CanadaHow do I figure out if a former employer owns rights to my photos?
I used to work (1.5 years) as a conservation educator for a nonprofit organization which operated an outdoor education program. My job responsibilities were roughly outlined in a contract which never ever ever mentioned creativity of any sort, intellectual property rights, etc., and certainly not photography. I was never presented with an employee handbook, so I have no idea if there are internal policies that relate to this question.
Now, a few years later, I am looking at some really great images I took back then, and wondering how to go about verifying who has the rights to those images. I was not compensated for them in any way, they did not constitute a significant, essential, or expected part of my work, and had I never taken a single photo, I would still have received positive evaluations of my work. I don't even want to ripple the water over there until I have a good idea of how to proceed.
The organization is private, has a multi-million dollar budget, and has used these photos for outreach, print and web publications, recruitment (program participants), and so on. All the things a conservation/education nonprofit would do with great photos. They have plenty of money, make a lot of print and video publications, etc., so they are definitely well-informed about copyrights.
At a minimum, I'd like to use the images in my portfolio. Ideally, if I do legally possess the copyrights, I would consider approaching them about licensing fees. For now, though, I just want to figure out who possesses the copyrights.
I chime in periodically on legal issues: I'm not a lawyer. My advice is, as always, check with a lawyer. Ideally, I'd check with a lawyer who is versed both in intellectual property law and employment law in the jurisdiction of your former employer. A copy of your employment contract would probably help immensely.
I see you are in Canada. So...don't forget that until a few months ago, anyone who commissioned the photos owned the copyright unless you had a contract specifically assigning the copyright to you.
So, the question is: who commissioned the images? Did you take them on your own time just to see what you would get and then, happening to show them to management, they liked them enough to ask you to use them? Or, did you take them during the course of doing your job? I think it would be interesting to know how your employer got a hold of the images and started using them on their marketing pieces - it might tell a lot about under what circumstances they were created and how your former employer may view their ownership and usage.
I'm not a lawyer, (insert usual caveat here) and you didn't describe your job in detail so.....
Whether your former employer is a non-profit and how much money they have or their knowledge of copyright laws is completely irrelevant. What does matter is: you were fully employed by them (you were not working for somebody else as well) they paid taxes on your behalf and supplied benefits such as paid holidays, health insurance etc., then you were an employee. You were compensated by them in the form of a salary. Even if photography was not clearly written in to your job description, the great majority of companies have the phrase ".... and other duties as deemed necessary..." in their contracts. As employers they do not have to spell out intellectual property rights unless they choose to. When you took those pictures, you were given access to the property, access to the events as an employee - you had special access because you worked for them - where as I probably would not have had the same access. They had the authority to allow or disallow you to take those images.
I am fairly certain you could use the images in your portfolio to promote yourself but I do not believe you own the copyrights and going back to them and asking for licensing fees would probably prove to be unsuccessful.