Who owns the landscape?
'Things the landscape/travel photographer needs to know about property releases.'
I had a bit of a 'moment' the other day. It's ok, I'm over it now, but for a brief period my fledgling professional career flashed before my eyes. This momentary lapse of reason (one for the Pink Floyd fans there) was caused by a suggestion that the glorious panorama of the Scottish highlands that I submitted to the stock library a while back, or the stunning images of Rome that would one day grace the pages of some upmarket travel magazine (we can all dream), might be illegal. Why? Because I didn't have signed property releases. Visions of coach loads of corporate lawyers descending on my humble abode, having put aside all their other cases so that they could devote their entire careers to 'suing my ass', sprang to mind. Time for some frantic research. What I discovered was reassuring, to a degree, and certainly educating. I would save you the pain of having to do the same trawl so I have condensed my findings into a list of things that, as a landscape/travel photographer, you need to know.
Thing 1. I am not a lawyer.
This is important. Although everything you are about to read is correct to the best of my knowledge, it is none the less based on my understanding and interpretation. If you think you have a genuine problem with an impending release related lawsuit, my advice is speak to some one who did law at university, not economics like me.
Thing 2. If you are not planning on using your masterpieces to make money you don't need a release.
I thought I would get this one out of the way nice and early and save the possibility of you having to read through the rest of my inane ramblings without reason. If you take pictures for fun and only ever share them with friends and family, or maybe hang them in the privacy of your own home, you can hold your head high and snap away with a clear conscience. This does not absolve you from invading someone's privacy, trespass or any other civil liability but at least you won't need a signed property release to do it. Take note of the word 'planning' though. You may not have any intention of submitting your work for financial gain today, but at some point in the future that may change. If it does, and you raid your archives for suitable images, the fact that you took the picture 10 years ago means nothing in a court of law. If the nature of the subject matter and it's intended use means it needs a release, then it needs a release.
Thing 3. A 'model release' is different.
Well obviously. I merely mention this for the sake of clarification, as there may be times, especially on travel related images, where people and locations coincide. If that is the case then you may well need a property release, or releases, and individual model releases for every person who is identifiable in the image. Scary huh? But worry not, as I shall explain in a moment.
Thing 4. By the way, animals are property.
Ok, I know that you consider Rover a real and contributing member of the family and a person in his own right, but as far as commercial photography is concerned he is your possession and therefore your property. If he forms a significant element of a picture I am trying to sell, for example, 'Dog playing Frisbee in the park', then I need you to sign a property release. Not a model release by the way, I shall save that debate for another article. The same goes for Farmer Browns cow, those racehorses that hang out in the fields down the lane etc, etc. You get the picture. Wild animals, however, are fine. You can take as many images of lions, tigers, leopards, elephants, whatever, as you like. Finding them of course is a separate issue.
Thing 5. There are situations when you absolutely, positively, unquestionably MUST have a property release.
Or, to put it another way, times when it may not be worth getting your camera out of your bag. If an image contains something obvious which carries a copyright or trademark or logo, it needs a release. Unless the image is used for editorial use. I'll explain why in a moment. Images which are of a logo and very little else are unlikely to be accepted for commercial or editorial use as they more than likely represent a breach of copyright. Now here's an interesting aside which just goes to show how complicated this whole release thing can be. The Eiffel Tower in Paris during the day is pretty much fair game. But come back at night when it is lit up, and arguably looks it's best, and you are into release territory because the light show is copyrighted. Not the tower. The light show. Weird huh?
Thing 6. There are actually situations when you don't need a property release.
Honestly. Now this is not an exact science, I am not an expert and I am not about to start advising on individual images or scenarios, real or hypothetical, (See thing 1) but the following is lifted from the FAQ pages of Alamy, a significant and respected commercial stock library, and for me provides a very useful rule of thumb. So, you don't need a property release for:
Public property - Government buildings, public schools, parks.
Private property (unidentifiable) - Locations with no identifiable features.
Private property viewed from publicly accessible locations - Building(s) in an image whose central focus is not those buildings. e.g. landscapes and skylines.
Famous locations or landmarks - Releases may be required unless the property is classified as being in the public domain. Rules vary from building to building and country to country so it is up to you to check your legal position with regards to such images.
Thing 7. All is not lost.
If you don't have property releases for images that, based on the above, you think you should have, you can still make money from them. This is due to the difference between 'commercial' use and 'editorial' use. In essence, commercial use is advertising or product/service promotion. To be used for such purposes an image must have accompanying releases. Editorial use is the newspaper, book or magazine illustration market where images are used to, pay attention here, 'educate or inform'. In the vast majority of cases images used in editorial areas do not need releases. Although book covers are a grey area, as it could be argued that the cover is promoting, or advertising, the content. The down side is that commercial use is where the money is. That's not to say you can't make a profit from editorial photography, it's just that the returns are generally less and you are unlikely to see the big money single sales that national advertising campaigns can generate.
So there you have it. A quick guide to the ins and outs of property releases in landscape and travel photography. I hope you found it useful and I hope it keeps you out of jail and a roof over your head.
About the author: David Stanley is a freelance photographer concentrating on landscape and travel images. He has a growing portfolio of royalty free images with istockphoto. For more articles, along with a selection of his work available as prints, please visit his website at www.davidstanleyphotography.com.
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