Property Releases | Print |
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Written by Phillip L. Harris   

Have you ever wondered if it was “ok” to set up a camera in a particular location?  If you have, that means you’re pretty normal.   You’ve probably been brought up with an automatic warning system in your brain which alerts you to at least the possibility that you may be trespassing.  Whenever this warning goes off in your head you need to listen to it.  Do you have to ask for permission to be there?  If so, who do you ask?  The principle of legally being on property when shooting video is the subject of this article.

A property release grants the video team permission to shoot on private property.  In most cases, you do not need permission to shoot on public property.  Sometimes it may be difficult to determine what is public property and what is private property.

What is public property

Public property is property owned by local, state or national government organizations.  Public property generally includes public schools, libraries, government buildings, parks, streets, and public sidewalks. It is usually legal to have a video crew shooting on public property.  “Usually” is the operative word here.  If the production involves few people and little impact on the rest of the public using the property a permit may not be required.  However, a large number of production vehicles and personnel may impact on other people on the property.  Many localities require that a permit be obtained if the impact on the public property reaches a certain level.  Among other things, the permit requires that if there are traffic issues or clean-up issues, or security issues, etc. that the production company will pay for these rather than the public property operators.   

A public sidewalk usually is the sidewalk which parallels the public street.  Public property does not include the sidewalk which leads from the sidewalk or driveway to a house.  A driveway is private property.  Not all streets are public streets.  A street is only a public street if the city, county or state transportation officials maintain the street.  For example, if there is a snowstorm, what kind of trucks are employed to plow the street?  A large publicly funded plow-fitted dump truck with perhaps a salt spreader with a sign stating “Department of Transportation” on the doors would indicate the road is public property.  A small pickup truck owned by a private individual earning a little extra money with a plow attachment cleaning the roads in the neighborhood or parking lot of the shopping center would indicate a private road.   

Ever since the death of Princess Diana, the term “paparazzi” has come squarely in to the public focus.  Paparazzi refers to the photographers and reporters who generally do expose-type stories on celebrities for tabloid media organizations.  Many television and film comedies and dramas depict the paparazzi doing their jobs.  Students should be very aware that the paparazzi in fictional entertainment often are depicted doing things which are not legal in any way but whatever they are doing propels the plot of the film quite well.  Students should not assume that, “I saw reporters and camera operators do that in a movie,” is a valid defense against a trespassing charge.  If paparazzi set up on a public sidewalk, it is legal.  If they take one step into someone’s yard they can be arrested for trespassing.  If the owner of the house comes out on the front porch and motions them over so he can have an impromptu press conference, then he gave “property release by conduct” and that “waving” was recorded on the paparazzi’s cameras.

What is private property

Private property is property which is owned by an individual or organization.  Anytime a video production is going to take place outside on private property or inside a privately owned building, the building owner has the right to require that you obtain permission to be there before you begin shooting.  Moreover, if the crew asks permission to be there, it may help preserve positive public relations and elicit cooperation instead of confrontation.   

However, in reality, unless there is a sign near the doorway stating that cameras and recording devices are prohibited within the building, a video crew can shoot without permission until told otherwise by an authority figure from the building.  At that point, building security may require the crew to leave.  Practically speaking, sneaking into a building in hopes of completing the necessary shooting before the crew is discovered is not a good idea.  Once the crew is told to leave the premises, they can no longer continue to shoot.  Whatever has been shot up to that point is all that can be done.  It is quite likely, that the crew did not finish what they needed to do and therefore completely wasted their time.   

Students often complain, “Why won’t they let me shoot there?  I’m not hurting anything.”  The primary reason property owners take a dim view of video crews in their buildings is the video crew can be very disruptive of the normal environment.  People stop working to watch the camera crew or people do everything they can to wind up in front of the camera so they can be seen.  Another reason crews are not often welcome has to do with liabilities.  If someone on the crew falls and injures themselves, then the property owners’ liability insurance becomes involved. 

Here’s a tip:  If you want to shoot something inside a store, let’s say a drug store, think carefully about what exactly you need in the shot.  Let’s say you’re shooting an anti-shoplifting PSA.  If the point is to show someone getting caught lifting merchandise off a shelf in a store, then really analyze where those shelves have to be.  Do you really need to go to the big national chain store in town and ask permission to shoot there?  The manager there may need to get permission from the corporate level which might take days to obtain.  Or could you shoot the same video in a small pharmacy owned and operated by someone who lives in your town?  If so, go to the “mom and pop store” and ask permission.  You’re much more likely to be given permission from someone local. 

How to get a property release to be on private property 

It is quite simple, really.  Contact to the property owner or manager and ask.  Type out a simple letter stating that


“I, _______________, owner/manager of ______(name of property)_______, give permission to _______(your name)________  to shoot ________(name of show)_________ on the property at the following address _________________________ on ________(date)____________.

And then ask them to sign it.  Get their signature AND, since many people use a signature which is unreadable, get them to print their name as well.   Make sure they include their title and contact phone number and address.  It is important to get this in writing - not just verbally.   If you are shooting and a security guard comes up to tell you to cease and desist and leave the property, showing the guard the property release letter can dissolve a difficult situation instantly.

If I am shooting and there is a sign of a national store in the background of the shot am I in danger of copyright infringement?   No.  For example, let’s consider an interview with a local individual who was just elected to a national office.  The location for the interview is on the public sidewalk outside of his office building.  In the background of the shot is a shopping center with the signs for stores clearly visible in the background of the shot.  These signs can be seen by anyone driving down the street in the ordinary environment and therefore are there specifically to be seen publicly.  It is ok to shoot signs in the background which are intended to be seen by the public.