Have you ever taken a photograph on the London Underground? Yes? Well I hope you had the necessary permit, otherwise you were breaking the law! How about shots in Trafalgar Square or any of the royal parks? Fine, but don't try and sell any copies, because if you do you'll break the byelaws! And those shots of Canary Wharf or the Lloyds building - make sure you're on public property when you press the shutter, or you may be asked by men in uniform to wipe your memory card.
There used to be a feeling that photographers could photograph anything they liked. That was never the case - the owners of private property have always had the right to restrict or ban photography on their land. But would you imagine that "private" included National Trust properties, and should it? In their (not our) stately homes and castles you can take photographs for private use, but you can't use them commercially or in publications. This is to protect their copyright and the income the Trust gets from licencing images. Fair enough you might think, until you remember that public money and tax breaks form part of the National Trust's income. However, if you were to take the photograph from a public right of way (but not a permitted path), it would seem you can use the image as you wish! And how about images of people? Some celebrities have copyrighted their image to profit from it and to control usage. Many UK schools forbid parents taking still or video images of pupil performances due to fears about paedophiles. So what about photographs of people in the street, incidental to the main subject, or as the main subject? It seems to be OK to take such shots for private use, but clearly a model release is necessary for commercial purposes. Counter-terrorism legislation and heightened police awareness has increased the suspicion of photographers, particularly in major cities. The right to take images is being restricted more than formerly, and case law is slowly codifying what photographers can and cannot do. If you don't want to be the one who tests the existing case law then this freely downloadable document (pdf), "Photographers' Rights in the UK" by Linda Macpherson, is the minimum essential reading. An equivalent document for the USA is available here, and for Australia here. These are useful things to carry to use in your argument with the overzealous who try to restrict your rights!
I thought about these issues when I took a photograph of myself, reflected in the windows of the Wyre Magistrates Court at Fleetwood, Lancashire, on a dull and windy day. I hadn't noticed the faintly visible sign inside saying "Number 2 Court"! The glazing grid, the yellow/brown of the chairs, and the distorted reflected cars, sea, sky and yours truly made an interesting shot on which to hang some thoughts about the legal complexities that photographers face today.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen