Is Photographing Buildings Legal?

Photography can be complicated. There’s the camera with all its different settings, options and features. There’s the equipment with all the accessories, lights and meters. And then there’s the editing software that lets you clean up the mistakes and create some funky new art.

And just as you get all that figured out, you realize you still have the law to deal with.

We aren’t lawyers here. We can only act with the same sometimes vague understanding of what’s permissible and what isn’t as everyone else (so please don’t treat our words as legal gospel). But we do take a keen interest in the discussions that are happening elsewhere among photographers.

Now, you might think that a picture of, say… a New York street would be perfectly acceptable — and if it’s for your own use, it is. But what happens when you want to sell that image. Do the building owners have the right to stop you?

Worryingly, the American Society of Media Photographers says that no court has ever answered that question, and points out that you probably wouldn’t want to be the test case. The society offers its members property release forms but those forms are only going to be useful if the building owners are easily available. Obtaining your neighbors’ permission to turn their house into a postcard is easy; asking the owners of the Chrysler Building or every office on a street might be a bit harder.

Carolyn E. Wright, an attorney specializing in photography law offers an interesting opinion on her blog, PhotoAttorney. Responding to an unnamed stock agency’s decision to remove images of the San Diego Zoo after receiving a threatening letter from the Zoological Society in charge of the park, she notes that neither the agency nor the photographer had broken any laws.

(While she also points out that “selling images in a gallery or on the Internet does not necessarily qualify as a ‘commercial’ use” — remember that it’s that ‘necessarily’ that gives lawyers work.)

That the agency caved at the first sight of the letter, it seems they didn’t want to be the test case either, whether they were on good legal grounds or not.

Most photographers will continue to shoot pictures of buildings. Most building owners will continue to be either oblivious or flattered and do nothing. But a few who have their own pictures to sell will write letters and frighten a few unlucky photographers into pulling their shots.

[tags]Photography, Property Release, Photography Law[/tags]

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