Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Church Steeple Copyright

Dear Rich: I am working on a photography book idea involving church steeples that I come across on my travels in the south. Do I need to get the churches permission to publish a picture of the steeple, with a small caption stating name of church and state? Your letter reminded us that the last time we answered a question regarding a church steeple, we received a cease and desist letter from the owner of a clip art company who apparently did not appreciate the modifications we made to their artwork. (We took our own advice and removed the artwork but it just goes to show that you never know what you'll find in your mailbox.)
Right, you had a question. We believe you can proceed with your book without seeking authorizations. Here are the general rules:
Anything created before 1990 is fine to reproduce. The appearance, architectural plans, drawings, or photographs of an architectural work (a building) created after 1990 cannot be reproduced without the consent of the owner of copyright -- usually the architect or developer. However, there are exceptions that would permit photos of post-1990s steeples -- for example, pictures of a church can be taken, distributed, or publicly displayed without permission if the church is located in a place that is ordinarily visible to the public. In addition, copyright will not protect standard architectural features (and a steeple seems pretty standard). Perhaps there exists a modern steeple that has ornate or other artistic details that make it protectable -- for example, maybe if this steeple were new. But even if it were protectable, your use of the photos in your book seems excusable because it is intended to comment upon the steeples --  precisely what fair use was intended to permit.