Ask Dr. CopyrightDear Dr. C:

I want to publish and sell a line of postcards.  I think that I am a pretty decent photographer, and I travel a lot, so most of the pictures will be photos that I have taken on my travels.   Is all of this legal?

Signed, Shutter Bug

Dear Ms. Bug:

As with most questions, the answer is “yes, and no”.  Yes, you are free to take photographs of most things.  There are, however, exceptions.  You may photograph the natural world.  You may photograph most buildings, and most people in public.  You may need permission to snap a picture of a work of art, and some buildings may themselves be considered works of sculptural art.  Copyright protection does not last forever, but may last as long as 70 years after the death of the creator (and that date is seldom marked on the cornerstone of the building!)  Laws differ from country to country.  You may also give up your right to take photos in return for admittance to some places, such as museums and performances.  Some areas may be off limits for national security reasons, even if they are otherwise public (so please don’t hang around the gate at your local nuclear power plant snapping away unless you want to explain yourself dozens of times to law enforcement officers.) Another legal wrinkle is trademark law.  Particularly famous buildings, people and characters may function as trademarks, and the owners may object to your selling something that implies sponsorship, association, or origin with the site.  In one case, a photographer took a picture of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, made a poster of that photo — with the words “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” — and was sued for trademark infringement and unfair competition.  The museum, you see, also sold similar (though not identical) posters in its gift shop.  He was not found liable, but I suspect that his legal bills in defending himself amounted to more than he made selling his poster. Dr. Copyright hates to say this, but better safe than sorry.  If you’re going to invest in your postcard business, it would be wise to have your photos and layouts reviewed by an intellectual property attorney; avoiding legal issues is much easier than finding yourself in a law suit.

— Lawrence A. Husick, Esq.