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Mayor to Ease Permit Rules for Capturing City's Image

Posted By Administration, Sunday, October 28, 2007
Updated: Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Amateur photographers and independent filmmakers looking to chronicle bird life, take snapshots in Times Square or capture the distinctive thrum of New York's streets will not need to obtain permits or insurance under new rules being proposed by the Bloomberg administration.

The rules, to be released on Tuesday for public comment, would generally allow people using hand-held equipment, including tripods, to shoot for any length of time on sidewalks and in parks as long as they leave sufficient room for pedestrians.

The proposal, drafted as part of a settlement in a lawsuit, was revised after a passionate outcry over the summer from fine-art photographers, independent filmmakers and civil libertarians concerned that the original rules would have restricted unobtrusive video recording. Under the first proposal, any group of two or more people using a camera in a public location for more than half an hour, and any group of five or more people using a tripod for more than 10 minutes, would have needed permits and at least $1 million in insurance.

The new rules, which officials said reflect longstanding practice by the Mayor's Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting, are meant to distinguish between photographers and filmmakers who generally do not create congestion or unsafe conditions and those from major television, film and print productions that generally do. But instead of basing permit requirements on the number of people and the length of time involved in the shoot, the new proposal focuses on the level of sidewalk obstruction.

"I think that we've removed some of the restrictions that were the most worrisome to filmmakers," said Katherine Oliver, the commissioner of the film office. "We have defined exactly what equipment is, and we've taken away the time constraints, and we think we've come up with something that is quite workable right now."

The proposal would allow photographers and filmmakers who are not using vehicles or equipment like dolly tracks, lights and cables to proceed without permits on public property as long as they stay out of traffic and their activities do not prevent public use. The rules would also allow photographers and filmmakers to commandeer a portion of a public walkway without a permit, as long as they leave open at least half of its width, or eight feet, whichever is greater.

"The original proposed rules would have senselessly inserted film officials and police officers into everyday filming and photography," said Christopher Dunn, the associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which brought the original lawsuit. "Happily, city officials learned from the public outcry, and these new rules assure that virtually all photographers and filmmakers will be free from permit and insurance requirements."

The film office originally agreed to write the rules as part of a settlement in April of a lawsuit brought on behalf of Rakesh Sharma, a documentary filmmaker who was detained by the police in 2005 after using a hand-held video camera in Midtown. Told that he was required to have a permit to film on city property, Mr. Sharma later pursued a permit and discovered that there were no written guidelines on how they were granted, according to the lawsuit.

When the original draft of regulations was released for comment in May, film officials defended it. But as criticism mounted, in the form of a passionate Internet campaign, letters and a satiric rap video, they agreed to rethink the rules, Ms. Oliver said.

"We never wanted to be hurtful, we always want to be helpful," she said, adding that the film industry is important to the city, responsible for more than 100,000 jobs and $5 billion a year in economic activity. "We want people to have access to the streets and parks and buildings in New York City and to be creative here."

Indeed, even critics of the first set of rules said that they were pleased with the response of the film office.

"I was really, really pleasantly surprised that a lot of the concerns about the specificity of rules about the tripods and number of people, all of that went away, and they really heard that these were obstacles," said Michelle Byrd, executive director of Independent Future Project, which advocates for independent filmmakers and arranged meetings between filmmakers and the film office.

Adding that the office has worked to accommodate smaller productions as well as large studio movies, she said, "I think that the mayor's office really prides itself on having free permits and lots of different concierge types of services, so this is a little bit of a black eye that they quickly sought to address."

A similar outcry resulted in 2004 when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, concerned about the threat of terrorism, proposed banning unauthorized photography and filming in the subways. The authority, which is independent of the city government, eventually dropped the idea.

Under the new proposal for city streets, the use of obtrusive equipment is what "triggers a permit," said Mr. Dunn of the civil liberties union. Productions that block traffic or leave less than eight feet of open walkway would require permits and a minimum of $1 million in insurance, as would those using vehicles and equipment that is not hand-held. Officials can waive the insurance requirement if an applicant can show that it would create a financial hardship.

Filmmakers and photographers who want the comfort of proof that they are entitled to shoot in a public location would be able to get an optional permit, which does not require insurance. Film officials said they were surprised to learn how frequently independent and casual filmmakers and photographers were drawn into confrontations with building owners and the police over their rights to record.

Once they formally adopt the rules, film officials said, they plan to educate the public and government offices about the requirements. The rules are to appear in the journal City Record, as well as on the film office Web site,



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