Or: How To Avoid Getting Into Trouble With The Law
As a photographer, you actually have quite a few legal rights. In fact, it’s more than you would expect. It’s important to know your legal rights for several reasons. To start, you’ll want to know when the authorities do and don’t have the right to confiscate your photography equipment and images. You’ll also want to know what can get you into trouble with law. In this article, I've give you a primer into your ights as a photographer.
Disclaimer: I am not a laywer and what I describe here are based on the United States laws. Your local laws and interpretations may vary. Consult a lawyer to be sure.
If You Are On Public Property, You Can Usually Take Pictures
That includes people you don’t even know in person. If you’re on public property (or private property open to the public), it’s fair game, and the offending party has no right to prosecute you in court. You can also take pictures of people and buildings that are on private property while you’re standing on public property. Doing so does not violate the law.
Bear in mind that if you take enough pictures in public, someone will eventually get angry. People will confront you, and they will tell you that what you’re doing is against the law. Some police officers might even attempt to confiscate your photography equipment. If this happens, be polite, and ask them if they have a legal reason for doing so. If they don’t, they can’t take your equipment.
There are some exceptions. You can’t photograph somebody who has a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” (ie in a bathroom or dressing room). Ask yourself: “Would the average person expect privacy?” If so, don’t take a photo. Also, voyeuristic photos are not legal under any circumstance. The consequences for these are very severe.
Sensitive government buildings like military bases are also out of bounds. Even if you are standing in a public place. Be safe and don't even try. Also, if you are on private property that's open to the public, they have the right to make up their own rules as to if photos can be taken.
Selling Your Photos And Using Them For Commercial Purposes
You are allowed to take as many public photos as you want, but it gets more difficult (and interesting) when it comes to selling and using those photos. The big thing to be concerned about is commercial use. Whenever you use a photo of someone else to advertise your services or a company’s products or services, you need to have that person sign a model release (sample here).
Everything else is fine. That means if you’re out on the town, and you spot an interesting character, you can take a photograph and sell that photo on consignment at your local coffee shop with no legal consequences. You don’t even have to tell the person being photographed that you plan on selling the image.
But if one of your buyers plans on using your image for advertising purposes, you’ll need to get a model release. Thankfully, most companies are aware of this, and they almost always make you provide a model release upon purchasing the commercial rights to your image.
Check Your Local Laws When Building Your Photography Portfolio
A photographer’s portfolio serves two purposes. It’s a way to show people the work you do, and it serves as a mini-advertisement of your services. Because of this, you need to be careful. Depending on where you live, you might need to have model releases for every image you use in your portfolio. Check into your local laws before you begin to put your portfolio together.
Even Though Your Actions Are Completely Legal, You Still Need To Respect The People You Photograph. Yes, it’s legal to take pictures of anybody in public. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to like it. Some of them will get angry, and a few might even try to start a fight. I’m not going to tell you what to do in this situation, but I will say there are times when holding onto a photo and refusing to delete it simply isn’t worth the trouble. Respect the wishes of others, and they will respect you. Bert P Krages has an excellent downloadable pamphlet on Photographer's Rights. It's handy to print out and keep with your camera to refer to or hand out when confronted.
If the police get involved, be cooperative but also know your rights. They don’t have a right to tell you to stop taking pictures. And they can’t take your equipment, so don’t let them. Politely tell them that they need a legal reason to confiscate your equipment, and most of them will back off. Remember to be polite!
Have you ever had any trouble while you were out taking pictures? Do you have an interesting story to tell? I want to hear it! Post your story in the comments.
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