Filming Crowds:
Do I Need Legal Permission For People in the Background?

Do I Need Legal Permission For People in the Background?

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Filmmaker Question:

I am a little nervous about some of the background shots where there are people at certain events we filmed at.

We filmed at a trade show and a fashion show. I figured that these were open to the public for filming since there are generally a ton of press at these on all types of media- TV, film, web series, social media, Youtube, etc.

For trade shows or public events that purposely invite press, would I be covered for that as far as legalities go? No one is in focus, but they are definitely in the background. 

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Entertainment Attorney Gordon P. Firemark | Answer:

This is a tricky one.

The basic rule is that anyone who is identifiable in a shot should sign a release, unless you’ve done some kind of “poster-release” (see the example in our legal forms pack).

A place isn’t really “public” unless it’s government owned, and is generally open to the public with no admission charge. So, if the attendees at an event were either “invited” or paid for tickets, it’s not going to be deemed “public”.  Likewise, if an event is held at a gallery, meeting room, hotel, convention center, etc…. NOT truly “public”.

But, if the background people are truly out-of-focus, you may get away without signed releases, assuming nobody could easily identify them (which means that you couldn’t identify them to obtain releases, either).

But if anybody has a very distinctive appearance (due to clothing, hairstyle, etc.), then the probably COULD be readily identifiable.  

PRESS, by the way, has a slightly different standard, since what they’re covering is (presumably) newsworthy, and thus, they tend not to worry about releases so much, relying instead on strong first-amendment protections. But unless you have press credentials for the events, you’d have a harder time defending on this basis.

You may also want to check the terms of whatever location permit or release you got from the owners of the venues… (if you got them, that is).

Bottom line?  I think it’s risky to proceed with your film without blurring faces and distinctive identifiable features.

Good luck.

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Legal Filmmaking Resources
From The Offices of Entertainment Attorney Gordon P. Firemark

Documentary Legal Forms & Contracts: Starter Pack
Documentary Legal Forms & Contracts: Post-Production Pack

About Gordon P. Firemark

Gordon Firemark

Mr. Firemark is an entertainment attorney based in California and also teaches Entertainment Law in Columbia College Hollywood's film program. He's the producer and host of Entertainment Law Update, a podcast for artists and professionals in the entertainment industries and the author of The Podcast, Blog and New Media Producer’s Legal Survival Guide

Firemark's Documentary Legal Tool Kit is offered exclusively here on Desktop Documentaries.

The Law Offices of Gordon P. Firemark cover intellectual property, cyberspace, new media and business/corporate matters for clients in the entertainment industry. Learn More:

This content is not intended to be used as a substitute for specific legal advice. No recipient of this content should act or refrain from acting on the basis of content without seeking appropriate legal advice or other professional counseling.

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