Category Archive: law


Defamation, Girls, and pictures through a window: recent legal news affecting photography and copyright

There’ve been a bunch of legal developments in the world of photography and copyright in the past couple weeks. Here are a few things that have been on my radar that all have relevance to freelance and staff photographers in the US:

UPDATE: Judge rules commercial drone use legal in USA (updated)

“A ruling by an administrative law judge on Thursday held that the Federal Aviation Administration lacks clear-cut authority to ban the commercial use of drones in the continental U.S.” -Wall Street Journal

In January, I wrote about the legal issues of using drones for journalism in the US. This week, administrative law judge Patrick Geraghty struck down a $10,000 FAA fine against Raphael Pirker, a drone videographer, stemming from the 2007 filming of a University of Virginia advertisement using a 5-pound drone. The judge stated that the FAA lacks authority to regulate commercial drone usage, and as such, could not fine Pirker for his drone usage. The judge’s decision can be appealed. The Wall Street Journal also reports that the FAA is considering case-by-case waivers to its ban on commercial drone usage.

I’m very curious to see how drone usage evolves in the US and elsewhere. It could mean a lot for journalism and Facebook has plans to use 11,000 drones to facilitate internet access throughout Africa. As the ACLU has been documenting, however, police agencies across the US are using drones for surveillance and data colleciton.

UPDATE March 10, 2014: The FAA has appealed the decision, saying, “The agency is concerned that this decision could impact the safe operation of the national airspace system and the safety of people and property on the ground.”

FAA says drone photojournalism illegal…for now

Spokesman-Review video made using drone photography.

Spokesman-Review video made using drone photography.

On January 1, the Spokesman-Review (of Spokane, Washington) published a video of the city’s annual Polar Bear Plunge. A portion of the video was taken with a remote-controlled helicopter. Though a small helicopter doesn’t match what most of have in our minds when we think of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), for legal purposes they are the same thing. News of the Spokesman-Review’s video spread widely after a few tweets, with some questioning the legality of using a UAV for journalism in the US. The Spokesman-Review photographer responsible for the video, Jesse Tinsley, said the use fell into a legal gray area. Poynter has a good review of the conversation and an interview with Tinsley. But on Monday, an FAA spokesperson said that there is no legal gray area regarding drone journalism. “If you’re using it for any sort of commercial purposes, including journalism, that’s not allowed,” the FAA told Poynter. In June of 2013, in fact, the FAA sent cease-and-desist letters to two American drone journalism university programs, the University of Missouri’s Missouri Drone Journalism Program and the University of Nebraska’s Drone Journalism Lab. Check out the Drone Journalism Lab’s tumblr, by the way.

RC copters with camera mounts are a growing industry. You can buy them at Amazon. DJI Innovations has a handful of other models available, too. As a result, drone journalism is taking off around the world, alongside other nonmilitary drone usage. Livestreaming Occupy WallStreet journalists used toy helicopters to gather aerial footage. Paparazzi have used drones in their celebrity coverage, leading to an anti-drone anti-paparazzi bill in California. Eric Cheng, formerly of Lytro, spoke with Popular Photography about using drones in his work. Even wedding photographers are getting into the mix, but sometimes with disastrous results (see the video below).

The use of drones in journalism (and everything else) will only increase. The Reuters Institute released a report in June 2013 on just this subject (pdf of report). In the report, they argue that newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters, will turn to drones because they vastly simplify and cheapen the process of collecting aerial photography. The Canadian Journalism Project has a good interview with Alexandra Gibb, a graduate student whose thesis addresses the use and future potential of drones in journalism. And Poynter has a nice set of links and discussion about what journalists need to know about drones, though that focuses more on the coverage of drone issues than use of drones by journalists.

Not everyone’s happy about the rise of drones. The ACLU warns about risks to privacy and safety caused by the increasing use of drones in domestic security issues. And one Colorado town made national news last year with a proposal to issue hunting licenses and bounties to shoot down drones in the town’s airspace.

And while the use of drones for commercial operations, including journalism, remains illegal in the US now, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 says that the FAA needs to allow drones and UAVs in American airspace by September 2015. To that end, the FAA has announced plans for six drone test sites around the country which will be used to determine how to integrate drones into the nation’s airspace by experimenting in varied locations and climates.

Charges dropped against Photography Is Not a Crime blogger for posting police media relations number online

This is a local story for me since it involves the Boston Police Department. I’m happy to see a positive resolution, though disappointed that it the situation even arose. At its essence, a blogger was charged with witness intimidation and faced 10 years in prison for posting the publicly-available media relations phone number and email address for the Boston Police Department in a post about police harassment of a man taking video of police activity (video above).

Carlos Miller is the very active blogger behind the Photography Is Not a Crime site, which catalogs instances of photographers and videographers being arrested, detained, harassed, or otherwise interfered with by authorities while taking pictures or video. The blog is a valuable resource in the fight against increased limitations placed on visual media, especially regarding police activity. Miller frequently writes about intimidation and harassment of photographers by police, and entreats readers to write to police departments and lawmakers to fight against these injustices. We’ve covered laws preventing recording police activity before, in addition to other parts of the war on cameras.

In August 2013, Miller published a blog post about a video in which a Boston Police sergeant shoved and harassed a man taking video of police action on a public sidewalk. At the end of that post, Miller told readers to call the Boston Police Department and listed the Public Service Desk customer service number available on BPD’s own website. One reader did just that, recording a short conversation with Boston police spokeswoman Angelene Richardson, who found the recording online and filed a charge against Taylor Hardy for illegal wiretapping (Hardy maintains that permission was granted to record the call; the charge was later dropped). In a post discussing these wiretapping charges, Miller again asked readers to call a publicly available number to ask that charges be dropped. In a later post, Miller said he posted the number to “[allow] readers to contact them to show [BPD] we are paying attention.” After numerous readers called in about the charges, Boston Police Detective Nick Moore filed witness intimidation charges against Carlos Miller and threatened similar charges for anyone who called in.

Miller launched an indiegogo campaign to help with legal fees, ultimately raising $4300 to hire a lawyer. Readers continued to call in to the Boston Police Department, the lawyer mounted legal challenges to the charges, and the case started to draw some media attention. The Boston Police Department eventually folded and agreed to drop all charges against Miller and Hardy. You can read other summaries of the case by PBS and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Of particular note related to the BPD’s actions that started this whole chain of events, in 2011 a federal appeals court ruled against (pdf) Boston police arresting a man for using his cell phone to record police activity in public without permission. The court noted that “changes in technology and society have made the lines between private citizen and journalist exceedingly difficult to draw.”

NYC mayoral candidate Joe Lhota steals photographers’ work for campaign ad

Screenshot of Joe Lhota campaign ad Can't Go Back with Q. Sakamaki image used without permission.

Screenshot of Joe Lhota campaign ad Can’t Go Back with Q. Sakamaki image used without permission.

Released on October 15 as the New York City mayoral race heats up, Joe Lhota‘s newest campaign video “Can’t Go Back” uses still photography of violence in New York’s past to scare voters away from voting for his opponent Bill de Blasio. However, Lhota did not pay for the licensing of many (perhaps any) of these still images, which includes work by Richard Sandler, Matt Weber, Q. Sakamaki (image from Tompkins Square Park riot in 1991 above), and Eli Reed. Sandler and Weber have reached a settlement with the Lhota campaign, but Sakamaki and Reed have both told Newsday that they are still upset at the usage and infringement. Newsday has identified all of the images used in the campaign ad, finding that one is actually from Bloomberg’s term in office.

According to Newsday, a spokesperson from the campaign says they found the images on flickr and they were tagged as “royalty-free,” and that they did their best to contact images owners given that information. That seems like a object lesson in the difficulties faced both by photographers and image users.

Who owns the copyright to Vivian Maier’s street photography?

“In Illinois, if a person dies without a will, their property goes to their closest living relatives. But if they literally have no living kin anywhere in the world, then the decedent’s property will ‘escheat’ to the State of Illinois. That rarely happens, though, because the law is written so that the property will go to the decedent’s relatives, even if they are very distant.” – Steven Dawson, a trusts and estates lawyer with Bryan Cave LLP, speaking to Gapers Block

We’ve written about Vivian Maier before (first all the way back in 2009), and you’ve probably read or seen much more. I just saw one of the traveling exhibitions of her work at Brandeis University outside Boston, and it’s well worth going to see her work in person, if you can. There’s a recently-released documentary (trailer above, IMDB) that seeks to get the bottom of just who this woman was. There may be a biopic in the works. There have been exhibitions and publications of her work all around the world. Two books have anthologized her photos: Vivian Maier: Street Photographer and Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows.

All of these books and movies and exhibitions stem from three separate collections of Maier’s work bought at auction after her death. The larger and more well-known collection is John Maloof’s, but Jeffery Goldstein also controls a substantial number of images (here’s a piece on Lens about that collection. A third man, Ron Slattery, bought a smaller collection of negatives and prints in 2007, before Maier’s death, though I can’t find a link that collection. A forthcoming book, Vivian Maier’s Fractured Archive, tries to make sense of all of these different collections and the woman herself.

The question remains, however, of just who owns the copyright to these photos. Ordinarily, copyright of unpublished works with a known author stays in place for 70 years after the death of the creator. Maier died in 2009, which means her copyright belongs to her heirs until at least 2079. But because Maier left no will and had no known heirs, the ownership likely goes to the state of Illinois, where Maier died. As Chicago-area web publication Gapers Block reports, “First, the state could do nothing, which would allow the owners of her work to continue with their ventures. Second, if the state decides it is the rightful owner of Maier’s work, cease and desist letters will be sent to the current owners explaining the laws of succession, how the state is now the main beneficiary, and that any selling of her work needs to stop and all profits made would need to be paid to the state.”

Maier’s photographic legacy now is worth thousands, if not millions, of dollars, so the state and the stewards of the various Maier collections have a compelling interest to maintain and exercise their ownership of these materials. It will be interesting to see how this legal situation plays out over the coming years.

Russia jails freelance photog; Russian media blackout photos in protest (UPDATED)


UPDATE 24 October 2013: Russia has dropped piracy charges against the 30 Greenpeace activists, including photographer Denis Sinyakov. They are now charged with “hooliganism,” which seems to be similar to a charge of “disorderly conduct” in the US. Lenta has the news in Russian.

UPDATE 29 September 2013: There’s now website gathering signatures of support and money for the legal defense fund (via Yandex and Paypal) for Denis Sinyakov: FreedomDenisSinyakov.ru

Original: This week Russian security forces arrested 30 Greenpeace activists who were protesting oil drilling in the Arctic. The group, comprising people from 18 nations, used a boat to approach a drilling operation, and a few members tried to board the platform. The activists were arrested and may be charged with piracy in addition to other crimes (though Putin questions the piracy charge).

Among those arrested was freelance photographer Denis Sinyakov, a Redux contributing photographer, who now faces months in prison. Reporters Without Borders has condemned Sinyakov’s arrest and sentence, calling it an “unacceptable violation of freedom of information.” Sinyakov has worked as a photographer for Greenpeace in the past, in addition to regular assignment work for Reuters and AFP. Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy has a petition asking for the release of Sinyakov, and Greenpeace has a petition asking for the release of all the arrested activists.

In protest of Sinyakov’s arrest, major independent Russian media sites have blacked out their photos today. As seen in the screenshots above, Dozhd, Novaya Gazeta, Russian Reporter, Ekho Moskvy, Znak, Lenta, Russkaya Planeta, and others have joined the call to release the photographer.

American government keeps files on “suspicious” photographers

(pdf link) - Suspicious Activity Reports from Joint Regional Intelligence Center Los Angeles Region - released by the American Civil Liberties Union

(pdf link) – Suspicious Activity Reports from Joint Regional Intelligence Center Los Angeles Region – released by the American Civil Liberties Union

We’ve covered the war on cameras many times before. In some cases, police harass photographers for taking pictures of police action. In other cases, photographers are reported or stopped for taking pictures of buildings and bridges in plain view (previously, and also here). In the US, it’s not illegal to take pictures of people, places, and things visible while standing on public property, but that doesn’t stop security guards and policemen from interfering with photographers using their cameras. In a security awareness poster, in fact, the Transportation Safety Administration has equated photographers with terrorists.

The ACLU has just released a slew of “Suspicious Activity Reports” (← pdf link) from the FBI’s Joint Regional Intelligence Center in Los Angeles. An NPR report about the documents’ release details the case of photographer Hal Bergman, who has been questioned both in person and over the phone multiple times by FBI agents. Bergman likes to photograph industrial scenes, and that’s enough to raise the suspicion of the federal government. In the screenshot of one of the reports above, a report describes the investigation of a pair of photographers who were photographing empty lots and streets around a manufacturing plant.

Many of the incidents and investigations contained in these “Suspicious Activity Reports” end, as above, with a line similar to “No further police action/investigation was taken.” However, the reports show that individuals are being targeted for being unfriendly, taking pictures for an art class, or buying water. It’s a waste of resources and potentially quite harmful to the people whose actions are being investigated. In a recent unrelated case, a dark-skinned man was pulled aside for additional screening by the TSA while passing through airport security. Though TSA and the NYPD cleared him after several hours of questioning, Jet Blue refused to allow him to board his plane. Sometimes having a record of being investigated, regardless of whether a crime was committed or not, is enough to make ordinary activities inconvenient or impossible.

Here are some resources to help photographers know their rights in the US:

President of Chechnya posts stolen photo on Instagram

You might not know that the President of Chechnya is pretty active on Instagram (181,248 followers as of this writing). The posts are mostly from official meetings and his travels. Yesterday, a post featured a beautiful photo of sheep on a hillside in the Alps. The photo was actually taken by Herbert Schroer, who posted about the image theft on twitter and instagram. Ordinarily, addressing a copyright issue such as this would involve a pretty straightforward plan of action, but what do you do when the violator is the president of a far-off country?

(via Lenta.ru)

Ag-Gag Arrest: National Geographic photographer George Steinmetz arrested for photographing Kansas feedlot

Black angus beef cattle stand in a holding pen at a ranch near Ledger, Montana, USA. - M. Scott Brauer

Black angus beef cattle stand in a holding pen at a ranch near Ledger, Montana, USA. – M. Scott Brauer

We’ve covered the so-called Ag-Gag bills enacted across the US to outlaw the unauthorized filming and photography of agricultural operations. NPR’s On the Media has a great primer on the recent movement to enact such legislation.

Now, freelance photographer George Steinmetz, on assignment for National Geographic (he’s done 31+ major assignments for the magazine), was arrested after taking pictures of a feedlot in Kansas while paragliding. Steinmetz and his paragliding instructor are charged with trespassing because they took off from private land without permission and because feedlot employees believe that his low altitude and circling pattern constitute trespassing in the air above the feedlot. The case raises interesting questions about how far up above physical land property ownership goes, but also may run afoul of Kansas’ 1990 Farm Animal and Field Crop and Research Facilities Protection Act, an early predecessor of current Ag-Gag laws. Wikipedia has a nice overview of such laws in various states.

A spokesman for the Kansas Livestock Association told the Hutchinson [Kansas] News that Steinmetz’s activities could pose a safety risk to the food supply and reminds agricultural operators to remain vigilant in identifying and reporting similar incidents.