Who actually owns a photo that is taken in a public place?

  • 10
    It's doubtful that anyone can give you legal advice here, only guidelines. You'll need to talk to a lawyer if you need to be absolutely sure. Aug 4, 2010 at 17:16
  • 2
    In the United States, architecture is classified as "public domain" - so you can take a picture of the Washington Monument - or the Chicago Mercantile - or Frank Lloyd Wrights Unitarian Church building - and not face problems. However, if you take a picture of a building which falls under trademark rules, then you would face problems. A very few buildings fall into this category - the tall pyramid skyscraper in California (San Francisco?) is in this category.
    – Mei
    Jan 15, 2011 at 2:41
  • This really depends on what country you're in.
    – You
    Feb 15, 2011 at 17:55

8 Answers 8


The copyright belongs to the photographer unless otherwise specified in writing.

However, depending on local laws you may not have the right to take pictures of some subjects, and may only have permission to sell your images of certain subjects with expressed consent.

  • Also, see photo.stackexchange.com/questions/1008/…
    – chills42
    Jul 30, 2010 at 19:41
  • so i can publish (share it on filter) photos (individuals, groups, children) taken in public (some event/gathering). though some of the pictures taken with the VERBAL consent?
    – Ifi
    Jul 30, 2010 at 19:51
  • Most likely yes, but I don't know your local law.
    – chills42
    Jul 30, 2010 at 19:58
  • If taken in Virgina and does local law applies on Flickr and what settings are best to avoid any law suit?
    – Ifi
    Jul 30, 2010 at 20:06
  • 2
    @Ifi - too many variables to say for sure. If you have particular reason to be concerned, you need specific advice about your specific situation.
    – ex-ms
    Jul 30, 2010 at 20:17

Main issues that are related to usage of your pictures are the following:


In most circumstances, you own copyright to photos you take, and can do whatever you want with them. The exception is either when you've assigned copyright to someone else (paper you shoot for, for example), or when you'd infrige someone else's copyright. For example, when you take Ansel Adams photo print on street and make 1:1 photo of it, you don't own the resulting picture.

Rules regarding what kind of works you can photograph and reproduce freely when they're in public space are different in every state, but mostly should cover buildings, permanently installed statues and so on. The overview can be found at Freedom of panorama page at Wikimedia Commons. For commercial usage of such pictures you usually need some kind of model release.

Personality rights

Personality rights are mostly intended to prevent you things like snapping strangers on the street and then selling them for advertising (imagine text: "I'm a HIV-positive prostitute and recommend this toothpaste"). Some details regarding publication can again be found on Wikimedia Commons.

National security

Special laws can prevent you from photopraphing power plants, military installations, railroad stations, security cameras, policemen, etc., depending on the state of paranoia in your country.

  • +1 for the National security issue. A beautiful building in Pasadena overlooks the Arroyo and Colorado street bridge but it's a US Court of Appeals and you need permission from the judge to photograph it ... for National security purposes. (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Court_of_Appeals.jpg ) Jul 30, 2010 at 22:11

Here in germany it is legal to publish a photo without permission of every single visible person if the picture contains several people of similar size and no one of them is emphasized.

  • 6
    What an interesting and sort of sensible law! Jul 30, 2010 at 22:13
  • Franc has in theory the same law - although it is open to mis-use Jul 31, 2010 at 1:07

The rights of a photographer is generally quite strong. There may be local variations, but commonly:

  • The photographer always owns the photography, unless you have a contract that transfers the ownership. Even if you ask someone else to actually press the trigger, the photographer setting up the session owns the photograph.
  • You can photograph anything or anyone in a public place (unless you violate any other laws).

Owning a photograph doesn't mean that you can use it for anything, though. Publishing a photo without permission where a person can be easily recognised is only allowed for artistic or journalistic purposes.

Using a photo for profit (e.g. ads) almost always requires a model release.


If in doubt, speak to a lawyer

In most jurisdictions, you can generally take photos for personal use of most things, as long as you're in a public place, your own property, or somewhere where you have permission to be (which may in turn include conditions; for example, art galleries tend to allow you to be there as long as you don't engage in photography).

Theoretically, there is no law to stop you from taking a photo of a child playing in the street outside your house in the UK. I would advise against it, however, as the local constabulary may question your motives.

Most stock photo agencies will not handle images of people unless there is a model release signed. In some jurisdictions, this isn't a legal requirement, but agencies will want to cover themselves for an international market. Similarly, they like a property release if the subject is an identifiable piece of property (be it a can of cola, or a mansion).

Some organisations have reputations for being photographer unfriendly so it is always best to check in advance if you want to use the work commercially.


For some background discussion ... consider reading Carlos Miller's Photography is not a crime blog.


Copyright belongs to the photographer in most situations. In Berne Convention countries, if you're not being paid or not employed to take the photograph, it's almost certainly true.

Publication is a separate act to taking the photograph, and whether it's legal to publish it depends on many different variables. Some examples:

  • In France, you couldn't publish someone's portrait without consent or any photo with them as a main subject. If that same person was incidentally in the background of another photo, you could publish it (probably - this is not a hard and fast rule, just a guideline, and subject to interpretation).

  • Commercial photography generally requires a release for identifiable people or property in the US, but not in the UK unless the person already has a significant public reputation.

  • Some photos taken and published legally may fall foul of other laws, such as defamation or indecency.

The best advice will always be that if you have particular concerns about a specific situation, to seek out specific advice about that situation.


I would say that if it has been taken by google street view then you will pretty much be safe, but they may have deals, agreements and show credits for certain publicly visible property. But also be aware that google have blurred all faces and number plates, so if there is someone visible and they can be identified you will most likely need a model release.

At the end of the day the safest option is to speak to a lawyer.

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