Walmart Requires a Written Release for Photos that Look “Too Professional”

If you need to print some photos taken by someone else using print services at places like Walmart, be careful: if the photographs look “too professional” some places will require a written copyright release before allowing you to pick up the prints — even after you’ve paid for them. The Consumerist has a story of a woman named Jessica who ran into problems at Walmart after collecting photos from a couple pro photographer friends for a friend’s funeral:

See, Jessica’s friend was a professional photographer, as is her friend’s husband, who had e-mailed Jessica the photos to have printed. “So even their candid pictures appear professional,” she explains to Consumerist.

[…] In addition to those photos, Jessica says that Walmart wanted copyright info on a couple of shots that had been taken at a pro studio like Olan Mills back in the ’70s.

“There was no mark on them to indicate where they were taken, and my friend’s mom had sent me those,” writes Jessica. “She paid for them back in the day when they were taken, and she scanned them for me last week. How am I supposed to get written copyrights for every single picture?

Jessica had also checked a box affirming that she had permission to print the images while on Walmart’s website. Protecting copyright is a good thing, but having employees make decisions on whether photos are “too professional” after they’ve already been printed and paid for doesn’t seem like a very good system.

Walmart Spoils Memorial Service Because They Think My Photos Look Too Professional (via ALTFoto)

Image credit: Walmart by matteson.norman

  • Spider- Man

    LOL first mistake was taking them to Walmart to get printed ;)

  • Cb

    This isn’t news, many places have been doing this for years. As a photographer who provides print-quality digital files to your clients, you should include a print release on the CD or in the .zip file.

  • Andy

    This happened to me a few years ago. I took some last-minute portraits of my son to give to relatives for Christmas and used the kiosk at Wal-Mart for one hour printing since we were about to head out of town. When I came back to pick them up they hadn’t printed them yet because they were too “professional” and they weren’t going to let me have them without a signed release. Fortunately I still had the originals on my camera which I was able to show them to prove I had taken the photos. I still had to sign a release though to allow them to print my own pictures.

  • Scott Huck

    Such a pain! I will not use WalMart printing & I do not encourage any of my clients use WalMart for printing. It has happened to me awhile back, they were my images, and I needed the copyright release printed out on a business letterhead. Such a pain.

  • JT

    I’m sure they don’t require a “copyright release” as you write. Surely a licence to print? Which is a good thing isn’t it? Many labs have had similar policies for many years now.

    As for “printed and paid for”. Buying a print and then scanning it to re-print, is a whole other kettle of fish.

  • Scott Huck

    such a pain! I refuse to use WalMart for printing! I’ll go out of my way to use other vendors.

  • cabbey

    “She paid for them back in the day when they were taken, and *she scanned them for me last week*.” (emphasis mine.) There’s a very good chance that was a violation of the studio’s copyright, as almost no studio grants reproduction rights when you buy a print. So while it pains me to say this… good catch minimum wage earner at wallymart.

  • Royce

    I had to write a copyright release to myself to pick-up my images from Walgreens one time.    O.o

  • Megan Radich

    Procedures like Walmart’s exists to protect the company from silly lawsuits – nothing more. I worked at a Walmart photo lab for 3 years and enforced this. It isn’t because we want to ruin someone’s funeral, wedding, life, etc. It’s so a professional photographer or studio can’t turn around and sue Walmart AND the employee for profiting from copies of the photo they took.

    That’s why this happens. Olan Mills gives out copyright notices easily for old photographs. Walmart also has their document whereby signing you agree that these are either your photos or you have permission so that the co has something in writing.

  • Charles Mason

    the question is why the staff are the ones judging the photographs for whether they look “professional” or not. so professionals who create non-professional work aren’t protected? non-professionals who create professional work are inconvenienced?

    also, why not require these things at an earlier step before the customer goes and tries to pick up the prints (after paying for them). seems like the system would be a lot better if it was more uniformly applied and if the customers had a better heads-up

  • Jim

    The PPA got all over Kmart a few years back and won a multi million dollar suit regarding copyright infringement by staff using the Kodak kiosks.  The result is that these places have enlisted tough standards on their staff.  Personally, as a professional I’m thrilled to hear that there is a least one line of defense against blatant copyright violations.  While it may create a hassle from time to time, we can’t have it both ways.  We can’t expect these places to not violate our copyrights and never hassle anyone.

  • Nigel

    Basically anything with a shallow depth of field will be deemed ‘professional’. ;-)

  • Sam Chua

    They must be confused because real professionals would never print at Walmart

  • JT

    They wouldn’t be asking if they thought the pro was doing the printing…

  • hmgphotos

    I once had some photos of my cat printed up quickly at a Walmart so I could send them to my grandmother.  The teenager behind the counter refused to give them to me, based on the fact there were “professional.”  I explained to her that I am the photographer, showed her my business card, and she proceeded to inform me “No, you’re not a photographer and you’re trying to steal someone’s photographs.”  I went home, came back with my DSLR and laptop and spoke with the manager.  Needless to say, my business card was hung up in that photo center with a note to never challenge photos I may have printed (never had anything further printed there, though).  I just don’t see how some high school girl has the ability to judge whose a photographer or what’s a professional photo?? 

    I love that there are standards in place, but I feel like I get unnecessarily hassled, even after providing proof I am the owner of the copyright.  Unfortunately the town I live in lacks professional labs, so I often consider going through my smugmug account to order prints. 

  • Eduardo Mueses

    Not only that!
     I’d restored a picture for my father of my grandmother, when I took it to Walmart to be printed, they told me that I needed proof that the picture was mine and that it belong to my family. They told me that they needed the Original and proof of ownership otherwise they would not give me the print. I took my business elsewhere… My father was happy!

  • Megan Radich

    The staff ends up doing the judging because the staff are the ones who are responsible for 1) giving you the pictures & 2) processing the transaction. There’s no one else that CAN do the judging in this scenario – only the regular employees or managers.

    Yes, because of the sue-happy society we live in, non-pros who create pro-looking photos are inconveniced and pros who create non-pro-looking photos are insulted. ;)

    Now, I’m not sure why Walmart Online has a “I agree that these are mine” clause that you accept but that doesn’t translate to the actual store that printed them. Or why that doesn’t print along with the sticker for the photos. Bad UI/UX.

    I totally agree with you with the system is messy and customers need more information sooner. Hopefully when people start hearing about these stories they won’t immediately dismiss the printer but rather say “ok, I need to prepare in case this happens”.

  • Nasser :P

    So we establish all 1-Hour photo labs like Target, Walgreens, CVS and etc. have the same policy its up to the photo tech on duty to follow it tho. So in reality if you have “profession” photo at all you shouldn’t be going to any 1-Hour lab for reprints unless the photos are 35-75 years of age.

    In the end the lab shouldn’t be held responsible at all. It’s the customer who should receive the lawsuit…You know how many customers come up to me with prints with a watermark that I turn down I might add.. Just so I can see them the next day being purchased with the watermark cut off.

  • rekanize

    Back when it was still called Kinko’s, the amount of unlawful reproductions I would witness daily  actually suggest that measures like this are an unfortunate side effect. People would come in and get copies of photos what were obviously the proof prints from a photographer, which used to make my blood boil.
    More times than not, if they complained loudly enough, the M.O.D. would just allow it, after I spent the last 20 minutes futilely adhering to company policy (as well as copyright law).
    I’m sure this happens all the time at Wal-Mart as well… And I’m not ignoring the people that happen to have legitimate rights to the photos being unnecessarily hassled. But if there’s going to be full consumer access to reproduction services, there HAVE to be some means in place to at least try to protect the copyrights of others.

  • Anonymous

    It’s unfortunate that the legal landscape is the way it is.  The customer that gave the printer the photo isn’t a big target either, rarely do you get million dollar settlements out of them, but you might out of a big box chain.

  • Phil

    Ive been preparing my customers for this for a long time.  I also explain to them that if I sell them a digitial file, with the rights to print it that their results will likley be poor.  These places often “process” files with auto adjustment junk that ruins a good photo, not to mention use the cheapest inks and paper.  I tell clients that they are basically good for making christmas cards and 4×6 copies for your friends fridge.  Then I give them a written release for the inevitable hassle they will get at the printer.  Many photographers I know wont even release the files for this reason, but Im pretty sure customers are scanning their prints illegally anyway – so i prefer to offer the digital files as an option.

  • Steve

    The lab that I worked for was successfully sued for copying Olan Mills prints even though the watermark was removed. The suit helped create the precedents for the laws we have now. (Olan Mills v. Linn Photo)

    I agree that the lab shouldn’t be punished rather it should be the person who placed the order. Right now a lab can have a judgement of up to $100,000 per reproduced image. A single photo book ordered from home with scanned professional images could have a dozen or more illegal images in it. As a lab manager that possibility would scare the devil out of me.

    The problem is that the same law covers all intellectual property not just photos. Things such as recorded music fall under this law. If the law suit target shifts from the producer of the copies to the compiler of the protected media bootlegging would be rampant.

  • Chris

    This is a real problem with copyright law and industry standards.  It would be insane to think that a “photography license” should be required to have photographs printed, but once you admit that the general public can print photos (be it at Walmart or MPIX) you introduce the problem that anybody can take images of which they own copies but not reproduction rights (as the person in this story admits they did with the 70’s photos) and reproduce them.

    This inevitably leads to a law suit (and the PPA has sued multiple photo processors over printing copyrighted images), but since it’s completely impossible to actually verify that they’re not reprinting an image for which the customer doesn’t hold the rights, any method to verify they’re not violating copyright is certain not only to be pro forma, but to necessarily reprint photos illegally _and_ at least hassle legitimate requestors and possibly reject them.  According to the PMAI’s “Copyright Policy for Labs and Stores for Film and Digital Images”, which could probably be used as standard in court, a photo should be recognized as professional not only if it’s watermarked but also by “formal posses”, “even distribution of lighting” or “use of backgrounds”.  At this point I’d almost feel insulted if you haven’t had somebody reject printing your pictures without a signed release because they look too professional. :-P

    I personally think in the absence of a watermark or clear evidence of its removal the customer ought to be able to just sign a release saying they know it’s illegal to reproduce without the photographer’s permission and they have permission, but I have no clue what the lawyers would say about that, and that’s the part that’s important.

  • Aus_Guy

    I work in an Australian photolab. We have a similar system – the customer just signs a form that states that our company will not be held responsible for any copyright infringement. Too easy. It’s saving the profession of photography, so ermmm, quit your bitchin? :)

  • Flgraphics

    why is this a question if you have the photos in a high enough resolution to print?
    Obviously you got the original photos, therefore it should be understood by these companies that you have the right to print them for personal use

    now if you were printing a hundred of the same shot.. that might be a different story

  • Leslieandersonjr

    Look I work for Wal-Mart in the photo lab and it is not just Wal-mart with these policies it is everyone that has the option to reproduce photos. It is a Federal Law the same law that protects music and movies being copied.If you go somewhere and they just let you copy the pictures and they are professionally done, that employee is new and doesn’t know all the laws and rules or they do not care about the laws and policies..plainly speaking they are not doing their job. It is not our intent to ruin anybodies day or to upset people but we are doing our jobs and following the Federal Law and policies. I am sure where you work has laws and/or rules or policies you can’t break so why ask us to break ours? Yes it sucks if you take a picture and it looks good enough to be professional, isn’t that a compliment?. Its just Wal-Mart and other companies must protect themselves from law suits. There are some labs that may go about it the wrong way by refusing or rejecting the idea that the customer did not take the photo. We (Wal-Mart) have a form you fill out that you put your name address and phone number on and thats it, We (Wal-Mart) are no longer responsible and now you the customer are and if in fact you are lying and it is a professional photo you can be sued not the lab or company.Now we do have to judge pictures without watermarks or stamps because believe it or not..not all studios and pro. photographers use them. I mean would you want a watermark or stamp on your wedding photos or any photos you get? We compare everything in the photo to what a professional photo would look like. One of the biggest give aways is the double bulp flas in the eyes. Others are backdrops and the way people are positioned. Pretty much point and shoot cameras can not have the same effect on pictures that a SLR/DSLR camera can. Sure maybe with todays photo software you can get it pretty close. If you buy a cd from the photgraphr or studio you should have a release form either to print from the cd or on the cd as a label or on the sleeve or somewhere. Some even give you the form itself. The reason they do this is because they know places need a copyright release form and usually those ones are not marked in anyway by the studio or photographer. If customers would take the time to read we (Wal-Mart) has the copyright policies before the customer agrees, therefor the customer presses the I agree button/tab so they understand they need in writing a copyright releas form. We as the labs can not force customers to read if they just skip the terms that is not our fault. We also can not enforce studios and/or pro. photographers to let people know they will have to use a copyright consent to print photos outside of their homes. Why is it such a big hassel? Cause we are protecting studios and professional photographers? Some people want to copy pictures that are not from a CD in that case some photos on the back have do not copy professional photo or something like that. I belivev it is around 75 years or maybe more that the copyright no longer is in effect but at Wal-Mart we will not do any picture no matter how old because they want to protect themsleves. Is the Law fair..yes and if it was up us print away but we have to follow policies and the Federal Law, cause I am not getting fired over pictures people can do for free at their house or a friends house. It only takes a minute or less to fill out the form if you claim you are the legal owner of the pictures. I do understand the frusrtation especially if a friend took the pictures and you have to have them sign the form but come on why yell at us? We did not make the law or policy. Yell at the Federal Government or the studio or photographer. Ask the studio or photographer for a releas or ask if it comes with one and how to get it. Its really not Wal-marts or Targets or Walgreens or whoevers responsibilty its yours, the customers to get the release form. We will hold the pictures and we do for 60 days. I am sorry if you neerd them done today but maybe if you didn’t wait last minute. It is intresting that people are not aware of copyright in this day and age. We will be happy to explain if you are upset and yelling at us. I actually get more people that understand than people who don’t. The ones that don’t really fly off the handle. We get all kinds of threats, over pictures???? People need to grow up. If you have any questions just ask I will be happy to answer them.

  • Leslieanderrsonjr

    Actually in a way you are correct. You do have the right to print them at home not at a lab(walmart, walgreens,ect.) unless you have a copyright consent form. Single prints and packages from a studio or photographer are just that those are the only copies you get, sure you can make copies at home its still illegal kinda like buying a movie or cd and making a copy, copyright laws protect that.Because that is how the studio and pro.photographer makes its money by customers buying prints from them. CD’s purchased from studios and/or pro.photographers usually come with the release customers just need to print them out usually. We base any print done off of professional prints thats how we determine if they look professional. Usually if you use a SLR/DSLR they can come out looking professional.

  • Leslieandersonjr

    That still wouldn’t work but it would be nice.

  • Leslieandersonjr

    The great thing is if you want you can report that manager on duty cause they can not over turn Federal Law. If it was just company policy yeah sure but then why have the policy in the first place? At my Wal-Mart managers use to overturn until I told on them..they do not anymore. Its really not that hard to get a consent form if you own the rights to the photos and people do not understand that. The studio or photographer actually owns the right to the photos the customers just get permission to use them unless they get sold the rights. It sucks and makes us look bad and its unprofessional for managers to do that.

  • Leslieandersonjr

    Yeah I hate the fact that people can go to another employee that doesn’t work in photo to get pictures. Our HP machine allows customers to freely walk away with pictures without us checvking them and cashiers do not know about copyright. We still are not aloud to sell photos that look professional so they can cut out or off the watermark and/or stamp. There are a few people that still let it go by and it is frustrating when a customer says the other guy/girl let me, which of course could be a lie but even if its not I uphold the Federal Law. You would think by now 2011 almost 2012 people would understand more about copyright laws.

  • Leslieandersonjr

    Back then they didn’t have stamps or watermarks and I believe copyright is 75 years, could be more cause I read it could be up to 100 years before the copyright is no longer valid. If its a picture that was not done professionally then you shouldn’t have a problem. We understand its old and sometimes the studio is closed or the photographer is no longer alive. They are still under the copyright law and there are ways to get a copyright from those types of situations, you just gotta look.

  • Leslieandersonjr

    I don’t understand why its a hassel? As a company they must protect themselves. Believe or not people get professional pictures done for their pets. Its a simple form you fill out that takes a minute or less if you are the one that actually took the pictures. Just cause you bought prints from the studio or photographer doesn’t mean you own the rights. In your case they should of let you fill out the form so you could be on your way. They shouldn’t of said you were not the photographer, unless there was a stamp or watermark of some kind on the photos, even then they should of been more professional about it and explained it better. Cause if it had a watermark or stamp regardless if you have a card we would still need a copyright consent to release the pictures.

  • Leslieandersonjr

    Actually that is not true. We get professionals at our Wal-Mart, studios no but freelance yeah, sometimes. They have no problems signing the forms and are happy we do it. Its true though most pros have there own printers but not all do. People just do not understand they do not own the rights to the photos (usually) if you buy a cd you can print however much you wan but still you need the release that the studio or photographer gives you or puts on the cd so that itself proves you do not own the rights just the rights to print from the cd. If you buy a package or prints you also do not own the rights, studios and pro photographers don’t even usually give a consent for those. So usually its the clinet/customer of the pros or studios that come in and make prints so you are kinda right.

  • pybokeh

    How did the people get high res pictures then?  My point is, it is the photographer’s fault if the client somehow got high res pictures.  If they were low res and/or with watermark, that is a different story.

  • Don Giannatti

    So they are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

    This is so simple. I have provided my clients and friends with certificate of permission to print for 6 years. I LOVE that Walmart and Sams and Costco protect our rights. 

    If someone doesn’t have permission, then don’t involve the big stores (who WILL get sued) and do it themselves.

    I wonder at the attention span of the people… They have been requiring this for years and years. This woman makes NEWS because the store is coming down on the SAFE side? WTF?

    We should be cheering!

  • barb

    You have to be at least 18 yrs old to work in the photo lab at Walmart so she was probably out of high school. She’s was just doing her job.  Some managers at Walmart are really strict with the associates about the copyright issues, others are not. Walmart tells us what we’re suppose to say & do but doesn’t always back us up when push comes to shove. We associates are between a rock & a hard place.  We don’t make the rules, we just try to do our job 

  • Cupofliferamen

    Professional photos are seriously expensive. After dishing out hundreds or thousands of dollars for photos (in todays economy) you should be entitled to print whatever you want provided they give you a disc with digital copies. If photographers are so worried about the fact a customer will just take said photos to a cheaper venue to be printed in much poorer quality… The digital photos should just be offered in higher price tiers so that they feel they are earning their monies worth.

  • Jnadramia

    Get the GODDAMM Federal govt out of the PICTURE and life will be easier like the old days when there were no lawsuits flying all over for a broken fingernail or a hot coffee bullshit,human beings turned into overgrown 3 yr olds that  can’t even respect each other they need some fat govt. to run their lives?Now Americans are the laziest in history and its not just the young ones!! Everyone is entitled to free money,just lets respect someones profession etc. we will all be fine!

  • Poed

    Copyright sucks is stupid and walmart is worse.

  • [email protected]

    Three cheers for Walmart!! Once again, doing the right thing!

  • B

    I had this same problem – I felt like I was standing there filling out a form to give myself permission to print my own photos. I had to stand there and go through every picture describing where I was at when I took them. I explained they were on my flash drive – they said, “Honey ANYONE could put pictures on a flash drive” which may be true but I believe they need a better way to handle this. After arguing over my own pictures for over 20 minutes they ended up letting me keep my images and gave me my money back from the whole mess. Booo Walmart…

  • Jessi Batman

    Walgreens is always better!

  • Jessi Batman

    I own my own company and I printed once at Walmart and never went back again. all the pictures were pixelated or filled with grain. Now I always go to Walgreens. They do a much better job printing.

  • RedRaiderMama

    This policy is extremely frustrating when you’re the one who took the pictures!

    I’m by no means a professional photographer, but I have a good camera and like to take photos of my son which I then edit in Photoshop for final printing. Apparently I did a pretty good job because when I went to pick up my prints after paying for them online, I was told that I would need a copyright release because they appeared to have been taken by a professional. “Oh sure, let me get that out of the diaper bag for you…oh wait, I’m not a professional photographer so why the heck would I carry a copyright release form on me???”

    I respect that they are trying to protect the copyrighted works of professionals, but this is seriously ridiculous when I can’t even pick up MY OWN photos that have already been purchased.

  • RevShane

    LOL! I am a professional freelance photographer and I have had this problem multiple times with people I have shot events for, and once or twice when I wanted to get a quick print of something I shot myself. I use Walgreens and CVS now. Wal-Mart is just to commie for me…

  • Lisa S.

    I’ve had Walgreens make me show my photography business card to print my OWN pictures that they thought looked too professional.

  • Lisa S.

    “not done professionally” is actually irrelevant. The law states whoever took the picture holds the copyright unless that person explicitly gives up their copyright. If someone picks up my professional camera at a wedding and takes a picture (not that I leave my camera lying around) they technically hold the copyright to the image. It does not matter if the person is a “professional” or not.

  • Lisa

    I’m seriously curious — it seems a trend in these comments that the people being challenged on printing pictures (myself included) are women. Are there any men that have had their authority to print pictures anywhere challenged?

  • ☆ Đ ệ Ŋ į ş ể ☆

    I know you posted on this 2 years ago but I am hoping you can help. I just ran into this problem today with pictures of my 3 week old daughter. I took pictures of her yesterday with a regular ol’ digital camera. They let me have my photo’s but said next time I would have to have a release form. My question is, how do I go about getting a release form or typing one up? I am not a professional by any means so I do not have a business name or anything like that. I guess I am just confused on how to go about release my own photo’s to myself in writing. Any input would be greatly appreciated. :)

  • Hutch

    Yeah, Walgreens started pulling this crap, too. I wasn’t in the mood for it when it happened to me. I was tired and had s**t to do.
    “Do you have the copyright to these?”
    “We can’t release these without a copyright.”
    *sigh* “Ok, then yes I have the copyright. Whatever. Just give me my photos.”
    It’s ridiculous. If I were living in a small town with a friendly old guy as our neighborhood photo guy, I wouldn’t have to hear anything about it.