Photography and The Law: Know Your Rights
Say you’re out for a photographic stroll, taking pictures of that cool old power plant on the edge of town. Suddenly seventy security guards swarm you and demand you hand over your camera.
“What is this,” you ask yourself, “a Michael Moore movie?”
You’re sure you haven’t done anything wrong, but you don’t know whose side the law is on. Fret no more. We’ve got a list of things you can and can’t do, and it’s a lot more permissive than you might think.
Now grab your camera back from that Rent-A-Cop, and let’s hit the books.
*Charlton Heston not included
The Legal Stuff
I.Before we get started here, we have to point out that even though we’re smart and awesome and devastatingly attractive, we’re not lawyers. None of this should be construed as legal advice. If you have a legal issue, get in touch with a lawyer. Much of this information was gleaned from attorney Bert P. Krages‘ website, so we’ll go ahead and recommend him.
The Ten Legal Commandments of Photography
I. Anyone in a public place can take pictures of anything they want. Public places include parks, sidewalks, malls, etc. Malls? Yeah. Even though it’s technically private property, being open to the public makes it public space.
II. If you are on public property, you can take pictures of private property. If a building, for example, is visible from the sidewalk, it’s fair game.
III. If you are on private property and are asked not to take pictures, you are obligated to honor that request. This includes posted signs.
IV. Sensitive government buildings (military bases, nuclear facilities) can prohibit photography if it is deemed a threat to national security.
V. People can be photographed if they are in public (without their consent) unless they have secluded themselves and can expect a reasonable degree of privacy. Kids swimming in a fountain? Okay. Somebody entering their PIN at the ATM? Not okay.
VI. The following can almost always be photographed from public places, despite popular opinion:
- accident & fire scenes, criminal activities
- bridges & other infrastructure, transportation facilities (i.e. airports)
- industrial facilities, Superfund sites
- public utilities, residential & commercial buildings
- children, celebrities, law enforcement officers
- UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, Chuck Norris
VII. Although “security” is often given as the reason somebody doesn’t want you to take photos, it’s rarely valid. Taking a photo of a publicly visible subject does not constitute terrorism, nor does it infringe on a company’s trade secrets.
VIII. If you are challenged, you do not have to explain why you are taking pictures, nor to you have to disclose your identity (except in some cases when questioned by a law enforcement officer.)
IX. Private parties have very limited rights to detain you against your will, and can be subject to legal action if they harass you.
X. If someone tries to confiscate your camera and/or film, you don’t have to give it to them. If they take it by force or threaten you, they can be liable for things like theft and coercion. Even law enforcement officers need a court order.
What To Do If You’re Confronted
- Be respectful and polite. Use good judgement and don’t escalate the situation.
- If the person becomes combative or difficult, think about calling the police.
- Threats, detention, and taking your camera are all grounds for legal or civil actions on your part. Be sure to get the person’s name, employer, and what legal grounds they claim for their actions.
- If you don’t want to involve the authorities, go above the person’s head to their supervisor or their company’s public relations department.
- Call your local TV and radio stations and see if they want to do a story about your civil liberties.
- Put the story on the web yourself if need be.
- We’ve condensed these facts a great deal. We recommend downloading The Photographer’s Right and keeping a couple of copies in your camera bag if you’re shooting somewhere you might expect trouble.
- Andrew Kantor has written a good article and a PDF summary of your rights, including some of the ins-and-outs of publishing your pictures.
- The Legal Handbook for Photographers is a great resource covering all aspects of photography and the law.
- Live outside the United States? Try these links for photographer’s rights in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.