Three years ago, an Illinois man named Michael Allison was arrested for videotaping police in public in accordance with the state’s extremely strict wiretapping laws. He faced up to 75 years in prison for his crime, but a few months ago an Illinois judge ruled that the laws were unconstitutional and threw out the case. However, the State of Illinois is now appealing to the Supreme Court to have the dismissal overturned.
If you need to print some photos taken by someone else using print services at places like Walmart, be careful: if the photographs look “too professional” some places will require a written copyright release before allowing you to pick up the prints — even after you’ve paid for them. The Consumerist has a story of a woman named Jessica who ran into problems at Walmart after collecting photos from a couple pro photographer friends for a friend’s funeral:
See, Jessica’s friend was a professional photographer, as is her friend’s husband, who had e-mailed Jessica the photos to have printed. “So even their candid pictures appear professional,” she explains to Consumerist.
[...] In addition to those photos, Jessica says that Walmart wanted copyright info on a couple of shots that had been taken at a pro studio like Olan Mills back in the ’70s.
“There was no mark on them to indicate where they were taken, and my friend’s mom had sent me those,” writes Jessica. “She paid for them back in the day when they were taken, and she scanned them for me last week. How am I supposed to get written copyrights for every single picture?
Jessica had also checked a box affirming that she had permission to print the images while on Walmart’s website. Protecting copyright is a good thing, but having employees make decisions on whether photos are “too professional” after they’ve already been printed and paid for doesn’t seem like a very good system.
The ACLU of Southern California has filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and several of its deputies, claiming that they unlawfully harassed, detained, and searched photographers simply because they were taking pictures. The suit asks the court to instruct the Sheriff’s Department to stop detaining citizens on the basis of photography, and also seeks damages. ACLU attorney Peter Bibring tells the LA Times,
Photography is not a crime. It’s protected 1st Amendment expression. It violates the Constitution’s core protections for sheriff’s deputies to detain and search people who are doing nothing wrong. To single them out for such treatment while they’re pursuing a constitutionally protected activity is doubly wrong.
One of the confrontations cited by the lawsuit was captured on camera, and can be seen here. The Los Angeles Times notes that similar lawsuits have been filed in other states as well. Earlier this year the Long Beach police department came under fire after it came to light that officers were instructed to be on the lookout for photos with “no apparent aesthetic value”.
Update: Apparently this isn’t something ordinary photographers need to worry about. See below.
The Washington Post has published a list of 160 misdemeanor offenses that can land you in jail in Washington D.C. While most are quite reasonable (e.g. “Sale of Cigarettes to a Minor” or “Unlicensed Driving Instructor”), there is one that is troubling. Under the category “Photographer Violations” is the entry:
Photographer – More than 5 minutes at location
The entry is quite vague and, as Carlos Miller points out, leaves a lot of room for police officer interpretation.
Update: The Washington Post has written a followup article addressing this issue (thx Darrow). Apparently the law is directed at full-time photographers who photograph passersby on the streets:
”Our policy has been that the street photographer license would apply to persons who are stationed on public space to take photos of passersby,” said agency spokesman Helder Gil in an e-mail. Amateurs aren’t covered, he said, nor are “journalists, professional photographers who take pictures of buildings/scenery, or wedding photographers taking pics of happy couples on D.C. streets and sidewalks.”
So as long as you don’t make a living hustling tourists for snapshots, you can snap away without keeping an eye on your watch.
I think it’s horrible – here’s how I feel about that. They own their likeness, they are the creative force – if they were not musicians, we would not have been taking pictures, right? So they’re the source of the creativity, but on the other hand, we are the source of the visual creativity recording them. So I think that that copyright should remain with the photographer, but with limitations upon how the pictures can be used.
[...] But to just say “they own everything”, I mean, why even do it?
Last Friday, 45-year-old Chris White was at the Braehead shopping center near Glasgow, when he took a snapshot of his daughter Hazel eating some ice cream. He was then confronted by security guards — and later the police — who cited the Prevention of Terrorism Act to explain that it was in their rights to confiscate his phone. While they did allow him to keep the photos, they demanded his personal details. Afterward, White created a Facebook page titled “Boycott Braehead” in an effort to draw attention to the incident. Read more…
Photographer Rodney Smith writes that the greatest gift possessed by still photographers is under attack like never before:
So dear photographers, others before you fought hard and long to give you a gift. And although everyone from corporations, to magazines, to art buyers try desperately to take it away from you, I implore you not to give it away.
Most of you are young and feel the need to work, and feel powerless against larger forces. You do not realize that when you get older, having the rights to your own work will be the best gift you have as a still photographer. It will help you when you need it most.
[...] The pressure is on. The economy is awful and people will grab what they can get away with. I implore you to stay strong and fight hard for what many other photographers, over the last 50 years, have fought hard to give you; the right to own and control your own work.
Regardless of how bad photographers’ rights seem to be in your country, here’s a story that will definitely make you appreciate them at least a little bit more: a photojournalist named Sithu Zeya may spend 18 years of his life in prison after being arrested for photography. Zeya, who’s only 21 years old, was arrested in Burma last year after getting caught photographing the aftermath of a grenade attack that killed 10 people in the country’s largest city, Yangon. After being sentenced to 8 years in prison last year, a Yangon court decided to tack an extra 10 years onto his prison sentence yesterday for posting online material that could “damage tranquillity and unity in the government.”
It looks like all the negative news stories about photographers’ rights in the UK is finally causing some positive change — private security guards across the nation are being instructed (for the first time) to exercise some common sense when stopping and questioning picture-takers:
Detective Sergeant David Parkes, a counter-terrorism advisor at the Metropolitan Police, has instructed private security staff to consider why a terrorist planning an attack would openly take photos in locations that can be readily viewed on the internet.
‘Why would a terrorist put himself at risk of being caught if he can get [the image] by logging onto Google,’ said DS Parkes [...]
[...] Parkes replied that the type of equipment is of ‘no significance’ to the risk a person may be planning a terrorist attack, adding that he believed ‘the bigger the camera, the less likely they are going to do anything [suspicious] with it’.