Raise your hand if this has happened to you:
It’s been a long day behind the video or photo lens. You’ve worked tirelessly to get that perfect image or sequence. Everything seems spot on and you’ve edited right down to the last frame and pixel. You send it off to your client or Editor for review, then you get an email with a simple question: do you have all permissions and releases?
(Cue jaw drop).
Rookie mistake. We’ve all made it at one time or another; that dreaded “brain lock” where you suddenly realize, in your rush to get the job done, you forgot the single most essential of all tasks for a creative professional.
You forgot to ask for permission.
RELATED: When Do You Need A Photo Release
Fear not, young creative. While the next steps can get gut wrenching and palpitation inducing, an honest mistake is (usually) not the end of the world. So, here are some things to remember at that moment, and for every time afterwards.
(Note: this is a high-level “how to” list. Always check the laws in your locale – these tips are based mainly in United States Copyright Law)
KNOW THE LAW
This is the very first thing any creative should do before embarking on their project. The reason: laws dictate what can and cannot be done, and how to do it right. It can also cut down on unnecessary work.
EXAMPLE: a photographer wants to take a picture of a building, and has three buildings to choose from which will be perfect. One was built in 2001, while the other two were completed in 1989. According to NOLO, a legal reference website, the photographer can use either of the latter buildings because they were built prior to 1990. U.S. Copyright Law was changed in 1990 so that architectural pictures (exterior photographs) taken of a building completed before that time can be used without permission provided the picture is taken from a public space (sidewalk, easement, public park). This exemption does not apply to interiors.
Check with your local officials to determine what public domain laws apply. This will save you a lot of headache. If you need a release, read on…
CRAFT THE RELEASE
A release form is essential to obtaining the right to use land in any image or video. It is a property owner’s first line of defense against any lawsuits which come up if, say, you choose to be a daredevil and decide to hang from a tree limb to get a picture of a bird’s next, fall and break several bones (it happens). Lawsuits scare the dickens out of property owners, and many are reluctant to allow photographers and videographers on their property without some sort of release from liability. A release form is a legal (however flimsy) written way of agreeing “if I do something dumb and get hurt, that’s on me, not you.” Keep in mind, many property owners will insist on notarizing the form at your expense (don’t worry, most notarizations can be done for free at your bank).
NOTE: It’s always good to have blank release forms on hand. Some places have their own, but being prepared is good form.
SEE IF IT’S PUBLIC OR PRIVATE
This is actually is easiest of all things to do. Every state requires property taxes of sort form be paid and, as such, have some form of online property records system. This means a ready database of owners who can be contacted for permission. Bear in mind, you may be dealing with an investment trust, a corporation, or a landlord who must get permission from the tenant, which can add time. If the property is considered “public,” such as a government building, park, state or national forest, or roadside easement, the go-to folks are usually the local Department of Public Works, a state level agency such as Transportation, Forestry or Parks and Recreation, or the National Parks Service (the latter is least preferable, as it requires multiple approvals through NPS offices in Washington). In the case of federal buildings, always consult first with the Department of Homeland Security.
CONTACT THE POINT PERSON
Whether it is a house, lot, government building, or schoolyard, every parcel, every structure built which requires permission to photograph has a point person, someone whose job it is to grant permission. Contact them via email, phone, or mail. They should give you the parameters to receive permission, usually by getting your release form signed, or sending a pre-filled, signed form to you. Many places will send you a release via email or fax (always a good practice to get a signed file with a name), but some (many government agencies) will insist on Certified Mail with a SASE (self addressed stamped envelope).
AFTER YOU GET PERMISSION
First, read it – many permission forms have errors (addresses, locations which can be used) which can render it invalid. Especially check for any restrictions on use – some property owners will not permit editing, or using it for anything but retail sale, and there are some owners who insist on a royalty for any money earned. Next, save or scan (then save, of course) the permission document and store it with security protection. Keep a written copy for yourself in a safe place (in case the file is lost or damaged), and send a copy to whoever requests it immediately. Next, follow the release to the letter, and never attempt to “bend the rules” with a release. A good attorney will take a photographer or videographer to the cleaners if a property owner learned someone struck it rich by using their property in a way other than which they agreed.
FINALLY, HAVE FUN!
Getting the release was the hard part. Now that you have it, or determined if you even need it, do what you do best and love it! The time for the hard work is over – it’s time to enjoy the job!
Information from ExpertPhotography.com, Nolo.com, and the United States Government was used in this article.