Photography and the law

A "No Photography" sign, commonly placed in properties where taking photographs is illegal or objected to by the owner (though in some jurisdictions, this is not a legal requirement)

The intellectual property rights on photographs are protected in different jurisdictions by the laws governing copyright and moral rights. In some cases photography may be restricted by civil or criminal law. Publishing certain photographs can be restricted by privacy or other laws. Photography of certain subject matter can be generally restricted in the interests of public morality and the protection of children.

Reactions to photography differ between societies, and even where there are no official restrictions there may be objections to photographing people or places. Reactions may range from complaints to violence for photography which is not illegal.

United Kingdom

Mass photo gathering in UK.
Mass photo gathering in UK.

In the United Kingdom there are no laws forbidding photography of private property from a public place. Photography on private land is not restricted if the landowner has given permission. However, landowners are permitted to impose any conditions they wish upon entry to a property, including forbidding or restricting photography. Two public locations in the UK, Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square, have a specific provision against photography for commercial purposes without the written permission of the Mayor,[1] or the Squares' Management Team and paying a fee,[2] and permission is needed to photograph or film for commercial purposes in the Royal Parks.[3]

Persistent or aggressive photography of a single individual may come under the legal definition of harassment.[4]

It is contempt of court, a criminal offence, to take a photograph in any court of law of any person, being a judge of the court or a juror or a witness in or a party to any proceedings before the court, whether civil or criminal, or to publish such a photograph. This includes photographs taken in a court building or the precincts of the court.[5] Taking a photograph in a court can be seen as a serious offence, leading to a prison sentence.[6][7] The prohibition on taking photographs in the precincts is vague. It was designed to prevent the undermining of the dignity of the court, through the exploitation of images in low brow 'picture papers'.[8]

Photography of certain subject matter is restricted in the United Kingdom. In particular, the Protection of Children Act 1978 restricts making or possessing pornography of children under 18, or what looks like pornography of under-18s. There is no law prohibiting photographing children in public spaces.

It is an offence under the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 to publish or communicate a photograph of a constable (not including PCSOs), a member of the armed forces, or a member of the security services, which is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism. There is a defence of acting with a reasonable excuse, however the onus of proof is on the defence, under section 58A of the Terrorism Act 2000. A PCSO in 2009 cited Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 to prevent a member of the public photographing him. Section 44 actually concerns stop and search powers.[9] However, in January 2010 the stop-and-search powers granted under Section 44 were ruled illegal by the European Court of Human Rights.

Following a prolonged campaign, including a series of demonstrations by photographers dealt with by police officers and PCSOs, the Metropolitan Police was forced to issue updated legal advice which confirms that 'Members of the public and the media do not need a permit to film or photograph in public places and police have no power to stop them filming or photographing incidents or police personnel' and that 'The power to stop and search someone under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 no longer exists.'[10]

It is an offence under section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 to take a photograph of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, or possessing such a photograph. There is an identical defence of reasonable excuse. This offence (and possibly, but not necessarily the s.58A offence) covers only a photograph as described in s.2(3)(b) of the Terrorism Act 2006. As such, it must be of a kind likely to provide practical assistance to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism. Whether the photograph in question is such is a matter for a jury, which is not required to look at the surrounding circumstances. The photograph must contain information of such a nature as to raise a reasonable suspicion that it was intended to be used to assist in the preparation or commission of an act of terrorism. It must call for an explanation. A photograph which is innocuous on its face will not fall foul of the provision if the prosecution adduces evidence that it was intended to be used for the purpose of committing or preparing a terrorist act. The defence may prove a reasonable excuse simply by showing that the photograph is possessed for a purpose other than to assist in the commission or preparation of an act of terrorism, even if the purpose of possession is otherwise unlawful.[11]

Copyright can subsist in an original photograph, i.e. a recording of light or other radiation on any medium on which an image is produced or from which an image by any means be produced, and which is not part of a film.[12] Whilst photographs are classified as artistic works, the subsistence of copyright does not depend on artistic merit.[12] The owner of the copyright in the photograph is the photographer – the person who creates it,[13] by default.[14] However, where a photograph is taken by an employee in the course of employment, the first owner of the copyright is the employer, unless there is an agreement to the contrary.[15]

Copyright which subsists in a photograph protects not merely the photographer from direct copying of his/her work, but also from indirect copying to reproduce his/her work, where a substantial part of his/her work has been copied.

Copyright in a photograph lasts for 70 years from the end of the year in which the photographer dies.[16] A consequence of this lengthy period of existence of the copyright is that many family photographs which have no market value, but significant emotional value, remain subject to copyright, even when the original photographer cannot be traced (a problem known as copyright orphan), has given up photography, or died. In the absence of a licence, it will be an infringement of copyright in the photographs to copy them.[17] When someone dies the rights will have transferred to someone else, perhaps through testamentary deposition (a will) or by inheritance. If there was no will, or if the photographer has not specified where the rights in the material should go, then the normal rules of inheritance will apply (although these rules are not specific to copyright and legal advice should be sought).[18] Scanning old family photographs, without permission, to a digital file for personal use is prima facie an infringement of copyright.

Certain photographs may not be protected by copyright. Section 171(3) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 gives courts jurisdiction to refrain from enforcing the copyright which subsists in works on the grounds of public interest. For example, patent diagrams are held to be in the public domain, and are thus not subject to copyright.


"No photographs" sticker. Designed for persons at conferences who do not want any digital likeness of them taken, including video, photography, audio, etc.

Infringement of the copyright which subsists in a photograph can be performed through copying the photograph. This is because the owner of the copyright in the photograph has the exclusive right to copy the photograph.[19] For there to be infringement of the copyright in a photograph, there must be copying of a substantial part of the photograph.[20] A photograph can also be a mechanism of infringement of the copyright which subsists in another work. For example, a photograph which copies a substantial part of an artistic work, such as a sculpture, painting or another photograph (without permission) would infringe the copyright which subsists in those works.

However, the subject matter of a photograph is not necessarily subject to an independent copyright. For example, in the Creation Records case,[21][22] a photographer, attempting to create a photograph for an album cover, set up an elaborate and artificial scene. A photographer from a newspaper covertly photographed the scene and published it in the newspaper. The court held that the newspaper photographer did not infringe the official photographer's copyright. Copyright did not subsist in the scene itself – it was too temporary to be a collage, and could not be categorised as any other form of artistic work.

The protection of photographs in this manner has been criticised on two grounds.[23] Firstly, it is argued that photographs should not be protected as artistic works, but should instead be protected in a manner similar to that of sound recordings and films. In other words, copyright should not protect the subject matter of a photograph as a matter of course as a consequence of a photograph being taken.[n 1] It is argued that protection of photographs as artistic works is anomalous, in that photography is ultimately a medium of reproduction, rather than creation. As such, it is more similar to a film, or sound recording than a painting or sculpture. Some photographers share this view. For example, Michael Reichmann described photography as an art of disclosure, as opposed to an art of inclusion.[24] Secondly, it is argued that the protection of photographs as artistic works leads to bizarre results.[23] Subject matter is protected irrespective of the artistic merit of a photograph. The subject matter of a photograph is protected even when it is not deserving of protection. For copyright to subsist in photographs as artistic works, the photographs must be original, since the English test for originality is based on skill, labour and judgment.[23] That said, it is possible that the threshold of originality is very low. Essentially, by this, Arnold is arguing that whilst the subject matter of some photographs may deserve protection, it is inappropriate for the law to presume that the subject matter of all photographs is deserving of protection.

It is possible to say with a high degree of confidence that photographs of three-dimensional objects, including artistic works, will be treated by a court as themselves original artistic works, and as such, will be subject to copyright.[25] It is likely that a photograph (including a scan – digital scanning counts as photography for the purposes of the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988) of a two dimensional artistic work, such as another photograph or a painting will also be subject to copyright if a significant amount of skill, labour and judgment went into its creation.[26]

Photography and privacy

A right to privacy came into existence in UK law as a consequence of the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law through the Human Rights Act 1998. This can result in restrictions on the publication of photography.[27][28][29][30][31]

Whether this right is caused by horizontal effect of the Human Rights Act 1998 or is judicially created is a matter of some controversy.[32] The right to privacy is protected by Article 8 of the convention. In the context of photography, it stands at odds to the Article 10 right of freedom of expression. As such, courts will consider the public interest in balancing the rights through the legal test of proportionality.[29]

A very limited statutory right to privacy exists in the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988. This right is held, for example, by someone who hires a photographer to photograph their wedding. The commissioner,[33] irrespective of any copyright which he does or does not hold in the photograph[33] of a photograph which was commissioned for private and domestic purposes, where copyright subsists in the photograph, has the right not to have copies of the work issued to the public,[34] the work exhibited in public[35] or the work communicated to the public.[36] However, this right will not be infringed if the rightholder gives permission. It will not be infringed if the photograph is incidentally included in an artistic work, film, or broadcast.[37]

United States

Local, state, and national laws govern still and motion photography. Laws vary between jurisdictions, and what is not illegal in one place may be illegal in another. Typical laws in the United States are as follows:

Public property

Some museums do not allow photography. In many cases people use smartphones, making even more damage on artifacts because of using of flash.

Private property

Privacy issues

Commercial photography

Other issues

Hong Kong

A sign declaring "No Phototaking" inside a Hong Kong public library

In some public property owned by government, such as law courts,[49] government buildings, libraries, civic centres [50][51] and some of the museums in Hong Kong, photography is not allowed without permission from the government. It is illegal to equip or take photographs and recording in a place of public entertainment, such as cinemas and indoor theaters.[52] [53]

In private property, photography may be prohibited or restricted by a property owner on their property.

Photography on private property that is generally open to the public (e.g., a shopping mall) is usually permitted unless explicitly prohibited by posted signs. Even if no such signs are posted, the property owner or agent can ask a person to stop photographing, and if the person refuses to do so, the owner or agent can ask the person to leave; in some jurisdictions, a person who refuses to leave can be arrested for criminal trespass, and many jurisdictions recognize the common-law right to use reasonable force to remove a trespasser; a person who forcibly resists a lawful removal may be liable for battery, assault, or both.


In Hungary, from 15 March 2014 when the long-awaited Civil Code was published, the law re-stated what had been normal practice, namely, that a person had the right to refuse being photographed. However, implied consent exists: it is not illegal to photograph a person who does not actively object.[54][55]


In Macau, a photographer must not take or publish any photographs of a person against his/her will without legal justification, even in a public place. Besides, everyone has a right to Personality Rights. People are not to be photographed, photographs of them displayed or reproduced without their prior consent. Criminal penalties include imprisonment.[56] Additionally, photography of police officers in Macau is illegal.[57]

South Africa

In South Africa photographing people in public is legal. Reproducing and selling photographs of people is legal for editorial and limited fair use commercial purposes. There exists no case law to define what the limits on commercial use are. Civil law requires the consent of any identifiable persons for advertorial and promotional purposes. Property, including animals, do not enjoy any special consideration.

During the media coverage of the Nkandla controversy it emerged that there exists a law, the National Key Points Act, 1980, prohibiting the photographing of any "national key points." National key points are buildings or structures that serve a strategic or military purpose. Though it wasn't revealed what these are as part of state secrecy it was claimed that the presidential residence is one of them and should thus not be shown in media. Subsequent court action resulted in it being ruled that a list of all key points be made public. Although not currently or previously enforced the law is still in effect even after calls for it to be repealed as a relic of apartheid-era secrecy legislation.

Sudan and South Sudan

Travelers who wish to take any photographs must obtain a photography permit from the Ministry of Interior, Department of Aliens (Sudan)[58] or Ministry of Information (South Sudan).[59]


Regulations apply to land-based photography for certain locations. A permit is required for aerial photography in India, which normally takes over a month to be issued.[60]


Calling oneself a photographer, in line with most other trades in Iceland, requires the person to hold a Journeyman's or Master's Certificates in the industry. Exceptions can be made in low population areas, or for people coming from within the EEA.[61]


Taking pictures of police officers in many circumstances was made illegal by a 2015 "Citizens' Security Law" with the stated purpose of protecting police officers and their families from harassment, the law have generated controversy because it may be harder to denounce police brutality. A far more limited version of the law had been in effect for several decades regarding when police work related to terrorism. A person was fined under this law for taking and publishing online a photograph of an illegally parked police car.[62]


Mexican law is similar to the law in the United States. Authorities may intimidate or prevent any holder of a camera if they come into close perimeters of Government buildings.

See also


  1. Illustrated in the Norowzian v Arks case. In this case, it was noted that the copyright in a film would be infringed only though photographic copying of a substantial part, as opposed to mere recreation of the film. It was, however, also held that a film could be protected by copyright both as a film and as a dramatic work, provided, of course, that it fulfilled the requirements of protection of a dramatic work, on the facts. The claimant, was eventually unsuccessful. It was held that whilst the film in question in fact had copyright subsist in it both as a film and as a dramatic work, this copyright was not infringed, because there was no copying of a substantial part.


  1. "Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square Garden (Amendment No: 1) Byelaws 2002" (PDF). Greater London Authority Act 1999, Section 385(1). Greater London Authority. 2002. Retrieved 2009-06-20.
  2. Application process
  3. "Commercial filming and photography". The Royal Parks. Retrieved 2016-10-19.
  4. Linda Macpherson LL.B, Dip.L.P., LL.MThe UK Photographers Rights Guide
  5. Criminal Justice Act 1925 (c.86) s.41
  6. Mobile court photo sentence upheld –
  7. Regina v Vincent D No. 2004/01739/A7 [2004] EWCA Crim 1271
  8. Rubin, G "Seddon, Dell and rock n' roll: investigating alleged breaches of the ban on publishing photographs taken within courts or their precincts, 1925–1967" Crim. L.R. 874
  9. Cosgrove, Sarah (14 April 2009). "Man questioned under terrorism law after taking picture of police car in park". Enfield Independent. Retrieved 2009-04-22.
  10. "Photography advice". Metropolitan Police Service. Retrieved 10 August 2016.
  11. R v K [2008] EWCA Crim 185
  12. 1 2 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 s 1(1)(a) and s 4(2)
  13. Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 s 9(1)
  14. Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 s 11(1)
  15. Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 s11(3)
  16. Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 s 12
  17. Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 s 16(2)
  18. "Locating a copyright owner". Intellectual Property Office.
  19. Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 s 16(1)
  20. Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 s16(3)
  21. Creation Records Ltd v News Group Newspapers Ltd [1997] EMLR 444 (Ch)
  22. Lambert, Jane (February 2000). "Case Note: Creation Records Ltd. v News Group Newspapers". IP/IT-Update. NIPC. Retrieved 2009-05-09.
  23. 1 2 3 Richard Arnold, “Copyright in Photographs: A Case for Reform” [2005] European Intellectual Property Review 303
  24. Reichmann, Michael. "The Art of Photography". The Luminous Landscape. Retrieved 2009-05-09.
  25. " plc v Rodney Fitch & Co Ltd". Pinsent Masons. Retrieved 2009-05-09.
  26. See Sawkins v Hyperion Records [2005] EWCA Civ 565 at [79]-[84]
  27. Human Rights Act 1998 sections 2 & 3
  28. Human Rights Act 1998 Schedule 1, Part 1, Article 8
  29. 1 2 Mosley v News Group Newspapers Ltd [2008] EWHC 1777 (QB)
  30. Campbell v Mirror Group Newspapers Ltd [2004] UKHL 22
  31. Murray v Express Newspapers Plc [2008] EWCA Civ 446
  32. J. Morgan, ‘Privacy in the House of Lords, Again’ (2004), 120 Law Quarterly Review 563, 565
  33. 1 2 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 s 2
  34. Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 s 85(1)a
  35. Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 s 85(1)a Paragraph B
  36. Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 s 85(1)a Paragraph C
  37. Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 s 85(2)(a)
  38. 1 2 3 4 5 Krages II, Bert P. "The Photographer's Right" (PDF). Retrieved 2009-06-17.
  39. "S. 1301 [108th]: Video Voyeurism Prevention Act of 2004". Retrieved 2009-02-27.
  40. "Video Voyeurism Laws". The National Center for Victims of Crime. Retrieved 2009-05-27.
  41. California Code of Regulations, Title 14, Section 4316, Commercial Filming. Retrieved 2010-12-18.
  42. "Definition of Commercial Filming Projects". State of California. Retrieved 2009-03-03.
  43. "Film Permit Policy and Application -- City of Hermosa Beach, CA.". City of Hermosa Beach. Retrieved 2009-03-03.
  44. 1 2 3 4 5 "Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park – Commercial Photography Information (U.S. National Park Service)". National Park Service. Retrieved 2009-05-27.
  45. 1 2 "NPS Digest- Commercial Filming and Still Photography Permits". National Park Service. Retrieved 2009-05-27.
  46. Code of Federal Regulations, Title 36, Section 5.5(b), Commercial photography. Retrieved 2010-12-18.
  47. 1 2 "ASMP: Property and Model Release Tutorial". American Society of Media Photographers, Inc. Retrieved 2009-03-09.
  48. "Summary Offences Ordinance Prohibition on taking photographs, etc., in court" Government of Hong Kong
  49. "Civic Centres Regulation" Government of Hong Kong
  50. "Civic Centres Regulation Filming" Government of Hong Kong
  51. "Prevention Of Copyright Piracy Ordinance" Government of Hong Kong
  52. Government of Hong Kong
  53. on the new law prohibits to take any photo even on public places without the consent of the persons appearing on the photo.
  54. Nolan, Daniel (14 March 2014). "Hungary law requires photographers to ask permission to take pictures". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 20 May 2014.
  55. "不法進行錄音錄像"
  57. "Information for Travelers: Visiting Sudan" U.S. Department of State.
  58. "Foreign travel advice: South Sudan" Government of the United Kingdom.
  59. "Reel India Pictures". Retrieved 2009-03-03.
  60. "Information for Tradesmen and Others" Ministry of Industries and Innovation. Accessed 27 September 2016
  61. Julian Robinson (17 August 2015). "Spanish woman who took picture of police car parked in disabled bay is fined nearly £600 under controversial new 'gagging law'". Daily Mail. Retrieved 10 August 2016.
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