To sell photos of a city, do I need a permit for “commercial photography”?

One day I would like to sell photos of city parks. I have contacted several parks and city authorities here in San Francisco and they consistently tell me that you need a permit for “commercial photography” and what “commercial” means depends on the department you need the permit from. This issue was raised in the news recently when New York City wanted all photographers to file for permits to take pictures in the city. I even contacted authorities in San Francisco asking about the situation where, for instance, someone was on vacation in the city and took pictures at Golden Gate Park and years later wanted to sell them. I was told that you need a permit even for that instance. Is that true?

Dyan on March 10, 2008

That is a good question. Generally, no. If you photograph something from a public viewpoint in San Francisco or New York, then you own the copyright and the city cannot stop you after you have left the photo area (location). The permit is for being in the location in the first place, and is usually for something more than a person with a hand-held camera. If you have lighting gear, props, models, or assistants, or want to go somewhere that the public ordinarily can’t go, then the city might stop you based on a local ordinance, similar to trespassing. But once you have the photo and have left the location, I believe the city has no claim. I imagine there’s a lot more to this subject!

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