When it comes to photographer’s rights, there is actually quite a bit shutterbugs need to know. For example, when it comes to providing images to stock photography sites, it's important to provide model and property release documents if there’s a recognizable person or product in the photo.
I recently submitted a young couple repelling down the side of a cliff in the Valley of Fire State Park just north of Las Vegas, Nevada. I thought I had my stock submission covered since I had gotten a model release from the both of them, but the image was sent back; not for any reason to do with the people in the picture but rather because the logo on their tennis shoes, which were just barely discernible. Keep in mind I had to zoom into the image 200% to actually see and then edit out the logo. In another stock submission, I had some images rejected because I had not provided a model release. I hadn’t thought I needed one because their faces were not recognizable, either by the angle of view, or the fact that they were darkly silhouetted against a sunset background. Nevertheless, they were rejected, no doubt out of concern of potential law suites. This has understandably become the standard operating procedure for stock agencies to protect themselves.
In some cases a model or property release is not required for publication, or stock use, if is restricted to “editorial” usage. This, among other things, is what allows photographers, journalist, and others, to print pictures of people, product logos, etc. without permission if it is news worthy or of general interest to the public. It can also often be used for educational purposes. A key test as to if something is editorial or commercial is whether or not it is intended to induce profit (receive commercial value) from its usage.
There is significant case law dealing with privacy, intellectual property, fair use, and copyright leaving little gray area to contend with, though situations still frequently go through litigation, often due to ignorance or just plain greed. In this day of Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, et al, all photographers (especially pros) need to know about the laws that affect them. A good source for this is book written by Leonard D. Duboff called “The Law (In Plain English) For Photographers.”
Another, less defined, area of concern for photographers has come about as a result of terrorism. At least this is often the excuse given when law enforcement officers try to prevent pictures from being taken of public buildings, bridges, government offices, etc. Keep in mind it IS perfectly legal to take pictures of people and property in public areas, from public areas. Of course, without release forms such images can only be used for non-commercial purposes. Nevertheless, law enforcement officers often, even using force, will try to prevent people from taking pictures or video of such areas, and especially when it involves their public activities, even when it has nothing to do with terrorism. In some cases, this can get way out of hand as was reported in PopPhoto.ocm March 21,2011 by Dan Bracaglia where a woman “was allegedly beat up and arrested by police after they realized she was photographing an arrest with her camera-phone.” The woman in question filed a law against the city of New York for $24 million.
Although this was an extreme case, such incidences are not uncommon and have been unfortunately on the increase, largely due to ignorance of federal and state laws and the lack of established local law enforcement policies. Fortunately, there are some law enforcement agencies which have recently set forth clear guidelines to their officers on these matters. An excellent example of this is the recent General Order put out by the DC Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, entitled: “Video Recording, Photographing, and Audio Recording of Metropolitan Police Department Members by the Public.” I encourage you to read the entire online document which plainly states that “photography, including videotaping, of places, buildings, structures and events are common and lawful activities in Washington, D.C.” and that “a bystander has the right under the First Amendment to observe and record members in the public discharge of their duties.” It is a very well thought out and written set of guidelines which goes into considerable detail. Apparently, this action was largely taken as part of a settlement which grew out of an incident where DC police had ordered someone to stop taking pictures of them.
It's up to all of us as photographers, journalists and citizens to know and exercise our rights, in order that we not loose them.