Publication Right', which is very similar in its operation to copyright, except that it is owned by the publisher and not the original author or the author's heirs. To date the extent of this provision has not been tested in court here in the UK.

In Summary:

Generally speaking any photograph taken and published in the UK before 1945 will now be out of copyright. Anything taken before 1945 and published before 1993 will be free of both copyright and publication right. One exception to the general rule is that anything to which Crown or Parliamentary Copyright applies will be subject to different rules.

Taken and quoted heavily from: 

DACS - The Design and Artists Copyright Society – explain in more detail as follows: 


Photographs taken on or after 1 August 1989

On the whole, the photographer will own the copyright in their photograph for their life plus 70 years, unless they have created the photograph in the course of employment or signed an agreement to the contrary. Where a photographer works by commission, they will own the copyright in the photograph unless they have assigned or sold it to the commissioner.

Photographs taken between 1 July 1912 and 31 July 1989

The person who owned the material on which the photograph was taken, for example the negative, also owned the copyright. In the case of photographs taken under commission for “valuable consideration” (money or any equivalent payment), the commissioner was the copyright owner, unless there was an agreement to the contrary.

Photographs taken before 1 July 1912

The photographer owned the copyright in the photograph, unless it was taken under commission for “good or valuable consideration” (money or any equivalent payment). In such circumstances the commissioner owned the copyright.


Photographs taken on or after 1 January 1996

These are automatically protected for the life of the photographer plus 70 years. 

Photographs taken on or after 1 August 1989 but before or on 31 December 1995

These were originally protected under the 1988 Act for the life of the photographer plus 50 years. Copyright in these works has now been extended by the 1995 Regulations. They are therefore now protected for the life of the photographer plus 70 years.

Photographs taken between 1 June 1957 and 31 July 1989

The length of copyright protection for photographs created in this period depends on whether or not they had been published as at 1 August 1989.


Where the photographer died more than 20 years before publication, copyright will expire 50 years after first publication. In all other cases, copyright will expire 70 years after the death of the photographer.


Where the photographer died before 1 January 1969, copyright expires on 31 December 2039. In all other cases, copyright will expire 70 years after the death of the photographer.

Photographs made before 1st June 1957

These photographs were originally protected for a period of 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which they were taken (regardless of whether they were published or not).

If the photograph was still in copyright as of 1 July 1995 however, the period of copyright was extended to the life of the photographer plus 70 years. If copyright protection had expired before 1 July 1995, there was still the chance to "revive" the photograph. An eligible photograph would then be protected by the new term, ie the photographer's life plus 70 years.


The 1995 Regulations allowed for the copyright in some old photographs to be "revived" if they were in copyright somewhere in the European Economic Area (EEA) as of 1 July 1995.

For example, if a photograph was taken in 1930 in the UK and the photographer died in 1940, then under the 1911 Copyright Act and until the 1995 Regulations were introduced into UK law, copyright in such a photograph would have expired in 1980.

Some European territories such as Germany already protected photographs for the life of the photographer plus 70 years. If this new term of copyright protection were applied to the photograph, then copyright would not expire until 2010. 

This meant that although the photograph had been in the public domain since 1980, its copyright could be "revived". 

Who owns copyright in a revived work

The owner of the revived copyright will be the former owner (ie the person who owned the copyright immediately before it expired).

If that person died before 1 January 1996 or was a company that ceased to exist before 1 January 1996, then the revived copyright will pass to the photographer or the photographer's heirs. 

This information copied from: 


1911 Copyright Act (UK):

1956 Copyright Act (UK):  

1988 Copyright Designs & Patents Act (UK):  

US Copyrights

In the USA and Canada, anything published prior to 1925 is considered to be Public Domain and is out of copyright.  You can find more outline information about that on this Wikipedia explanation here:


The information given here is offered as a general guide to the issues surrounding copyright in this area. It does not represent an exhaustive account. It is not intended to offer legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. We strongly recommend you seek specialist advice for any specific circumstances.