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Photography and the Law: Photographers' Rights and Releases

with Carolyn E. Wright and Ben Long

Video: Photographers' rights when shooting

Learn about your rights as a photographer, from what and where you can shoot and how those photos can be published, to getting releases and respecting other's copyrights and trademarks.
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Photography and the Law: Photographers' Rights and Releases
Video duration: 0s 36m 45s Appropriate for all


The intersection of photography and law is a complex place. What are your rights as a photographer? Where and what are you permitted—and not permitted—to photograph? What should you do when you're told to leave an area or delete photos you've already shot?

Photographer Ben Long and attorney Carolyn Wright discuss legal considerations ranging from where you can and can't take pictures to getting signed releases for people and property. Plus, learn about respecting trademarks when shooting commercial work, and your rights as a photographer when dealing with security and law-enforcement personnel.

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Photographers' rights when shooting

(music) Ben Long: Hi, I'm Ben Long. If you're like most photographers, going out and shooting people in the wild, out on the street, in public, is a really intimidating thing. It's a scary thing to approach a stranger and figure out how to get their picture. Once you've got the picture, though, there's this whole other scary domain that opens up and that is the issue of rights. Do you have the rights to do something with that picture? I am here with Caroline Wright. I never really made that distinction before, how perfect your name is for this.

We're going to talk about rights as a photographer. What you can shoot, what you can't shoot. Let's just start right there. Where do I have the right to take a picture? Caroline Wright: You have a right to take your photographs anywhere in the public or in a publicly accessible area or wherever you have permission of the property owner to take photographs. Ben Long: Specifically that they've said you can shoot in here. Caroline Wright: Yes, specifically given you authority to take photographs on their property. Ben Long: Public space, that's not a real subjective thing, that's pretty cut and dry isn't it? Caroline Wright: Well, that's why I say publicly accessible areas because there really are no public places except, maybe, owned by the government.

Federal lands. But publicly accessible places like sidewalks, streets, any place that you really have a right to be, then you can take pictures. Ben Long: Okay. So I have a right to take the picture there. Whether I can do something with that picture, is something we'll get to in a minute. Just for the moment we're talking about the actual shooting. I was one time on a street in a commercial area on the sidewalk in front of a grocery store. There was a bunch of fruit out front and I was taking pictures of it and the owner of the store came out and said, "You can't take pictures here." Can I take pictures there? I'm in a publicly accessible place shooting something that belongs to him.

Caroline Wright: Well, if you were on the store's property then the store manager or store owner would be able to have the right to tell you to stop shooting. A lot of it's sort of a common sense kind of thing. Are there other people? Are you interfering with the store operations? But if you were on a sidewalk taking pictures of a store from in that, very clearly, publicly accessible area not owned by the store, then you should be able to take photographs. It's legal for you to take photographs as long as you're not impeding traffic.

You know, don't have a tripod set up, you're not blocking people from moving. A lot of it's just sort of a common sense kind of thing. Ben Long: Okay. There are places that I would see as publicly accessible but they're actually private spaces like going into a restaurant, going into a bar, or something like that. Are the same rules applying? Caroline Wright: Exactly. Basically when somebody owns property they get to decide what happens on that property. If you walked into a restaurant and started spitting on the floor, the owner or the manager could ask you to leave.

If you come into a restaurant and you're taking pictures ... Let's say you're taking pictures of your friends. You're out there celebrating a birthday. Well, the manager or the owner is not going to stop you from doing that, you're having a good time. Let's say you're sitting there at a restaurant and you're taking pictures of other customers and that's kind of creeping out the customers. Well, the manager is not going to be happy about that because you're bothering the other patrons. So, again, it's a common sense type of thing. You really need permission when you're on somebody's property to take photographs. Sometimes people encourage it, like if you're there for a party.

Or you have permission to come and take pictures of somebody's oak tree, or something like that. But on private property you really have to have permission to be there, or otherwise you're trespassing and they can arrest you, they can force you to leave. Ben Long: Okay. And that is pretty common sense. You are, obviously, in a private space. Someone has allowed you to come in so you're at their beck and call. You mentioned government owned properties. So, a city park. Something like that. That's publicly accessible space.

Is that a public space I can take a picture? Caroline Wright: Absolutely. Again, you don't want to set up a tripod so that it's a safety issue. Then yeah, you can shoot. I mean, you can go take pictures of the flowers. Now, just because it's legal doesn't mean that somebody's not going to try to hassle you and tell you that you can't shoot there. That's a different story. But as far as having the legal right to shoot, absolutely. Ben Long: Okay, so what do I do if I'm in a situation that I know is legal to shoot and someone's telling me I'm not supposed to? Caroline Wright: Photographers have been cast with this sort of cloak that says, "We're horrible, "we're terrorists, we're going to do something wrong." So security guards or police officers will come up to photographers and say, "No, you can't shoot here." Because they think that you're plotting something horrible.

Ben Long: Casing the joint or something. Caroline Wright: Exactly. And another thing that happens, especially in city parks, is there are children there and parents get weirded out by photographers taking pictures of their children. But they absolutely have the right to do so. Ben Long: So, if someone hassles me and I, like when this guy was bothering me about shooting the fruit outside of his store, I was pretty sure that I was in the right. It felt to me at the time, this is a picture of some apples, I don't need it. I'll just move along. I can't imagine where I would think, "Yeah, this is an image worth fighting for." But if I had really needed these pictures of apples, what would I have done? Caroline Wright: Well, first of all you might want to explain to the store manager what you're doing and why you're doing it and, sort of, ask permission to do so.

Even though you don't need it, it's just a way to get things done. If you want to stand fast for your rights, sure you could get maybe a police officer or an attorney involved and say, "I'm not "violating any laws. Let me stand here "and take pictures of the apples." Again, it's common sense as to whether you want to fight for your rights. For example, you're taking photographs of an accident scene. The police officer can come along and say you have to stand behind a certain area but the police officer cannot stop you from taking photographs of the accident.

You just can't interfere with their accident investigation or taking care of the injured. Ben Long: So, is there a situation in a publicly accessible space where they could tell me not to take a picture? Caroline Wright: For the most part, that's correct. There's not a publicly accessible area. There are some new laws that have been passed and they're going to be challenged constitutionally, where people who are upset by, perhaps, farming operations, maybe slaughterhouses, places like that where there have been state laws passed that prohibit a photographer from being on the street, on publicly accessible property, taking photographs onto the farm area.

There have been laws that have been passed that say that that's illegal. But there are constitutional challenges to that. We're not sure exactly how that's going to be. My prediction is that it will be turned over, that as long as you're in a publicly accessible area, you should be able to shoot whatever you can see. Ben Long: What about if I'm ... And this is going to sound a little creepy so let me give a, maybe, a better real world example. I was walking down a street in Brooklyn one time, it was a beautiful fall afternoon, the light was really nice, and I heard the sound of a violin. I looked into this beautiful Brownstone and there was a kid practicing his violin.

It was this very nice little tableau, I'm standing in a publicly accessible place, shooting into a private home. Is that shaky ground? Caroline Wright: No and that's a great example that we can learn from. When people are in their home, and in a publicly accessible area there still may be places where people have an expectation of privacy. That's really the test. By the way, this is state law, so each state may have their own laws. But in the United States they're mostly the same.

It's kind of a subjective question as to whether somebody has an expectation of privacy. Let's say you're in a public restroom. Do you have an expectation of privacy in there so that would prevent somebody from taking your photograph? Absolutely. Ben Long: Right. Caroline Wright: We all sort of recognize that, if I'm in a public bathroom, but I'm in the stall, the door is closed, somebody can't stick a camera under that stall and take that picture of me. Likewise, when we are in our homes we have, generally, an expectation of privacy only when we have the curtains drawn, the blinds closed.

Then we have a clear expectation of privacy. But if you can visibly see the person through the window, they have no expectation of privacy. This recently was an issue. There was a photographer, I believe in New York, who was taking pictures of people in the buildings across from her in their home. Ben Long: Okay, okay. So we talked about a restaurant type of place. What about a place that is exhibiting imagery or logos or things that I know are copyrighted? I'm at Disneyland.

It's a very identifiable place and we know Disney fights for its rights very strongly. Or a famous landmark or something like that. Are those issues? Caroline Wright: Absolutely. So, when you're at Disneyland, that property is owned by Disneyland. So Disneyland can dictate when you can take photographs. And Disney, they encourage you to take photos. They want you to have family photos and show everybody you're having a great time at Disneyland. There are some times that in Disneyland or other places like that, that they will tell you not to photograph.

One, they might say, "No flash photography." It might cause a safety issue for people. Another thing is that they just may want to prevent you from sharing what you see. Let's say you go to a rock show or some sort of a show, they may prohibit the photography while you're there. Well, that's because they want to sell you copies of the photos or the video of what you're seeing. So they're trying to protect their own work. But if you are taking photographs of things in your photos that are protected by copyright.

For example, let's say you're taking a photograph of a house and it's got paintings up on the wall. The copyright owner has the exclusive right to determine what is reproduced. Is that a copyright violation, when you take a photograph of a copyrighted work? Then there might be trademarks. For example, at Disneyland. There's costumes protected by copyright, there's all kinds of trademarks. Disney's trademark is everywhere.

Then you do have to make the consideration of how you use those photographs. Let's talk about copyrighted works first. If you take a photograph of a copyrighted work, then you do have to look at the same sort of parameters of whether you're reproducing, displaying, or distributing that copyrighted work. Or creating a derivative work. You have to look at, is there a fair use involved? Is it de minimis in the photograph? It is a problem when you're in a place where there's a sculpture.

That's a copyrighted work, protected by copyright. You have to be very careful before you reproduce it. There was a case where there was a sculpture in Washington state and a photographer took a photograph of a part of that sculpture and was licensing that photo through a stock agency and the photographer got sued. Because the sculptor wanted to protect his copyright. So you have to be careful about that.

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