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Book Review: The Photographer’s Legal Guide by Carolyn E. Wright

Photographer's Legal Guide - CoverTo be honest, reading any kind of book about the legal aspects of photography—from taxes, to corporate structures, to copyright laws, to government regulations—not only makes me want to never shoot another image, it also brings out a seething, anarchic, vigilante side of me.  I suddenly feel like hurling bombs at government buildings and torturing IRS agents with a cattle prod.  This is probably wrong, but I suspect I’m not alone in this reaction.

After all, most of us take up photography because we are artists at heart.  If we were interested in tax laws or the differences between S-Corporations and C-Corporations we would have gone to business school or law school.  You might even say that we incline toward photography precisely to the degree that we hate that kind of stuff.

So I suppose we ought to be grateful that there are people like Carolyn Wright, who is both a practicing attorney and a professional photographer, and who has written a guide to help the rest of us navigate the legal swamps that surround the business of photography.

First the good parts:

Wright has distilled the key legal issues facing photographers into a short guide, in plain language, that you can read in about two hours (if you don’t stop to hire a lawyer halfway through).

Her discussion of the various forms of business-ownership (sole proprietorship, corporations, etc.) is mercifully concise and understandable.  The sections on taxes, copyright laws, release forms, and contracts are likewise brief, clear, and to the point. And she often presents good tips that will save new photographers from getting burned (and haven’t we all) like, “Get the model release before the shoot” and “Get the money before delivering the photos.”

One point that I found particularly relevant to my work, since I have a lengthy model release and I’m often shooting people hastily at events:

“Photographers may try to explain what the contract says so that it doesn’t seem as intimidating. Don’t do it.  In fact, don’t say anything except to suggest that the client read the contract before signing it. Otherwise you may invalidate the contract.”

That will help me resist the urge to say, “It really just says ….”

Likewise, I found the section explaining the contractual distinctions between “retainer,” “deposit,” and “liquidated damages” enlightening and likely to be helpful to any photographer who contracts with clients for future engagements (which is most of us).

Wright also points out some surprising quirks in the law.  For example, it’s  legally permissible, as you would expect, to shoot images in a National Park.  But strangely, if you are using a “model, set, or prop” you need to have a permit and pay a fee.  Depending on your definition of “model” or “prop” that could describe a lot of my photos.

Overall, Wright deserves kudos for separating the wheat from the chaff and quickly covering a wide range of legal issues that matter to photographers in terms they can understand.

Nevertheless, it’s still depressing as hell to read this stuff.  Just thinking about the fact that I could be prosecuted for taking a picture of the wrong building or sued by a portrait client who stumbles in my studio is enough to make me want to give up photography, move to a small tropical island, and take up fishing and drinking as a way of life.

This is the problem with all books written by lawyers. They think like lawyers. It’s their job to imagine the worst and tell you how to protect yourself from it.  And I suppose that may be a prudent approach, but it’s also unrealistic.  Because life doesn’t always (or even usually) deliver the worst, and you can waste a lot of precious time preparing for it.

For example, consider the chapter on protecting your copyrights.  It offers the usual sound advice on marking your images with copyright notices and chasing down evil-doers who steal your photos.  All perfectly  reasonable. But I find it hard to believe that Ms. Wright can recommend with a straight face that you register all of your photos with the government copyright office, or, even more amazingly, that:

“You’ll need to register your website each time that you post new photographs or text or after making changes to the website….Use a new application form and pay a separate filing fee for each subsequent registration.”

Really? A new application form and a new fee every time I change my website? Many photo bloggers update their websites daily!  Even those of us who are not that ambitious manage to post new photos or text weekly, or at worst monthly. Can she seriously think this is useful advice, or is she slipping into lawyer mode and giving us the CYA version, protecting herself from some imaginary deranged reader who might claim, “But you didn’t tell me I needed to re-register my website every time I changed it!”

So, that’s the downside of the book. It’s written by a lawyer, who thinks like a lawyer, and sometimes presents her advice like a lawyer covering her own behind by presenting every single recommendation as Priority One.  But in the real world, we have limited time and limited resources to devote to worrying about this stuff.  I’d love to see a legal guide that gives this kind of sound, plain-language advice (which Wright does well), but also gives a realistic, pragmatic assessment of which things you really need to worry about and which ones you might want to let slide.

But no lawyer would write such a book. Catch-22.

Buy the Photographer’s Legal Guide at

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