The age of YouTube has given us a sense of complete impunity when it comes to recording videos. Looking at all those viral videos from every corner of the Earth, it is easy to assume that there is nothing to stop you from filming whatever and whenever you feel like.
Well, it is not quite that simple.
To save you the trouble of general research on this subject, here’s our walk-through guide to where you can and cannot film in the US and abroad.
According to US law, it is actually your constitutional right to film objects visible in and from public spaces. You can make video recordings pretty much anywhere in the street, on public transport, inside federal buildings and so on, provided there is no notice posted advising that you may not do this.
Consequently, you can film people coming to these public places, too. It is assumed that they cannot expect privacy there and therefore cannot demand that you stop filming.
You cannot film in places where individuals have a so-called “expectation of privacy”. This means you can’t use your camera on someone else’s property without their consent.
Predictably enough, you can’t film in public bathrooms, locker rooms and changing rooms. If you capture a person partially undressed in these spots, you will be violating a whole different set of rules – from breaching privacy to sexual harassment.
The concept of “expectation of privacy” applies to both private and commercial premises. While it’s fairly clear with apartments and houses, open spots such as shops and restaurants may be a bit trickier in this respect. Normally, you can assume that, if a private space – say, a cafe – is open to the public, you can film there. However, if the management tells you to stop, you do have to stop, as otherwise you may be asked to leave.
Sometimes the police may tell you to stop filming something. In reality, they can only ask you to do this if you are impeding a police operation. It is important to know that you have every right to capture the actions of police officers when they are performing their official duties.
Unlike in most countries, in the US you can film Border Patrol Agents, but only while they are performing their public duties. The bottom line is that most of their interactions are not considered public, so you may end up in trouble if you capture them on film.
To be on the safe side, it’s best to obtain the consent of the person you’re filming. Have them give their permission on camera or prepare a generic release for them to sign. It is particularly important that you have a release form if you’re filming anyone under 18. In these cases, you need written consent from the parents to record and distribute the images of minors. And the laws in the US concerning filming people and publishing their images are generally more liberal than in most other countries.
While in the US, you can normally publish anything you have recorded legally; in other countries, it may not be so easy. Quite often, publishing someone’s image without their consent is considered a violation of that person’s privacy, which in turn can land you with a considerable fine.
In most Western countries, you can get away with filming something you should not have captured as long as your material serves the public interest. However, it is up to lawyers to determine whether your video really meets these criteria.
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Whenever you are abroad, be sure to check local laws and regulations. Ignorance here is not bliss and may cost you a huge fine or even land you in jail. Here are a few examples of situations when it’s best to keep your camera in your bag or ask for consent first.
Filming in a religious place may be considered disturbing or disrespectful to the people who pray there. While in some churches you may get away with a polite verbal rebuke, in others someone might physically destroy your camera (no joke – take it from the example of Cathedral of San Juan Chamula, a melding of Catholic church and ancient Mayan cult).
In some countries, transportation hubs and lines are off-limits for unauthorized filming. In most cases, you will be fine using your smartphone, but anything that looks more professional will likely cause trouble. It’s best to check if you need to request a permit in advance.
Sounds like common sense, doesn’t it? But do bear in mind that something that might appear to be a deserted military base may still be a restricted site. Do some research before checking out abandoned locations. It’s important for your safety, too.
It is illegal to film in places where people do not expect to be captured. In most countries, filming in toilets, changing rooms, locker rooms, and public baths is against the law.
Remember that we live in a diverse world with different political, social and religious systems. In South Korea, it is a criminal offence to film women in public without their consent. In closed countries like North Korea and Turkmenistan, you can’t film most buildings (yes, any buildings) unless you have an official permit.
Whatever you are planning to film, remember that research ahead of time is key. It is your responsibility to find out about filming restrictions before you actually attempt to capture something on camera. Not knowing the laws doesn’t exempt you from liability – what you are likely to hear in the court is that “you should have found out”. So we strongly recommend that you do your research before filming something or someone without explicit consent.