When photographing public events in private spaces, the question of copyright ownership comes up often. While the specifics of the answer might vary depending on your location, there are some basic guidelines that when followed should give you confidence and peace of mind while working through the event. In this article, I’ll share information I’ve gathered on copyright ownership over the years. For context, I shoot weddings, portraits and events, but I specialize in professional nightclub photography. You can view my nightlife work here.

Caveat: Although I’ve researched the laws fairly extensively, I’m not an attorney and my experience is predominantly related to California, in the United States. This advice will apply in most states in America (and even some places around the world), but you should always double check any claim made with a contract, copyright or intellectual property attorney in your area.

For those in a hurry, check out the recap at the bottom:

Let’s start by hitting the question I get asked most often:

Who Owns the Copyright to Nightclub Photos?

Copyright is one of the most misunderstood aspects of the photography industry, by both clients and photographers. The most important thing to remember is that when a photographer takes a photograph in the United States, the photographer automatically owns the copyright, from the moment the image is created. No paperwork needs to be filed, nothing needs to be signed or witnessed. An artist has created a work of art and in America, art is immediately protected by copyright, and the copyright ownership belongs to the artist (in this case, the photographer). With very few exceptions, the photographer can do anything they want with those images, within legal limits, of course.

So what about in a nightclub? It doesn’t matter if it’s a nightclub, a wedding venue, a church or any other private venue, assuming you’ve been given permission by the venue owners to photograph inside, the same law applies – the second you’ve taken a photo of someone or something in that space, you own the copyright to that image, with three exceptions. For the rest of the article, we’re going to use the nightclub as an example.

Here are the exceptions:

1. You’re an Employee

The club has hired you as an actual employee. This means the photographer is not working as a contractor but is actually on the payroll, receiving benefits like sick leave, UI and accrued vacation. In this case, the club owns the images, because the work is considered “work for hire”, which I’ll talk about in more detail in the next section. Your employer can choose to let you share the images or not, they can dictate whether the images have their logo only, their logo and your logo or no logo at all. They can even require you to delete the photos once you’ve delivered them. The client owns the copyright to the images you created and your rights are generally limited to the compensation you receive via payroll for the work you do. You are basically trading your ownership of the photos in exchange for the stability of a regular paycheck and benefits.

2. Work-for-Hire

You’re contracting with a client short-term, but they’re requiring you to sign a contract that stipulates that it’s a “work-for-hire” agreement. This generally gives them the same rights as above, though you will sometimes see a clause that gives the photographer the right to use the images for personal use, non-commercial display or for their portfolio, though this isn’t guaranteed.

In my professional opinion, there are very few scenarios in event photography where I would sign a work-for-hire contract. If there is an obvious, tangible benefit (like the client is willing to pay significantly more than the market rate for your services) or potential benefit (like the client is a major player in their industry and there will be a large amount of genuine exposure like a national billboard campaign or a full page advertisement in a popular magazine), then a work-for-hire agreement could be beneficial – just make sure any claims made by the client of tangible future benefits are included in the contract.

To be clear, the benefit has to be real. “We’re going to tell everyone about you!” isn’t a benefit worth signing over your ownership of the images for. Most of the time, there isn’t enough value being offered by the client to justify giving up your copyright. If you do decide to agree to a work-for-hire contract, make sure to negotiate as many favorable terms as you can and *always* have the contract vetted by the appropriate attorney (this means don’t use the real estate attorney who helped you with your house or your cousin who does personal injury law to verify your copyright contract – though they could likely verify it up to a certain point, unless they were trained in the specifics of contract or copyright law, they could miss something important specific to your situation).

3. You’ve Made a Personal Choice

You decide to intentionally give away certain rights in your agreement with the club, for whatever reason (monetary, preferential access, longer-term working relationships, etc), or if you’re photographing a specific event – for example, the club has sponsored or produced a photo contest and participation in the contest comes with the understanding that the club can use your submitted images in specific ways, often requiring a full rights release, even if you don’t need to give up copyright ownership.

The second-most asked question is this:

Do I Need a Model Release for Anyone/Everyone I Photograph in the Club?

Nope. A handful of states in America have broader privacy laws when it comes to being photographed that might apply in nightclubs and other public events held in private spaces, so double check where you live.

In general, in most states, nightclubs occupy a unique legal area that makes them both a private and public space. They have the right to be selective about entry and can dictate who stays or leaves and they regulate any activities on their property, including photography. They can post rules regarding photography, allow or deny photography altogether and even specify a rights release for any guests who enter. This means they can stick a sign prominently above the entryway and/or other places informing potential patrons that, by entering the property, they agree to be photographed or have video recorded of them and by entering, they’re agreeing to release any rights they may have to those images.

This is a blanket release that has some exceptions as well, but it’s the first line of defense when it comes to protecting a photographer’s ability to photograph the club’s patrons without the need for individual model releases.

Some Notable Exceptions

A very important caveat before we go further: though you have the right to photograph in public spaces where there’s no reasonable expectation of privacy (or a significantly reduced expectation), this doesn’t mean you can photograph people in any situation just because they’re in that public space. For example, if someone is in the middle of the dance floor and you photograph them puking, or one of your shots catches a wardrobe malfunction or even if you take a cute shot of a guy and a girl kissing (aww, adorbs!), you certainly can publish those photos, but you’re running a risk. If they find your photo of them to be highly embarrassing or defamatory, they could have grounds to sue you.

Most people will just contact you and ask that you take it down (and you should take it down), but there’s always the chance that someone will decide that you posting that photo was enough to ruin or significantly harm their reputation, and that could motivate them to sue, even if you’ve taken it down. Just keep that in mind when you’re photographing people in potentially inappropriate or compromising situations or when deciding which images to share publicly.

Oh, and remember that cute kiss from earlier? Turns out that the guy and girl who were kissing are married…just not to each other, lol. Would a scenario like that be grounds for a lawsuit against you? Not likely, but I included it anyway because those kinds of situations happen far more often. Someone might ask you to take a photo down because they’re Mormon and don’t want their family to see them out partying, or they got caught smooching someone they shouldn’t have or, the most common scenario: they just plain don’t like the way they look in it. Those situations are a perfect opportunity for you to exhibit professionalism and courtesy and build some community good will by taking the image down even though you aren’t required to by law. That single photo isn’t going to make or break your career.

More on the Club Signage

But let’s get back to the club posting signage. Even if a club doesn’t post a model release sign (and by the way, in California they’re not legally required to), a photographer is still allowed to photograph inside a nightclub (with the club’s permission), because nightclubs are considered a public space. They’re open to the general public and serve a commercial purpose, so there’s a significantly reduced expectation of privacy and a photographer doesn’t need permission from patrons or a model release to photograph anyone or use those photos in almost any way.

It’s important to note that in Massachusetts and California there are new, enhanced privacy laws that expand the privacy protection. For example, you can still photograph someone even if that person tells you to stop or tells you that you aren’t allowed to photograph them or that you don’t have their permission. Because they’re in a public space you still have the right to photograph them, but you can’t use their face (or their likeness) in any commercial use. You could share the images on your website in a portfolio or in a social media post showcasing your work, but you couldn’t use their images in an advertisement or in brochures, for example. 

But real talk? In almost every case where someone asks you not to photograph them, you should just not photograph them. Courtesy and professionalism should be your default in any scenario where you’re photographing strangers, and you have very little to gain by continuing to photograph someone who doesn’t want to be photographed, and potentially, a lot to lose in terms of reputation. A single negative social media post can turn into a juggernaut that runs over everything you’ve worked so hard to build, even if the content of the post isn’t true, so the more you can do to minimize the chance of that happening, the better.

If the Club Gives Me Permission, I Can Photograph Anywhere or Anyone in the Club?

No. It’s important to remember that even though a nightclub is considered a public space, there
are certain places and situations where you don’t have a right to take pictures. Some places are
OK if the club owner or management says you can, but some are no-gos no matter what.

Which Areas Should I Not Take Pictures In?

Anywhere there’s a reasonable expectation of privacy like a restroom, a private office with a
closed door, any space the club has specifically told you is off-limits, or a completely enclosed
VIP area with its own door (restrooms are never OK, the others only with permission). Curtained
and open-air VIP areas are generally fair game, but even though it’s not required, it will make
things a lot easier if you just let people know you’ll be photographing and give anyone who
doesn’t want to be in shots the chance to tell you.

What About Celebrities? Can I Photograph Them All I Want?

Celebrities are a different beast altogether. Of course, you absolutely have a legal right to photograph any person, celebrity or otherwise, if they’re in a public space, but that doesn’t mean you always should. If the celebrity has a handler, manager or security, you can approach them and offer to take photos based on their needs or wants, or let them know you can avoid them altogether. Sometimes they’ll respond with a hard “no” and they may even be rude about it. Just let it slide off your back. Sometimes they won’t care, and sometimes they might say it’s OK to get the celeb in the background, but no shots where the celeb is the focus.

Additionally, the celebrity might have specific requirements, like with pro athletes. As an example, they might say the following: “No shots of them with alcohol in their hands or kissing a woman.” Whatever they say, it’s best to go with that. It can be very tempting to snap some shots of a celebrity without their permission, but in the long run, your professional reputation could take a hit if it gets out that you ignore celebrity requests. Remember, you’re not paparazzi. You’re a professional there to capture the event, not a bottom feeder willing to do anything to get photos that can be sold to a tabloid.

How Do I Deal with Regular Patrons Who Don’t Want to Be Photographed?

That’s a great question! The answer is don’t photograph them. If anyone tells you “I don’t want to be in any shots!” respond with “No problem! I won’t take any shots of you specifically, but just so you know, I can’t guarantee you won’t end up in the background of some shots.” Most people will be fine with that, and the ones who aren’t likely won’t be happy no matter what you say to them.

Here’s the thing: the vast majority of people aren’t aware of the actual laws surrounding right-to-privacy and photography, so you’ll often encounter people who become aggressive or frustrated when you attempt to photograph them because they assume you need their permission. You don’t.

I’ve found the most effective way to minimize any looming conflict when someone demands that you don’t photograph them is to say something like “I totally understand! Why do you think I’m BEHIND the camera?” with a big smile, and then say “Hey, how about this? Let me take one photo of you and if you don’t like it, you can watch me delete it from my camera! But I’m willing to bet you’ll like it!” – this works most of the time. But if they turn you down, regardless of whether they respond politely or angrily or even insultingly, just smile and say “No problem!” and then go on about your work. Don’t waste time trying to convince them any more.

Also, it’s never a good idea to stop everything you’re doing to explain to someone why you don’t need their permission to photograph them. That’s not a conversation you want to have in the middle of a dance floor while great shots are passing you by every second.

Event Photography Copyright Recap

Here’s a quick recap of the information presented above:

● Except in a couple of very specific situations, the photographer owns copyright, not the venue or the person who hired you. Exceptions (dependent on locale) include work-for-hire contracts (for example: the club owns the photos if you’re an employee, not a contractor) or in specific agreements (for example: you might give up rights based on the agreement you have with the venue).
● Model releases are not legally required. Nightclubs and most event venues are public spaces with reduced privacy expectations.
● Courtesy is key. Respect patrons who don’t want to be photographed, even if it’s legal to photograph them.
● Even where it’s legal to photograph without a release, certain areas are off-limits. For example: private spaces like restrooms, private offices and completely enclosed VIP areas with a closed door. Always respect any specific areas the club prohibits photography in.
● Celebrities should be handled with care. Even though you still have the legal right to photograph them without their permission, consider professional courtesy by honoring any requests related to the celebrity and avoid paparazzi tactics.
● Dealing with patrons who object is common, but if you respect their wishes and let them know you’ll try to avoid photographing them (but can’t guarantee they won’t appear in background shots), most patrons will be understanding. Try to avoid getting sidetracked by arguing or giving lengthy explanations, just move on to the next.