I recently read an interesting story online about a father who wanted to know if he would be violating copyright law if he scanned a print he purchased from a photographer and made prints for all his family and friends. He argued that he "owns a scanner that [he] intends to use" and that he thought $15.99 was too much to pay for prints.
Regardless of whether you think prints are worth paying for, the copyright of another photographer's images does not belong to you. Unless permission is given by the owner of the copyright, you have absolutely no right to reprint a photo either for personal use (scanning the photo and using it elsewhere) or for distribution (which includes publishing it online or sending it via email). This is a clear copyright violation.
It doesn't matter if you're selling it or giving it away for free. If you don't hold the copyright on a creative work then you have no right to reprint or distribute the work. Just ask the many kids (and their parents) who have been sued by record companies for illegally distributing music over the internet. In most cases these people shared music for free ... but they were violating copyright by distributing a creative work belonging to someone else.
Under Title 17, section 504 and 505 of United States Code the owner of the copyright can not only make you pay for his attorney fees, but you can be forced to pay statutory damages in a sum of not less than $750 or more than $30,000 as the court considers just.
Even worse, if the court finds "that infringement was committed willfully, the court in its discretion may increase the award of statutory damages to a sum of not more than $150,000." Are you ready to lose your house because you don't care about copyright?
Will most photographers bother trying to take people to court? Probably not. But I think you need to seriously consider that $15.99 (or whatever a photographer charges for prints) is a small price to pay in order to protect you from paying damages that are a minimum of $750 or a maximum of $150,000.
I know that in the digital age where photos instantly appear online it's easy to forget that photos have value and that the creators of those photos have rights. But regardless of whether you see the value or not, photographers have the right to control their images. Again, we can all debate the law until we're blue in the face, but that doesn't change the fact that copyright violation is a serious offense punishable by law.