Photography Not Allowed – 33 (Photographs of a local library)

TahoeFieldLibrarian, Jessamyn West, reports on her recent experience when visiting the Des Moines, Iowa, Public Library.  After snapping some photos of the beautiful building, a library worker asked her, “Are you taking pictures?” and told her that she is not allowed to take photos in the library without permission from the marketing staff.  Ms. West subsequently had a email exchange with the Library’s Marketing Director, which is posted in her blog entry.  In sum, the Library’s photography purported policy (it does not appear to be posted on the website or in the Library) is:  “Permission to photograph the library reading rooms and other public areas of the building may be granted by the library director or her designee. Photographs and videos may not include library signage or the library logo, and photographing may not disrupt library customers’ use of the library.”

So what’s the law on this?  First, while some buildings are protected by copyright, the US Copyright Act provides an exception for photography of architectural works:

The copyright in an architectural work that has been constructed does not include the right to prevent the making, distributing, or public display of pictures, paintings, photographs, or other pictorial representations of the work, if the building in which the work is embodied is located in or ordinarily visible from a public place.

See 17 USC 120.  Therefore, the law allows you to take photos of  the library because it is located in and is ordinarily visible from a public place.  The architect would not have grounds to keep you from photographing the work for any purposes, including commercial purposes.

Second, when taking photos while inside the library,  you are subject to trespassing issues.  Specifically, your presence on another’s property is pursuant to a “license” to be on the premises.  For example, when you invite someone to your home for dinner, that person does not have a “license” or permission to drive your car or stay overnight but would have the specific or implied consent to sit in your living room and at the dining room table.  At any point, you may revoke the license and ask your guest to leave the premises.

For the library issue, the library management would have the ability to force a person to leave, such as a vagrant who comes in to sleep in a warm, dry place.  Likewise, someone who is in the library to take photos may be subject to eviction since the photographer is not there to use the ordinary library resources.  The ultimate question is whether the library has given specific or implied consent for persons to take photographs there.  Certainly, if the library has posted “no photography” signs, then consent has not been given.  If the library is silent about your photography, especially when the management doesn’t stop your activities, then the consent is at least implied.  So shoot away.

Finally, the use of the photographs of the library is limited if people are in your photos.  The people there likely would not have expectation of privacy, so you may take their photograph.  But if you use the photograph of a person in a commercial manner, you will need the person’s consent that is usually documented by a model release. See my September 14, 2005, blog for more information.

Thanks to Peter Hirtle for submitting this topic.

Check Photo Attorney on, in the Article Center, and on Twitter!