We showed you some videos this week of a man going around Seattle annoying the hell out of residents by filming them without their consent. Although the unknown filmmaker may have incurred the wrath of security guards, Chinese gamblers and a Scientologist, he was largely within his rights to do his filming because he did most of it on public property, not inside a privately-owned office building — to the frustration of many of his subjects.
Not every filmmaker is as annoying as Seattle’s “Surveillance Camera Man,” but many have faced challenges from private citizens and police in public locations. An incident last March involving an NBC News team and the Chicago Police over the videotaping of a hospital across the street led to the arrest of a cameraman and a reporter. The police officer who arrested them warned them before that “Your First Amendment rights can be terminated,” which is clearly false in that situation.
If you’re filming YouTube content outside your own home, it’s best to know a couple of things about your rights and responsibilities as a YouTube creator.
The First Amendment Protects You In Public Places
If you’re in a public location and you can see it, you can shoot it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a police station, government building or a public park. That’s what many courts throughout the United States have concluded based on the First Amendment. However, court rulings don’t necessarily mean that police officers and private citizens know about the law. The ACLU has a guide for photographers and filmmakers highlighting your rights. If a police officer approaches you about your filming activities, keep calm and stay polite with them. You don’t need to answer questions about what you’re filming and police are not allowed to tell you to delete your files or confiscate your equipment without a warrant.
Even though filming in public places is protected by law, you’ll want to read the next section if you monetize your content on YouTube.
Depending On the Size Of Your Project, You May Need A Permit
If you’re using equipment that may interfere with people’s right of way or if you’re filming for “commercial purposes” (e.g. movies, TV shows, commercials, etc.), then you’ll probably need a permit. A film permit focuses on the activities surrounding the production of the film such as lighting, using right-of-ways, etc. The permit does not regulate the content of the production.
Paul Audley, President of FilmLA, the organization responsible for coordinating and processing film permits in the Los Angeles area, told NMR: “Basically, any film that’s done for a purpose to promote someone or something or to make money would be considered a commercial purpose. It’s easier to define what’s not, which could be taking a picture for your 3-year-old’s birthday — that not a commercial purpose unless it’s a reality show.”
The cost of the permit varies by location, so contact your local City Hall. In the Los Angeles area, a regular permit has a base fee of $625 to film up to 10 locations in two weeks. Yes, even web series monetized on YouTube require permits, and Audley pointed out that 15 percent of the permits issued by FilmLA are for web content.
Having all the permits and the blessing of the City to shoot your film doesn’t mean you’re allowed to break other laws.
Your Rights and Permits Don’t Give You Free Reign
Just because the First Amendment lets you film anything in plain sight from a public location doesn’t mean you have the absolute power to film anything anywhere. Remember that private property is private property, so always ask permission from the owners before filming. It’s also polite to ask your subjects for permission and to possibly have them sign a release form before filming.
If you’re annoying someone with your camera like “Surveillance Camera Man,” you could be arrested for disturbing the peace or for trespassing into private property depending on your state’s laws. In the case of Los Angeles, Audley adds: “If a person comes up and says ‘I intend to do some ‘guerilla work’ where I just sort of jump into people’s faces,’ Los Angeles Police will probably say ‘You can’t,’ because they would explain something like it would create a public disturbance or public alarm, and they would deny the permit based on that — not on the content, but on the potential to create harm.”
With careful planning and knowing ahead the rules and regulation, you shouldn’t encounter much problems filming your YouTube content.