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I live in Portland, OR, USA. For the past couple of years, I've been taking Instagram pictures of cats in my neighborhood. All the pics are taken from the sidewalk or the street. Some of them show parts of people's houses along with the cat in question. I've been thinking of taking some of my favorite ones, writing a little fictional story about each of them, and making a little print-on-demand book or chapbook out of them and selling them online or in local shops.

The major thing that's stopping me is: what if someone recognizes their cat? What legal right do I have to sell these pictures for a (probably really small) profit? I've been googling and haven't been able to find anything that puts my mind to ease. Lots of info on whether I can take the picture at all (I feel pretty safe there since I was in a public space) but not much about making commercial use of them.

What commercial rights do I have to these cat pictures? What rights do their owners have?

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Legal Disclaimer

The following is for general information purposes only and should not be taken as legal advice for any particular situation. If you have a specific concern you should consult with an attorney familiar with the relevant issues in the jurisdiction in question. Since the questioner indicated they were located in the U.S., this answer assumes that to be the case.


The way you describe you want to use the photos you have taken is known as editorial and artistic usage. Commercial usage means you want to use the images to represent an endorsement of a certain product or service. The standard is much higher for commercial usage than editorial/artistic. In general you can use images you created while shooting from a public space for editorial use without a release from the owner of property seen from a public space. There are exceptions for things such as trademarked designs, unique and recognizable architectural works, public artworks, etc. that are the intellectual property of someone else.

Having said that, just because you can do something doesn't always mean you should. And even though you are within your rights to use images obtained while shooting from a public place, it would make the venture much less risky if you could obtain written permission to use them from the property owners. Consider this. Even if you were to prevail in a lawsuit against you, you would still be responsible for the cost of mounting a legal defense.

  • Also not legal advice, but... I think a lawsuit is unlikely. Maybe if you happen to make millions of dollars and become a tempting target. Otherwise, it would be hard to find a lawyer to take the case against you — in situations like this, lawyers want some they can win. – mattdm Sep 5 '15 at 15:12
  • Unlikely? Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on the mindset of the parties involved. Some folks will sue over anything. No matter how likely or unlikely, a signed release means any litigation that does occur would most likely be summarily dismissed and greatly reduce the cost of mounting a legal defense. It might even give the photographer/publisher grounds to counter sue for their legal fees. – Michael C Sep 5 '15 at 21:58
  • @mattdm Many lawyers are ethical and would advise their clients it is not in their best interest to pursue such a case. But some lawyers will take any case, just not on spec. They'll charge their client hourly rates and get paid regardless of the outcome of the case. – Michael C Sep 5 '15 at 22:01
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Maybe you can offer the cat owners a small percent of the profit in exchange for property model release permission.

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    This might be nice, but there's no reason you would have to. – mattdm Sep 5 '15 at 15:10

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