Intellectual Property Law

Do Pictures of Famous Buildings Violate Copyright?

Depending on what the architecture is and whether or not it follows certain rules, you will likely be able to photograph the building without having to worry about infringing on the building owner’s or architect’s copyrights.

While it might sound odd, buildings are actually protected under copyright. The U.S. copyright laws protect all sorts of fixed works, and buildings fall under that scope. Because of this, many photographers wonder if they take a picture of a building, could their work of the copyrighted work, the building, be copyrighted itself? And more importantly, does their photograph of the copyrighted building violate copyright laws? Well, the short answer is no… for the most part. Depending on what the architecture is and whether or not it follows certain rules, you will likely be able to photograph the building without having to worry about infringing on the building owner’s or architect’s copyrights. We’ll talk more about the exceptions to those rules in a bit, but let’s get into the nitty gritty of why pictures of famous buildings don’t violate copyright, and when they do. 

What Is Copyright?

Before you can decide whether or not taking photos of famous buildings violates copyright, it’s important to understand what copyright is to begin with. Copyright is a legal term used to describe the protections that are offered to an author or an artist when they create a creative work. Whenever a photographer, artist, writer, or designer creates something, that thing is protected under U.S. copyright laws. These protections are extended to building architects and designers as well. These protections however have not always existed.

When it comes to architectural works, in December 1990, the U.S. copyright code was changed to include protections for architectural fixtures. Under 17 U.S. Code § 102(8), depending on when the building was built and some other specific guidelines, you typically are allowed to take pictures of famous buildings. 

Famous or not, protections for architectural works are only available for buildings that were built on or after December 1, 1990. For many buildings, especially historic ones, photographers are allowed to take pictures, reproduce their images, and sell their photos of the buildings without needing permission from the owners or worrying about violating copyright laws. It is also important to know that so long as a building can be viewed from public space, the copyright owner or architect of a building built after 1990 cannot stop the photographer from taking a picture of the building either. 

There are some nuances photographers have to consider, however. For example, if a building was built after 1990 and is located on private property, then permission needs to be granted to enter that private property in order to take a photograph of the building. Not doing so does not necessarily violate copyright claims though it does violate private property laws as you would have had to enter the private property to take the photograph. 

Is the Inside of a Famous Building Protected by Copyright?

Alongside photographing the exterior, photographers should also be aware of the guidelines when photographing the interior of a building. While copyright law surrounding architecture does not distinguish between the interior and exterior of the building, depending on the situation, you may or may not be violating copyrights when you photograph the inside. For the most part, the interior of the building is fair game for photographers. This is especially true if you are photographing the interior of the building from the outside. For example, some buildings may have large windows that allow you to view the interior while you are standing on the outside like on the sidewalk or on the street. So long as you are not breaking any privacy laws or are trespassing, you would be allowed to photograph the interior without violating copyright.

In some instances, there are a couple of factors you should consider when trying to determine whether or not photographing a non-publicly viewable interior is a violation of copyrights. Three of the main factors include the following, 

  • Is the interior sufficiently original and does it hold the merit for copyright protection?
  • Are there functional elements (not protected) that are designed or placed in a manner that is utilitarian?
  • Do the photographs give out information about the architectural plans of the building?

Overall, photographing the interior of a building does not violate copyright protection so long as other protections that are in place are not violated. For example, If there is a contractual agreement between you and the owner or the architect that certain areas should not be photographed, then you must add here to the contract terms.

Photographing Copyright Artwork on the Interior of the Building

Another common concern among photographers is images, artwork, and other copyrighted works that are located in the inside of a building. It can be difficult trying to discern whether or not it is a violation of copyright if you take pictures of copyrighted works inside the building. For the most part, if a building has different elements that are integrated into that building, these elements are called “integrated sculptural elements”, then photographing these elements does not violate copyright protections. These elements include themes and stylistic choices embedded into the structure. 

The protections get a little fuzzy when it comes to buildings that include what is considered “separable work”. Separable work includes anything that can physically be removed from the building. This can include things like a mural, sculpture, or any other piece of artwork. If the work is protected under copyright, then photographing it could be an infringement on the owner’s copyrights. This is especially true if your image is a close up of the work and your image captures the work as the “heart” of your photograph. 

Famous Buildings With Unique Photography Rules

As with every rule in the world, there are some exceptions to copyright laws when it comes to famous buildings. Famous landmarks around the world, especially those outside of the United States have unique photography rules that go along with them. 

When it comes to photographing the Eiffel Tower, you are only allowed to do so during the daytime hours. Once the Eiffel Tower’s lights come on, you may no longer photograph it. 

The only exception to this is photographing the Eiffel Tower when it is part of a cityscape. In this instance, you are allowed to photograph the tower so long as it is not the main feature in your cityscape. 

Another famous French landmark, the Louvre and IM Pae’s Pyramid are not allowed to be photographed unless the photo is being used for editorial purposes. In that instance, only a small portion of the building can be photographed and used. 

Lastly, while not a building, the Hollywood sign in California is another famous prince of architecture that is routinely photographed for movies and print material. While the sign can be photographed, it needs to be done with permission beforehand. 

Conclusion

U.S. Copyright laws are created for the purpose of allowing knowledge and creativity to grow and photographing famous buildings certainly helps in this perpetuation of artistic knowledge. As with any photograph, you always want to make sure that in addition to following copyright protections, you are following other laws such as privacy regulations that ensure you are taking your images safely and legally. The rules are a lot more cut and dry when it comes to famous buildings located in the U.S. When it comes to photographing famous buildings outside of the U.S. it’s best to do your due diligence in making sure you are following photography regulations as well. 

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