Photos of Public Buildings

In addition to property-release issues, you also need to think about copyright concerns vis-à-vis buildings if they were built after December 1, 1990. Before that, buildings did not have copyright protection and were thus, by definition, in the public domain. Shoot away.

In general, buildings erected after December 1, 1990 do not pose a big problem either. There is a “photographer’s exception” to a building’s copyright owner’s rights that permits the photography of buildings. This gives a wide leeway to the definition of “building”; everything from gazebos to office towers are included. As long as the building is in a public place, or visible — and photographable — from a public place, there is no infringement of the building’s copyright owner’s rights. This rule includes private as well as public buildings.

When art is involved in the photography of a building, however, there could be a problem. If there is a work of art attached to or adjacent to the structure you are photographing, or if you are just photographing that work of art, to be safe you will need to get permission from the copyright owner. If the artwork is secondary to the subject or focus of the photograph, or if your photography is intended for educational, research, news reporting, criticism, or public interest use, your pictures may fall into the area of “fair use” — yet a litigious copyright owner could make your life a living, expensive, and defensive hell.

In the case of artwork, complications often arise because the possessor of an artwork is frequently not the owner of the copyright for that artwork. Just as you retain the copyright to your photographs, the artist may retain copyright ownership to his or her artwork. In such cases, you will need to contact that artist, or the artist’s agent, or the survivors, or whomever it is who can give permission to photograph the work. That artist could be unavailable, in another country or deceased — but in order to be safe, you will need to receive permission from a responsible party.

If the artwork’s copyright has expired and it is in the public domain, then you don’t have to worry. However, you will have to do some homework to determine if this is the case.

See also the trademark FAQ and the property release pages.