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Copyright Law

: LibraryLaw Blog

Photography of and in libraries

By Mary Minow, Esq.


Jessamyn West started a fascinating exchange when she reported on her attempts to photograph the Des Moines, Iowa public library. In addition to the extensive comments on her post, it also led to an interesting exchange on an list for architects. Because I know that Carolyn Wright, the Photo Attorney, is interested in efforts to restrict photography in public places, I shared the exchange with her and she weighed in on the legal issues.

Anyone interested in policies regarding photographs in library buildings should read all the exchanges, but here is what I have taken away:

  • Copyright law does not limit what can be done with photographs of copyrighted buildings taken from public places. If you want to make commercial use of a photograph of the Des Moines Public Library, you can.
  • Nevertheless, both the Library and the architect of the building wish to restrict commercial photography of the building in spite of what copyright law allows.
  • As Carolyn Wright points out, in order to restrict legal uses, the library has to use some other law. In this case, it is trespass. The library is in effect saying ?You can only enter the library if you agree not to make commercial use of photographs of the building.?

I can understand some of the restrictions on meeting room policy that the library has. For example, the policy as given in Jessamyn?s blog entry states that ?photographing may not disrupt library customers? use of the library.? That seems eminently reasonable. It adds ?Library employees on duty may not be photographed for political campaigns.? I can understand that the library would not want to appear to be endorsing a political candidate, but I still might like to think about that one.

But I have to wonder about the wisdom of restricting commercial use of photographs. We don?t say that users can only make non-commercial use of the books, magazines, and internet access that the library provides; I am not sure why one would want to make this distinction about photography of a public building.

Some of the commentators to Jessamyn?s post suggest that the restriction may have been required by the contract the library signed with architect. I would encourage libraries that are signing contracts with architects to think about whether there are contract terms that are in conflict with traditional library principles of access and openness.

Lastly, while the discussion has been about photographs of buildings, we shouldn?t forget about the rights of people who might be in those buildings. Bryan Carson has an excellent article called ?Laws for Using Photos You Take at Your Library.? He reminds us that while, in general, you don?t have to worry about non-commercial use of photographs of people taken in public spaces, there are states in which permission is required if you are using photographs for ?advertising.? Library marketing could fall into this category, and so it is best to get releases. ALA?s ?Use of Photographs in Publicity Materials? wiki page has some useful resources and links.

Full post as published by LibraryLaw Blog on November 09, 2009 (boomark / email).

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