Portrait Copyright Laws


Copyright laws and procedures on portraits vary depending upon several factors, including the medium (such as painting or photography), whether the subject posed for the portrait or if it was constructed in a candid environment, and whether the portrait was commissioned.

Term of copyright

  • A copyright is instituted the moment a portrait is created, whether or not the portrait is ever published and whether or not a copyright is registered. If the portrait is commissioned, the copyright is good for 90 years after the portrait is published or 120 years after it is created, whichever is sooner. If the portrait is not commissioned, the copyright is good for 70 years after the death of the creator.

Who owns the copyright

  • The person who created the portrait owns the copyright, unless otherwise specified in a contract between the creator and the subject.

Candid vs. posed

  • A candid photograph of someone, taken from a publicly accessible location, with or without the subject's permission, is the property of the person who took the photo, unless a contract is formed. In the case of a posed portrait, the ownership of the image and its copyright is typically agreed upon by contract.

Registering a copyright by mail

  • The registrant completes Form VA or replacement Form CO and sends two copies of the portrait along with the appropriate fee to:

    Library of Congress
    Copyright Office
    101 Independence Ave. S.E.
    Washington, D.C. 20559-6000

Registering a copyright online

  • The registrant visits the eCO section of the Copyright Office's website and completes fill-in Form CO, and submits the appropriate fee along with the image in a common digital format (such as jpg, bmp or tiff).


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