Copying Santa


Mall Santas are doing big business. But some parents feel like they’re getting the business over the photos being snapped of their little ones perched on the fat man’s lap.

An angry parent emailed Boing Boing when she found a Mall Santa photo stand that offered a “copyright release” for an additional $15.99 over the price of prints and photo CDs:

“You don’t have to buy it, but I suppose the implication is that if you use the photo of your child with Santa without buying it, they can come after you?”

This prompts a response from a former photo lab employee who talks about having to refuse customers who wanted copies of professional photos — even some dating all the way back to the 1920s, likely long after the lab itself was gone — because of copyright.

Another reader, who apparently does work in a photo lab, explains:

“Whoever takes the photo (and thereby possesses the negs or original digital files) owns the copyright. [In] most cases, this is the [photographer]; in the cast of photo studios, its the studio. This isn’t a clever copyright trick to make more money, its just how the law works automatically to protect the creators of those images. That said, this makes it technically illegal for you and those guys down at the photomat to copy (not distribute) those images without permission (copyright release) or proof of ownership (negs). This is a big problem because the studios and photogs in question seldom explain this to their customers beforehand, so when people go to get extra copies, they get confused and angry at the lab guys.”Photogs and studios are not in the business of taking photos for money; they sell prints (or rights to make prints). It’s how they make money. So many studios wont actually give out releases because it means the money for those extra copies goes to some one else instead of them. Other places will sell you the negatives along with the prints or charge a fee for a release, and the best places will just give you a release and send you on your way. The fee is simply to offset the cost of loss business. This stuff has been going on for decades and is nothing new.”

(Yes, I cleaned up the punctuation and added appropriate capitalization to make it easier to read.)

But another reader chimed in with this:

“I see another, very important difference. They are double dipping by asking to be paid separately for the CD and for the release. What on earth are you buying when you pay them for the CD if not the right to use the file(s) contained on it? If they intend for you not to make copies from the CD, why are they even selling it without a release? Ryan says that if you show up at Photomat with the negatives, it implies that you have purchased the right to make copies. Well, if I show up with the image file that I legitimately purchased from the photographer/studio, I expect that I have paid for that same right to copy.”

This is like claiming that a song purchased on an old LP isn’t meant to be copied, but the same song purchased on CD should imply that that the buyer can copy the song to his heart’s content and do whatever he wants with the copies. Or that a novel purchased in book form isn’t meant to be shared, but an audiobook can be copied as often as the buyer wants.

I don’t think they’re double-dipping at all. The format of the image they give you has nothing to do with your right to copy it. Whether they hand you the image printed on normal photographic paper, a Polaroid print, or a CD, it’s still their image. If you don’t have the right to copy a photographic print on paper, you don’t have the right to copy a CD; it’s just that they’re offering you more options for displaying the image you purchased: either in a frame or on a computer.

So parents, just keep in mind that you’re buying the image, not the copyright, unless you pay extra. If you want to make multiple copies of it to send to the relatives, you might end up paying a little more, or having a lot more headaches.


  1. I ran into this when I wanted to make copies of my child’s school pictures for emergency purposes (my child is autistic). I was refused use of the photo copy machine at Walgreen’s because of this rule, so I made them at home on my scanner.

    We no longer buy school pictures for this reason. No one has the right to maintain control of a person’s image.

  2. This is what they have lost. My daughter, at 7 years old, have NEVER, NEVER sat on Santa’s lap. Why? Because all the mall wants her to do is pose for a picture that they want to sell to me. Not allow her to talk to Santa. My oldest who will be 25 in a month could talk to Santa, picture or no picture. That is no longer so. I hope everyone wakes up and never takes their kid to a mall Santa. There is nothing in it for the consumer!

  3. Technically they are right. So what will they gain though? People are already coming with their own cameras & they won’t buy them. They are getting too expensive now anyways. It is all commercialism! I remember when Santa would come to my folks house for a party. This will start happening more. They will just hurt themselves as people will end up taking their own Christmas pix by a tree & just let their kid “visit with” Santa & then they will be hurting so it will cost you to even visit with him. Pathetic!

  4. If I were the photographer, I would ensure that the image files on the CD were of high enough resolution to view on a computer monitor, but not to generate acceptable prints larger than, say, 4×6. That way, people who want to send small snapshots with their Christmas cards could do so by themselves, but if larger, good quality photographs were desired, the customer would have to return to the studio for that.

    I do sympathize with those who would like copies of professional images taken by photographers or studios that no longer exist. There must be some provision within copyright law for that, but I do not know what it is.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.