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The law of selfies

You may have heard of several legal cases where models have been taken to court for posting photos of themselves on Instagram without the photographer’s permission. But what happens if you take a selfie and someone else posts it online? Today we’re taking a look at copyright and the law of selfies with Student Recruitment Manager Richard Palmer.

By Cara Fielder. Published 6 October 2021. Last updated 27 July 2022.

What is copyright and how you can get it?

Copyright is the process that protects your work and stops other people from using it without your permission. You don’t have to apply for it to be copyrighted; copyright protection is automatic in the UK as long as the work required more than minimal effort.

Can anything be copyrighted?

No, it must have required more than minimal effort from you to create it.

It can mean:

  • Time (i.e. how long something took to create)
  • Preparation (i.e. how difficult something was to set up) or
  • Thought (i.e. how much consideration went into a piece of work)

If someone takes a photo of you, who owns the copyright?

When it comes to the laws of photography, there are two questions you need to ask.

  • Who took the photo?
  • Who owns the image?

In the UK, the owner of the photograph copyright is generally the person taking the photo. This is different when the photographer is an employee and has taken the image during their employment. The copyright would then sit with the employer.

How does copyright protect your work?

Copyright stops people from making duplicates of your work; this could by though

  • Photocopying
  • Copying from a book
  • Reproducing something digitally.

How can a selfie be stolen?

Selfies are copyrighted by the owner and posting from a phone to social media is an act of copying. Even though it still feels like only one copy, there is one on Instagram and one on your phone. This is no problem until someone reposts it without credit or permission.

How long does copyright last?

Copyright on selfies lasts 70 years after the owner’s death – or if we don’t know that date – 50 years from when the photo was taken.


Photo copyright examples

The Beatles Abbey Road crossing photoshoot

Beatles photographer Iain Stewart Macmillan had just 10 minutes to snap this iconic shot. He got the fab four to walk back and forth continuously over the now-famous zebra crossing.

But is 10 minutes of work enough effort for copyright?

Yes, because he still had to prepare to photograph his subjects. For example, find the location, ensure it was a good time and discuss clothing. Plus, after taking the photos, he would have to sift through all the outtakes and make edits.

The copyright for this image sits firmly with photographer Iain Stewart Macmillan.

What if a monkey takes a selfie?

A monkey known as Naruto took a selfie in 2011, which quickly went viral. Photographer David Slater argued copyright belonged to him as he owned the camera and had spent time earning Naruto’s trust. Wikipedia copied the image on their website, and the court case began. Peta became a litigant friend and represented the monkey, arguing that Naruto owned the photo, the copyright and any profits made from it.

The case raised many photographic copyright questions. Can you claim intellectual property if you weren’t holding the camera? Can an animal own copyright? The case lasted 2 years, and eventually, Peta settled out of court after they ruled in favour of David Slater.

David Slater agreed to give a quarter of the funds he received from selling the monkey selfies to registered charities "dedicated to protecting the welfare or habitat of Naruto".


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