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Your Rights as a Photographer in the United States

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Most people take pictures, post, and then never think about what happens to them. This is totally normal for people who take pictures to document memories, humblebrag on social media, and share pictures with their loved ones.

Other photographers, particularly serious and/or professional ones, need to understand the consequences of taking pictures—especially when documenting high-profile, crowded, or potentially volatile events. The things you post online for free, decide to sell online, or submit to websites and journals can have consequences or cause you to get in hot water if you don’t know your rights. It’s not likely that you’ll get into trouble just for taking a few pictures of an important building, event, or person, but if you’re an active amateur or professional photographer, it’s best to have your bases covered.

Because the topic of your rights is so complex and encompasses many areas, we’ve separated them into several categories and have included a list of additional resources at the end. Also, we’re fellow photography lovers and though we tried our best, this article is for informational purposes only and isn’t intended to serve as legal advice. Please speak with a lawyer and look up any local, state, or federal guidelines as needed.

  • Free Speech
  • Licensing
  • Photographic Evidence
  • Copyrights
  • Resources

Note that it’s also important to read about the ethics of photography as well. Ethics and rights aren’t the same thing. Just because something is legal to do doesn’t mean it will always sit well with others. Let’s begin dissecting this major issue!

Free Speech

Photography in public places is a constitutionally protected right, but you may run into free speech issues if you decide to photograph a protest, an event with heavy police presence, or in front of federal and government-owned buildings.

Most of the time, authorities will request that you put your gear away, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) explains that you still have recourse in case of arrest. Remember that these are guidelines.

  • It’s perfectly legal for you to take pictures and document events in public spaces. Owners of private property can set their photo, video, and documentation regulations.
  • Some states use wiretapping laws to gain control of your audio, though they may not be able to use these against visual footage, such as video or photography.
  • Authorities must provide a warrant for your footage or photography, and may not ask you to delete things without your permission. If you stand in their way as they attempt to do their job, authorities may ask you to move so they can continue with their duties.

Remain calm and respectful when dealing with police or federal authorities. If detained, ask about the charges or crimes they are detaining you for. Always ask if you’re free to leave, if they say yes, calmly leave the premises.

Attorney Bert P. Krages II publishes a handy document titled The Photographer’s Right that you can print out and carry with you — it’s a breakdown of your rights and remedies when stopped or confronted for photography.

Licensing

Image licensing is a legal process or document in which you let someone else use your images so they can make a profit. They may reproduce your image for sale, create products, or use it for publicity.

There are templates you can use to create a licensing document so you can sell your photographs, or allow others to use your pictures under Creative Commons. Licensing your photographs allows you to make additional profits for your work, and lets you collaborate with nonprofits, people with low budgets, and others in a way that is respectful and clear.

Some types of rights are:

  • Commercial use: These are rights that allow someone to use an image as a way to make a profit, such as use in an ad, promotion, coupon, or other money-making endeavor.
  • Digital rights: A photographer grants the right for another entity to use a digital version of the image. Should the entity want to use the image to make a profit, they’d need to request commercial rights as well. No hard copy of the photograph is provided.
  • Editorial rights: Images that can be used in magazines, blogs, or educational sites, for noncommercial purposes only. Many stock images fall into this category.
  • Exclusive rights: These give the right to sell the image however they want, and provide full control of the image’s use.
  • First-use rights: The right to use something first, usually for an agreed-upon length of time. For example, you sold a photograph to a corporation that can exclusively use the picture before anyone else can for a period of 30 calendar days. After this, you can resell the picture or use it for your own purposes.
  • Non-exclusive rights: This category of rights lets you sell your image(s) to more than one person, but can result in your client being able to sell your work as well unless you include a clause to protect yourself from their ability to do so.
  • One-time use rights: This is a great option for photojournalists and others who cover news or events. With this option, you allow an entity to use your photographs once, and only according to the terms you set in the contract.
  • Second rights: Also called reprint rights, these allow you to resell or reprint your work after first rights have expired. In some cases, you will be asked to cite the place or entity that printed them first.
  • Serial rights: These are rights you grant to a newspaper, magazine, or periodical (serial) entity to print your work in their serial first. Should they want to use your work for something else, such as a book, they must request further rights from you.

Photographic Evidence

If authorities believe your photos implicate criminal activity or show you evidence of criminal activity (yours or someone else’s), you may receive a digital search warrant.

State and local regulations may stipulate additional items, but generally a digital search warrant must explain which equipment must be inspected, the content being searched for, and the types of storage equipment that will be seized in order to move forward on a criminal investigation.

Though investigations of your equipment should be conducted in 10 or fewer days, you may expect delays in some cases.

  • If encryption is proving to be a problem for authorities
  • If there is too much content to sift through
  • Other cases may be more prescient

Once seized, your equipment and other items handed over to authorities may also undergo a forensic investigation, meaning that your items can be searched for DNA, blood, or other physical evidence. This may be in addition to investigating content and photographic evidence.

Copyright

The Copyright Law of the United States of America, or copyright, is the law that protects the ownership of your own work. It stipulates that you are the owner of what you do for the rest of your life and 70 years after death. A broad document, here are some basics you should know:

  • You own your work, even if it’s published on social media first, your hard drive, the memory chip or cloud you use to store your work, or in print and film.
  • The copyright is yours once you publish your work, regardless of the medium you use because your work is now a tangible medium.
  • You don’t need to fill out legal paperwork to own the copyright to your photography.

Copyright also covers these aspects of showing your work:

  • Public displays or showings.
  • The creation of products based on your photography, or the use of your photography to promote products.
  • Reprinting your photography.
  • Disseminating your photography.

Copyright doesn’t apply to work you do for hire. Working as a photographer for a news company, firm, or private entity under a contract that stipulates your photography is work done for hire means the owner of your work is whoever hired you.

Read more: The Basics of U.S. Copyright for Photographers

Resources

This was a broad look at what can be a touchy subject. We’ve compiled a few resources that can help you should you have more questions. These are only meant as a guide.


Image credits: Photos licensed from Depositphotos

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