Washington State Laws and Photography

Photography is a fun hobby that I am looking to get back into.  Before law school, I did a lot of environmental portraits (portraits outside) and landscapes.  In this article, I have included a few photos I recently took while in Tacoma, Washington.

Depending on the type of photography that is practiced a bunch of laws can come into play, such as: contract law, copyright law, criminal law, etc. Unfortunately, legal problems can arise that turn a fun hobby into a big headache or more.

Tacoma Port - JT - small
Port of Tacoma, Washington — Taken By Joseph Thomas

*** This article is only meant to be an overview of potential legal issues affecting photographers currently.  This should not be relied upon for legal advice because each situation is fact-dependent.

Contract Law

Contracts can come into play in a couple of different ways.

Probably the most obvious way is if the artwork is sold, also known as a sales contract.  The contract could be simple, either orally or in writing.  But the contract can be much more complex too, especially if it is a commissioned work.

Another way is for a contract to come into play is for a release.  Perhaps in the hobby world of photography the two most common types of releases are model releases, and property releases.   People have a property interest in their likeness generally falling under the ‘right of publicity.’1  Thus, if a photographer collaborates with a model and the photographer later wants to use the pictures to advertise, a release will be needed.   A property release can have a similar rationale.  Because a person’s identity could be so intertwined with property, it could be alleged that the property is “part of the person’s likeness.”   But a different rationale for the property release is to avoid a claim of conversion.2  It could be argued that without a release a picture is taking the property from the owner.

Criminal Law

If photographing people outside, and there is any offensive partial or full nudity then it could be considered indecent exposure.3  The way the statute is written it may be even possible for the photographer to be charged with indecent exposure if the model disrobes.

Feeling adventurous and you have a shot you just have to get?  The photographer may be trespassing, if traveling on private property to get it or government property not open to the public.4

Tacoma Bridge JT
Tacoma Bridge into the City — Taken by Joseph Thomas
Copyright Law

Copyright is a monopoly on one’s work that is granted by the government.  Filing a formal copyright with the United States Copyright Office allows an individual to better prove ownership, and allows for monetary damages to be collected, if the copyrighted work is used without permission.

Other Thoughts

Photography is an art, and the law is not always clear when it comes to the arts, especially constitutional protections.  This

  1. See Wash. Rev. Code § 63.60.010.
  2. Conversion is “an appropriation of and dealing with the property of another as if it were one’s own without right.”  Valentine v. Dep’t of Licensing, 77 Wn. App. 838, 848 (1995).
  3. Indecent Exposure, Wash. Rev. Code § 9A.88.010.
  4. Criminal Tresspassing,  Wash. Rev. Code § 9A.52.070.

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