Suppose you are a university researcher and, in the course of a government-funded project using a university-owned camera, you snap a marvelous photograph of your intrepid study subject. Beautiful! The picture is gorgeous. You hang it as a poster above your desk.
Someone passes by your office and is so struck by the photo's otherworldly charm that she offers to buy it. That's flattering, but can you sell it?
Here's the tricky bit. Who owns the image? Do you own it, since you composed and executed the photo? Does the university own it, since the camera is institutional property? Does the public own it, since taypayers were paying for your time? In other words, is the image yours to sell?
The answer, unfortunately for both the taxpaying public and artistically-inclined researchers, is often not terribly clear. Ownership depends on the policies of your institution and the exact circumstances under which you took the photo. This post lists several guidelines to help navigate image ownership for scientists.
1. Works produced as part of the official duties of federal employees are public domain. Consider the rights listed for this post's lede image:
Images coming from CDC, NASA, USDA, and other government agencies are public domain. If you are a NASA scientist imaging on NASA computers and telescopes, in most cases the public rightfully owns the fruits of your labor. After all, they are paying you. But public ownership is true only during work hours. If a NASA scientist on lunch break instagrams a food photo from her phone, the image is probably hers even if NASA issued the phone. Lunch is not part of the work description. This is for the best. I'm not sure the public needs more instagrammed sandwiches.
2. Works produced by university employees may or may not be owned by the university. This answer is as clear as mud, alas, but such is the nature of institutions that must balance independent scholarship with institutional pressures and the needs of external granting agencies. Some institutions are more open than others regarding works created by employees, so to find out if the photos you took using university cameras are really yours, you will need to check the policies of your institution. The University of Illinois, for example, adopts a typical stance:
If you received grant money explicitly to photograph widgets at the University of Illinois, or if photographing widgets is part of your written job description, then your widget photographs are probably not yours. However, if you use University equipment to photograph gizmos, and gizmos aren't in your job description, then you likely own the rights to the photographs. Similarly, student images produced during a class belong to the students.
3. Private industries nearly always own works created by their employees during work hours. Because that's how these things work.
4. Works produced by scientists on their own time, using their own resources, is nearly always their own. Because you are an employee, not a slave.
As for how I handle my own images, I am careful to keep the university separate from my business. I sometimes work in varying capacities for the University of Illinois, but I do not claim ownership of images I produce there, even though a straightforward reading of U of I policy indicates my non-contract photos are probably mine. I would never sell these grant-funded SEMs, for example: http://myrmecos.net/2008/09/29/a-wasp-in-intricate-detail/ . Of course, I purchase my own photography equipment, including my image processing computers, using my own funds.
If you have doubts about whether you own images you've taken at work, you will want contact the legal department at your institution. As much as I like this blog, your mother should have warned you about accepting legal advice from strangers on the internet.