This page does not contain legal advice. For legal advice, contact a lawyer.
Here are a few short discussions on the rights of photographers, and the rights of the public.
Another excellent resource would be Bert Krages' downloadable printable Photographers Right flier which gives a pocket reference to many of these issues.
What Can't I Photograph?
If it's a well-marked secure facility, then don't photograph it without permission.
If you've entered a building or property that is privately owned, then don't photograph it without permission.
If people are in view who would have a reasonable expectation of privacy, then don't photograph them without their permission.
If you're in any other public space, then whatever you can see is basically fair game for photographing. However, (1) if someone asks you not to photograph them, then don't take any more pictures of them, and (2) even if you have the pictures, you may not have the right to publish the images you've taken.
If someone confronts you under the assumption that you're photographing something that you legally should not photograph, remain calm and take mental notes of names and specific regulations. Don't antagonize the one confronting you, but don't surrender your equipment or delete photographs without a proper warrant or arrest.
Who Owns the Picture?
Any photograph (or drawing or song) is protected by copyright immediately upon creation, automatically. You used to have to register your photo with the government to receive these rights, and it's still a good idea for images likely to be at risk of disputes, but it's not a requirement anymore.
If you take the picture, you own the copyright on that picture. The exception to this is if you have been hired to take the pictures in the first place, in which case your contract may spell out that the hiring party may own the copyrights.
Who Can Copy the Picture?
Whomever owns the copyright can copy the image. This includes making printouts, enlargements, reprints, and derivative works from the image.
Also, the copyright owner can license other parties to have specific legal rights to the image. For example, if you sell a photograph to a magazine, the magazine would need a license to reprint it in a certain month's issue, and unless otherwise stipulated, they could not include it in online publications or sell it to somebody else.
In some countries, a person depicted in the photograph may also have some likeness rights to use or copy images of themselves.
Also, some other countries have absolutely no legal duty to enforce your copyrights. This is how some developing nations put the emphasis on their own economy over the interests of other countries. (The United States used to freely copy works from Britain too, long ago.)
What's a Model Release Form?
You may hear that you need a model release form, or a model contract, before you can sell your images. This may be a bit misleading.
A model release is a simple contract which indicates that the model is aware that you took the pictures, and that you have permission to do certain things with the pictures.
There is no legal requirement to secure such a contract. As described above, there are a lot of situations where you can take photographs of whatever, or whomever, you like.
However, without a signature, there's nothing really stopping the model from disagreeing with you later, either. They may claim that they didn't give you permission. They may claim that your images of them are defamatory; the pictures make them look ugly or immodest or otherwise in an unfavorable position.
If you send an image to a company that routinely works with images, they will likely, as a matter of their own corporate policy, require you to submit a model release form along with the image.
A model release contract is indemnification: that company has gotten legally binding assurances that they will not end up involved in a court battle over the rights in that image. They want to protect their interests, especially when any dispute should really be between photographer and model.
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