Photographer's Rights - United States (US)

Photography’s Rights – United States of America


General Rule

“If you can see it and you are on public property then you have the right to photograph it.”

When photographing in the United States that you will possess the right to photograph almost anything apart from Military and Energy Installations.


Public Property

Photographers are permitted to take photographs of anything on public property.

Private Property

Photographers may require seeking permission when taking photographs on private property and there still can be restrictions imposed after the permission is granted. Otherwise, taking photographs on private property without permission can constitute trespass of private land.


Restricted Locations for Photographing

Museums, Galleries and Libraries

There will be restrictions imposed when taking photographs inside as they are still regarded as private property for the general public.



Generally, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) permits photography to be taken as long as it does not interfere with the security process. However, different airports have different regulations or authorities but when you are told not to take photographs then you should ask the basis of the legal authority.


Military and Energy Installations

Military installations are prohibited for the reason to protect national security. Energy facilities such as nuclear facility interiors prohibit photographing for similar reasons.

The law governing the Military and Energy Installation is stipulated in 18 USC Section 795 in relation to Photographing and sketching defense installations

Sec. 795. Photographing and sketching defense installations

(a)   {C}Whenever, in the interests of national defense, the President defines certain vital military and naval installations or equipment as requiring protection against the general dissemination of information relative thereto, it shall be unlawful to make any photograph, sketch, picture, drawing, map, or graphical representation of such vital military and naval installations or equipment without first obtaining permission of the commanding officer of the military or naval post, camp, or station, or naval vessels, military and naval aircraft, and any separate military or naval command concerned, or higher authority, and promptly submitting the product obtained to such commanding officer or higher authority for censorship or such other action as he may deem necessary.

(b) Whoever violates this section shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.



The photographer has the right to photograph children inside playgrounds. However, it might be regarded as a suspicious activity in most states of America and some people will question your motivation.


National Park

The rule that photography in national parks require a permit is only applicable for commercial photography. Therefore, a commercial permit is not required for general or personal photography.


Permissible Locations and Subjects for Photography

{C}·         Accident and fire scenes

{C}·         Celebrities

{C}·         Bridges and other infrastructure

{C}·         Industrial facilities and public utilities

{C}·         Residential and commercial buildings

{C}·         Transportation facilities

{C}·         Superfund sites

{C}·         Criminal activities

{C}·         Law Enforcement Officers


Commercial Purpose

General Rule: Permission will be required if the photography is designated for commercial purposes.

·         For a person, it is recommended that a release form to be signed.

·         For private property, the ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers, Inc.) recommends that a property release should be used.


Dealing with the Police Officer

In general when dealing with the police, it is always recommended to remain polite and cooperative without physical resistance. When you are stopped for photography, you should always request the police officer to release you by asking “am I free to go?” Also there is no reason to detain the photographer unless the police officer has reasonable suspicion for your association with any criminal activities.  If you are detained, politely ask what crime you are suspected of committing, and remind the officer that taking photographs is your right under the First Amendment and does not constitute reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. There will be no need to provide identification document to the police officer unless in the course of driving.


Confrontations and how to deal with them

The general public or any person in a public space has limited rights to bother, question or detain you without a legitimate purpose. There will be no obligations to explain or disclose your identity.

Private parties have very limited rights and any illegitimate detention may be subject to criminal and civil penalties.  

{C}·         They have no right to confiscate your film: taking your film directly or indirectly by threatening can constitute criminal offences such as theft and coercion.

{C}·         They have no right to harasses you: if you have been threatened or intimidated when taking photographs, they may be liable for criminal offences such as kidnapping and theft. Alternatively, under civil remedies that you may be entitled to compensation for assault, conversion and violation of constitutional rights under Torts.

In the event of confrontations, always start been polite and respectful and if the other party becomes hostile or unreasonable then you should avoid escalate into a violent situation. Alternatively, it is suggested that you enforce your legal rights as listed above and obtain the other party’s personal details. 



New York City

Photographers have rights to take photographs in the New York City subway under the State Code:

Rule 1050.9 (c), “Photography, filming or video recording in any facility or conveyance is permitted except that ancillary equipment such as lights, reflectors or tripods may not be used"   

Police can still arrest you but there were several successful law suits that the photographer have won and received a large sum of compensation.


Under the MTA rules, Photography is also permitted:

Section 1050.9 – Restricted Areas and Activities

3. Photography, filming or video recording in any facility or conveyance is permitted except that ancillary equipment such as lights, reflectors or tripods may not be used…

7. No person may carry on or bring to any facility or conveyance any item that:

i. is so long as to extend outside the window or door of a subway car, bus or other conveyance;

ii. constitutes a hazard to the operation of the Authority, interferes with passenger traffic, or impedes service; or

iii. constitutes a danger or hazard to other persons.



The Ownership of Copyright means certain exclusive rights for Photographers. For photographic copyrights, the ownership rights are defined in U.S. Copyright Act:

17 U.S.C. 106 for Photographs:

(1) to reproduce the photograph;

(2) to prepare derivative works based upon the photograph;

(3) to distribute copies of the photograph to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;

(4) to display the photograph publicly;


In general, the photographer who took the photographs owns its copyright and it is necessary to register this Copyright with the US Copyright Office. If photographs are not registered prior to an infringement (within 3 months of the first publication), a copyright owner may only recover “actual damages” for the infringement instead of statutory damages:

17 U.S. Code 504 - Remedies for infringement: Damages and profits

(a) In General.— Except as otherwise provided by this title, an infringer of copyright is liable for either—

(1) the copyright owner’s actual damages and any additional profits of the infringer, as provided by subsection (b); or

(2) statutory damages, as  provided by subsection (c).


(b) Actual Damages and Profits.— The copyright owner is entitled to recover the actual damages suffered by him or her as a result of the infringement, and any profits of the infringer that are attributable to the infringement and are not taken into account in computing the actual damages. In establishing the infringer’s profits, the copyright owner is required to present proof only of the infringer’s gross revenue, and the infringer is required to prove his or her deductible expenses and the elements of profit attributable to factors other than the copyrighted work.