Co-Authorship Between Photographers and Portrait Subjects

48 Pages Posted: 9 Apr 2022

See all articles by Molly Stech

Molly Stech

Oxford University Press - Journals; American University - Washington College of Law; USPTO Office of Policy & International Affairs

Date Written: Jan 1, 2022


Copyright law provides that, when two or more authors create a single work with the intent of merging their contributions into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole, the authors are considered joint authors. For photographic works, judicial precedent establishes that the creative contributions necessary to support a copyright claim include the author’s choices concerning elements such as lighting, pose, garments, background, facial expression, and angle. In many visual works, however, those creative elements are determined not solely by a photographer, but also by the subject, who can sulk or smile, stand with good posture or stoop, and be situated in full light or obfuscated by shadow, among many other options. A subject’s rights in photographs has not been fully explored. The Supreme Court avoided deciding the issue more than a century ago; and paparazzi and celebrities trade high-stakes legal accusations in current-day litigation.

Certain portrait photographs, whose subject is an individual person, may be works of joint authorship. While it is established across the globe that photographs merit copyright protection, and that the rights in a photograph generally vest in the photographer, it is a mistake to allow an authorial inquiry into every photograph to end there. Copyright law is accustomed to doing the hard work of specific factual analysis; its fair use doctrine requires such scrutiny, and an apportionment of joint authorship should be no different. The construction of joint authorship is legally flexible, at least in the manner that it is codified. I propose making better use of a framework that already exists in U.S. copyright law. No legislative change is necessary but courts’ current interpretation of joint authorship requires recalibration to permit more flexibility. Such a stance will more accurately reflect how creative people work together and will bestow rights more fairly and on creative parties, which will sometimes include photographic subjects.

Suggested Citation

Stech, Molly, Co-Authorship Between Photographers and Portrait Subjects (Jan 1, 2022). Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment & Technology Law, Vol. 25, 2022, Available at SSRN:

Molly Stech (Contact Author)

Oxford University Press - Journals ( email )

United Kingdom

American University - Washington College of Law ( email )

4300 Nebraska Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20016
United States

USPTO Office of Policy & International Affairs ( email )

600 Dulany Street
Alexandria, VA 22314

Do you have negative results from your research you’d like to share?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics