Sunday, October 1, 2006

Photography, national security, and the law


By James Booth

Since the events of September 11, 2001, many photographers have come under scrutiny, even to the point of being illegally detained and having their equipment seized. Merely for indulging in their passion.

In my daily coverage of photo-related news, I have read and reported on instances of photographers being detained, even arrested, just for taking pictures of bridges and other high-profile buildings, stadiums, and airports. Equipment is often seized, memory cars erased, film exposed. I have even read of equipment being destroyed. All in the name of the very complex issue that is "national security" in a post-911 world.

In the end, charges are always dropped, equipment returned, and photographers released. Why? Because the detention is illegal to begin with. In some cases, Homeland Security and the hysteria of terrorism must share the blame. To be fair, many of those with responsibility to serve and protect find themselves with a job bigger than they've been trained or equipped to handle. Many photographers report of problems with under-trained, misinformed, and overly gung-ho police officers and security guards.

Let's be clear: these people have difficult and potentially dangerous jobs and we rely on them to keep us safe. But photographers also have rights and responsibilities. Our goal with this article is to help you prepare for and defuse any potential conflict you may find yourself involved in.

One note: we're writing this as photographers, not lawyers. If you're really concerned about your rights, responsibilities, and legal limits in your neighborhood, check with a local attorney.

The myths

Many authorities will tell photographers that since September 11, it is illegal to take pictures of airports, refineries, bridges, etc. This is just plain false. In some instances, copyright or trademark infringement will be hauled out as the excuse.

Being informed and knowing your rights are the best weapons against the modern-day gestapo of overzealous law enforcement officials and psuedo-security guards. Having a good civil rights attorney couldn't hurt either.

Copyright and trademark

Let's cover copyright and trademark first, as it is the easiest and most clear-cut. U.S. copyright laws have an excemption for photographing buildings, and only structures built after 1990 can even be copyrighted. Which means there are darn few that actually are.

One of the most famous structures that actually is trademarked is the Hollywood sign. Its trademark is owned by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, although, how they managed to trademark the icon is beyond me, as it's been there for approaching a hundred years. In fact, it used to say, "Hollywoodland."