You have a photograph in hand, but do you know who took the picture? When was it taken? Are there any markings on it?
Photographs fall under the same rules as other copyrighted materials. You own the copyright to pictures you take. You might not own the copyright to pictures taken of you. Unless the photographer gives you copyright you do not have the right to post your wedding pictures, your school pictures, your baby pictures and more. Well for most of us, our baby pictures, unless there is a photographer imprint on the back, are probably safe.
So what are the rules?
1. If the picture was taken after 1989 (consider it published for simplicity sake at the time a copy was given to anyone) then the photographer and his heirs own copyright for 70 years after his death.
2. The photographer can assign his copyright to anyone including someone who contracts his services, but if there is no statement of that fact then he retains the copyright. This rule affects wedding, school and other pictures taken by professionals.
3. If the picture was taken before 1 Mar 1989 and after 1923 it might be in copyright, but it would require a copyright notice on the picture at the very least. (For an easy to follow chart showing the terms of copyright follow the link to Cornell University’s copyright website on this page)
4. However, that notice could be on another copy of the picture so err on the side of caution if it is a picture of someone famous or taken by a famous photographer.
5. Ownership of a photograph does not give you copyright. Remember there can be multiple copies of the same picture, so although you can try to restrict use of a photo you have in hand, you would have to be able to prove that any use actually came from your copy.
6. If you digitize a photograph that is out of copyright you will hold a copyright to that digital image. If someone downloads that digital image and uses it on their website or in a digital publication they have violated your copyright. However, if someone prints the picture and then uses that in a subsequent publication they have not violated your copyright. You hold no copyright to the original picture. Once an photograph is in the Public Domain it remains there.