Copyright is essentially about the ownership of creative work. The law (in the form of the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988) gives creators ownership of their work (with some exceptions) and broadly-speaking, like all other forms of creative activity, professional photographers make their living by licensing the use of their work, not by selling it outright.
This is no different if you buy a music track or a book, (you buy the right, i.e. a licence, to play that music, or to read that book, for yourself – you don’t own it outright).
This is an important distinction and a source of confusion for some who may think that as they’ve paid the photographer, they own the photographs and can do with them as they like. This is not the case.
When you commission a photographer, you will automatically be granted some rights to use the resulting photographs. This is usually included as part of the quoted fees and is known as ‘licensing’ or a ‘licence to use’. Put simply, it is permission to use the work.
What those rights allow you to do with the photographs varies from photographer to photographer and making sure you get the rights you need is part of the negotiation and buying process. If you want greater rights than the photographer provides as their standard, there will be additional fees to pay – that’s only fair and allows photographers to operate sustainably – after all, developing long-term business relationships is good for everyone.
If you wanted full ownership of the photographs, you would need to purchase the copyright from the photographer. This is called an ‘assignation of copyright’. It needs to be a written document, signed by the photographer and transfers the title/ownership in the photographs to you in full. Obviously, this will come with a price as the photographer is giving up any potential to earn additional income from those photographs in future as well as any control over how those photographs might be used. It is important to remember that if photographs are used out of context, badly cropped, poorly retouched and so on, that can reflect adversely on the photographer and their reputation for producing good work, therefore impacting their ability to earn in the future.