Under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, photographs (like designs and drawings) automatically receive copyright protection immediately upon their creation. Copyright gives the creator of an image the exclusive legal right to control how the image is used.
This control is exercised by granting licenses to specific persons for specific uses. The right to use an image cannot be transferred by anyone without the written consent of the copyright holder.
Absence of a copyright notice does not mean that an image is free of copyright, and it does not relieve a prospective user from the responsibility of obtaining permission from the copyright holder. In addition, altering or removing a copyright notice can result in liability under the Copyright Act and several other state and federal statutes. Simply having physical possession of photographs, slides, prints, transparencies, or digital files does not grant the right to use them.
It’s important that you and your photographer agree on the scope of the license before the contract is signed and photography has begun. For this reason, it is a good idea to outline your tentative plans for using the images, even if they are vague at the moment, and to negotiate for optional future rights at the outset. Should your marketing plans change mid-course, be sure to discuss them with your photographer.
If you plan to share photographs with third parties who have not been involved in the commissioned assignment (e.g., members of the design team, contractors, consultants, product manufacturers, clients, tenants, or magazine editors), they must understand that any use of the photos requires a written license agreement from the photographer. By the same token, if you’ve received photographs without written permission for their use, do not use them until you have secured licensing rights directly from the photographer.
To avoid any misunderstandings, contact the photographer before passing along photographs. You should also advise the party receiving the images to contact the photographer directly to secure a license granting permission for their use.
Excerpted from Commissioning Architectural Photography – Best practices in working with a professional photographer, developed jointly by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP)