Farm Field by NSL Photography

You’re traveling in Hamilton County, Florida, and see a gorgeous farming landscape with hay bales shiny from the setting sun, and get a great photograph of the scene. Perhaps you come across a great river scene along the Indian River in Florida, with rows of orange trees in the background, and snap a photo of it.

Come this July, had a proposed law not been changed, you could have been charged with 2 counts of first degree felony photography, punishable by serious jail time, if a Florida statute became law without its proposed changes.

I’ve discussed public photography by travelers in the past.

While traveling, if you’re taking photographs of public property, generally there are no restrictions you need worry about in the U.S. While on public property, you can generally photograph anything and anyone, as there is no expectation of privacy. There are some specific restrictions, such as photography on military bases and Department of Energy complexes.

On the other hand, if you’re taking photographs on private property, even private property with general public access, property owners’ rights to regulate photography on their properties, has been generally upheld in the courts in the U.S. and many other countries as well.

For example, at the Empire State Building in New York, if you’re on the observation deck, you may take photographs there, but the use of a tripod or monopod is strictly prohibited.

At the Vatican in Rome, photography in St. Peter’s Basilica is permitted, even flash photography, though not necessarily during mass, but flash photography in the Vatican museums isn’t permitted and all photography in the Sistine Chapel is forbidden.

When on private property, not only do the rules of the property owner control you’re ability to take photographs while on their property, but there may be a need to consider copyright concerns about buildings you’re photographing, unless they were built on or before December 1, 1990. Before that date, buildings did not have copyright protection, and therefore their appearance and design are, by definition, in the public domain. Don’t forget, building owners don’t necessarily hold the copyright for their buildings.

In the US, it is generally assumed that photographs of private property, taken from public property, are legal.

That being said, beware that some states, like Florida, apparently intend to try to make some restrictions to that general rule.

So far, at this point in time however, photographs of private property taken from public property remain generally legal. In addition, despite the fact that buildings, for example, could be copyrighted, as long as a photograph is taken from public property, without using extraordinary means to view the property from public property, photographers are exempt from the copyright law. So, if you take a building’s photograph, from a public space you are not infringing on the building’s copyright owner’s rights. This exception includes private as well as public buildings.

In Florida, State Senator Jim Norman (R) (Tampa), wanted to change that, at least in the case of farms. He proposed to make it a first-degree felony to photograph a farm without first obtaining written permission from the owner. A farm is defined as any land “cultivated for the purpose of agricultural production, the raising and breeding of domestic animals or the storage of a commodity.”

Are you are shaking your head in disbelief? If you can’t believe anyone would propose a law this insane, think again. Here’s a link to SB 1246 as proposed by Senator Norman.

Wilton Simpson, a farmer who lives in Norman’s district, said the bill is needed to protect the property rights of farmers and the “intellectual property” involving farm operations. Simpson, also said the law would prevent people from posing as farmworkers so that they can secretly film agricultural operations.

Of course, Simpson couldn’t name a single instance when that happened.

Seriously, are you kidding me Mr. Simpson? What intellectual property is there to be protected from me taking a photo of your farm?

This bill as originally proposed was so crazy, it would have made it a first degree felony to photograph a farm from a public road, where the farmer enjoys no expectation of privacy whatsoever.

Talk about a law which would violate our First Amendment Rights!

NPPA (National Press Photographers Association) Attorney Mickey Osterreicher contacted Senator Norman’s staff and received assurances that the bill would be amended to be specifically related to trespassers on private property.

Fortunately, the proposed law now exempts photographers on public property, including public roads, and changes the violation to be a misdemeanor, but the law will still have a chilling effect on Freedom of the Press. It puts the subjects of news or editorial articles in a bargaining position for the right to photograph them or what they do, which interferes with objective and honest reporting.

Not just that, but travelers who are unaware of the Florida law, or who may inch on to a farmer’s property to get a better photo of the haystacks in the field, or the oranges in the orchard, still may be slapped with fines and or some jail time.

This law is a wrong headed example of a proposed statute which is completely beyond the character of a free republic, a democracy, and the United States of America.

Ned Levi is a long time professional photographer with a passion for wildlife and travel photography. You can view some of Ned’s travel and other photos at NSL Photography or get more travel photography advice at the NSL Photography Blog which is included in Photography Colleges’Top 100 Travel Photography Blogs.”