This is in response to a question posed privately and it’s a question that is asked often. Copyright protection arises automatically when an “original work of authorship” is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression”. A work is “original” in the copyright sense if it owes its origin to the author. So a photograph of the World Trade Center is original so long as it was created by the photographer. There are no doubt millions of photos taken of the WTC not including those taken on 9/11. Minimal creativity is required to meet the originality requirement. No degree of alleged artistic or technical merit or skill is required. An amateur has as much right to file a registration as any professional photographer. Buildings created on or after December 1, 1990 are protected by copyright. A copyright owner has the exclusive right to reproduce a copyrighted work, and photographing a copyrighted work is considered a way of reproducing it. You might need permission to photograph a building as frequently commented on by us when we deal with the ever popular property release issue (see below).
Generally speaking, only buildings created after December 1, 1990 are protected by copyright. The copyright in an architectural work does not include the right to prevent others from making and distributing photos of the constructed building, if the building is located in a public place or is visible from a public place. Generally you don’t need permission to be in a public place and photograph a public building. There may however, be trademark issues at play. For example use of the Empire State Building in an ad for “Empire State Fashions” without a release, contract or consent from the building owners may lead to legal disputes likely resulting in a trademark action.
You don’t need permission to stand on a public street and photograph an office building, sports stadium or mansion. This so-called “photographer’s exception” to the copyright-owner’s rights applies only to buildings. Works of art, sculputres, monuments, painting and so on have their own protection. You ought not assume you can photograph such works, and publish and distribute them especially for any commercial purpose.
Take a look at our article entitled “A Day at the Zoo” for Photoshop User Magazine for a more expansive commentary on shooting in public.
Jack & Ed