A wider boundary than you'd think. In fall 2005, Pop Photo Senior Editor Peter Kolonia was shooting small architectural details near the Mall in Washington, D.C. Stopping by the stairs of the Department of Agriculture to shoot the base of a column, with a fairly mainstream camera-a Fujifilm FinePix S3 Pro with a normal lens and no flash-he put one foot on the bottom step, and…
"Two people, a security guard in a generic uniform and a SWAT-type guy, dressed all in black with a big gun, came out the front and asked what I was doing."
They looked at his pictures, then took the memory card and his driver's license inside to run a check on him. "They were clearly trying to scare me," he says. "They knew I was just a tourist. When they came out the second time they got very lecture-y with me: 'Haven't you heard there's a war on? Do you know about the threat of terrorism?'"
They threatened to confiscate his camera (which requires a court order), and he had to talk them out of keeping his memory card.
How far does the zealotry extend? All the way to the flags at the county courthouse. That's what recently got Ben Hider, a 27-year-old British citizen working (legally, with a green card) as a photographer, into trouble. On March 17, he stopped on a public thoroughfare at the Westchester County courthouse in White Plains, NY, to snap a few pictures of the wind-whipped flags out front.
Three court police officers quickly surrounded him and started firing questions, then told him he was being detained for shooting pictures of an official government building. He was taken inside, where he was frisked, interrogated, photographed, lectured on terrorism, told he was going to be picked up by the "terrorism task force," and threatened with deportation. After being held for two hours, he was released.
"People should know that police are using fear and intimidation," says Hider. "For what? I don't know what they gain."
He demanded an apology and got a tepid one from the court administration office. But the court security department wouldn't apologize, saying that officers would do it again if necessary.
Private security guards seem to be taking cues from the stepped-up vigilance of the real police. They've been stopping people from photographing buildings, stadiums, and art works, claiming they're copyrighted or trademarked, which often isn't true.
Copyright laws contain a specific exemption for photographing buildings (only those built after 1990 can even be copyrighted). Nothing in copyright or trademark law prevents anyone from snapping a shot from a public place, even publishing it on a personal website, as long as they're not cashing in on somebody else's creation. The real issue is how that photo is used commercially.
Copyright automatically covers original works "fixed in a tangible medium of expression" from the moment of creation. But the copyright must be registered for maximum protection, with major damage awards possible if someone doesn't pay to use the work commercially. A trademark, harder and more expensive to obtain, is "a word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination thereof," used to distinguish particular goods from any other on the market.