Public photography laws
January 22, 2004 3:23 PM   Subscribe

I see lots of photographers with candid photos of strangers from the park, on the street, etc., but I'm wary of getting sued just for taking some amateur photos. What laws, guidlines, rules of thumb, etc., should I use when taking photos of people in public?
posted by oissubke to Law & Government (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
AFAIK (IANAL), it's ok to take pictures, but you can't *sell* them (if the person's recognizable) unless you get a model release.
posted by SpecialK at 3:25 PM on January 22, 2004

Also, people are fair game in a crowd where individuals are not recognizable. And public figures are fair game anytime.
posted by kindall at 3:33 PM on January 22, 2004

I was taught both in J-school and at a newspaper that people on the street are fair game, as long as you don't misrepresent what it is that they're doing, and you're not going to use the photo in an advertisement. You know, don't show a man standing in front a little girl who's licking an ice cream cone and put "pedophile" beside the man's name in the caption, if he's not an actual pedophile.
posted by raysmj at 3:34 PM on January 22, 2004

There was some photoblogger that wrote up an exhaustive guide to photographer's rights and model rights last year that featured a downloadable PDF with legal stuff on it. I can't find it right now, but if you google around a bit, you might find more legal resources.
posted by mathowie at 4:00 PM on January 22, 2004

It doesn't matter whether they are recognizable or not, you can take pictures of people in public in the U.S. and run them 4 columns wide on the cover of the paper without their permission, as I did many times working in the newspaper business. Don't peek through the bushes onto private proerty, though. SpecialK, In the U.S. I'm pretty certain that you can sell it like any photo of the Chrysler Building or a bird in the park, but you can't use it in advertising, as raysmj wrote.
posted by planetkyoto at 4:34 PM on January 22, 2004

Is this what you mean, Matt? It's basically a one page summary of this book, by the same author.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 4:36 PM on January 22, 2004

Yeah monju, that's part of it. It was some photoblogger that got yelled at or their camera taken away or something and they wrote up the experience and linked to that page you cite.
posted by mathowie at 4:39 PM on January 22, 2004

Laws aside, you might want to consider whether you think that it's simply rude to take pictures of strangers without their consent. That will certainly have an effect on if and how you do so, and give you some insight into how your subjects might react.

I think it's fairly rude, but I'm apparently in the minority, and I'm also the sort of person who prefers not to have his own picture taken.
posted by majick at 5:07 PM on January 22, 2004

I think it's fairly rude, but I'm apparently in the minority

I agree with you. Maybe we're not a minority.

It's petty I know, but I generally find myself making a rude gesture
when someone I don't know points a camera at me.
posted by milovoo at 6:26 PM on January 22, 2004

IANAL, but basically as I understand it, your expectation of privacy is diminished when you're in a public place.
posted by Vidiot at 7:28 PM on January 22, 2004

As mentioned, legality and rudeness are two different things.

IANAL but AFAIK, you have almost carte blanche to take whatever photos you want in public places (unless public places where people have reasonable expectations of privacy, such as in dressing rooms or bathrooms), so long as they're for personal (including fine art) or editorial use (i.e. news, etc). Commercial use (including selling to stock agencies) require model releases. Also, you are legally culpable if you use the photos to slander or cause libel. If you're on private property and the owner asks you to stop, you're legally compelled to do that.

All of this is covered in this lengthy (but somewhat entertaining) primer. A quick Google search turned up this great summary from a thread along with some dissents from my understanding of the topic).

I shoot a lot of candids but I don't sell them. :) If people give me dirty looks, I stop to be polite. With digital I'm willing to delete pictures if asked, but no one has ever come up and asked me to. Yet.
posted by DaShiv at 8:00 PM on January 22, 2004


Finally, Mac has hit the gay niche with all the force it can muster.
posted by The God Complex at 8:34 PM on January 22, 2004

Are these rules sort of the same in Canada and other places?
posted by MiG at 10:01 PM on January 22, 2004

Are these rules sort of the same in Canada and other places?

Vaguely recall one case in Quebec...

He can name only one successful case, a ruling against Vice-Versa magazine in Quebec, in which a woman successfully sued for damages after a freelance photographer without her consent took and sold a photo of her sitting on the steps of a public building. (In fact, there have been two successful suits in Quebec under that section of the province's Civil Code, and they scare the hell out of media agencies concerned with freedom of expression.)link

... whick kinda sucks.
posted by bobo123 at 11:39 PM on January 22, 2004

The thing to remember is that it's not the act of taking a picture that the relevent laws are interested in - it's what is subsequently done with that picture that matters. Assuming you and the person in the picture are in a public place, where the subject has "no reasonable expectatation of privacy" (is the term sometimes used), then you can snap away as much as you like. Whether you or the picture's subject consider this pleasant, obnoxious or irrelevent behaviour isn't a concern (unless the photographer crosses the line into harrassment or stalking - and other legal consequences become applicable).

If you then keep that picture in your private album, share it with a few friends, post it in your blog (assuming the subject is an adult) or sell it for editorial purposes, you have no legal worries as long as you do nothing with it that libels the person in the picture.

If you sell it to an advertising agency or company and they use it to promote a product or service however, you (and your customer) are in trouble, unless the subject has given their consent (usually in exchange for payment). This is why stock libraries usually demand a model release. It's not that you took the picture, it's that their market for it is severely restricted without one.

This all sounds quite black and white, but inevitably there are plenty of legal grey areas. In editorial use, publications have to be very careful about use of people shots. A picture of a man in the street outside a bar, for example, might seem innocent enough - until that picture is used to illustrate an article about alcoholism - in which case that man might have a case against the publication based upon the implication he may be alcoholic. What, exactly, constitutes a "public place" is also something that lawyers will happily argue about.

The use in any way of pictures of children is another very dicey area and the best advice is probably to not even think about either taking or using pictures of children without a parent's/guardian's permission.

IANAL, either. This is just my understanding of the legal situation from a little experience and reading around the subject in the USA and UK (both of which at least appear to have a similar legal approach to this issue).
posted by normy at 9:29 AM on January 23, 2004

There's a couple of good books (US law based) on this subject if someone wants (much) more detail... [1], [2].
posted by normy at 9:41 AM on January 23, 2004

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