After a lot of digging, I think I’ve finally sorted through the confusion surrounding the city’s policy on photos taken in Millennium Park. Even the people running the park had a hard time separating the issues, so it’s no surprise the security guards I wrote about on January 28 were getting them mixed up.

The confusion starts with the park itself. When it opened last summer we heard so much about rich donors it wouldn’t have been hard to conclude that the park was privately financed and privately owned. In fact it’s a public park on public land. Taxpayers paid at least $270 million to build it and the parking garage underneath. Tax dollars also pay the private firm that maintains the park and the private company that provides the security guards.

Private money paid for the so-called enhancements–the band shell, the Lurie Garden, the Bean, the Crown Fountain, the various pavilions, and the pedestrian bridge over Columbus Drive. They weren’t cheap. According to the city, private donors paid $57 million for the band shell, $14.5 million for the bridge, $11.5 million for the Bean, $13.2 million for the Lurie Garden, $17 million for the fountain, and $7.2 million for the pavilions–or $120.4 million total. But the private donors then gave the artwork to the city, so it’s now owned by the public.

The second source of confusion is the requirement that professional photographers get a permit. Ed Uhlir, the city official who oversaw the park’s construction, says amateur photographers, especially tourists, are free to take pictures of the Bean, the band shell, the garden, the bridge–anything they want. But professionals have been asked to buy a permit–$325 a day for commercial photographers, $50 an hour for wedding photographers. I wrote on September 17 that the city insisted permits were necessary to prevent photographers from thronging the park, impeding the walkways, and blocking the public’s view with all their equipment.

As I noted in my January 28 column, the security guards have been prowling the park ever since it opened, telling professional photographers they can’t shoot without a permit. How do they distinguish pros from amateurs? “I think they have a general view of what a professional photographer looks like–it’s anyone with a tripod,” says Ron Gould, a photographer who had a run-in with a guard last summer. He and other photographers wonder why one professional photographer with a tripod is more of an intrusion than, say, a gaggle of tourists with disposable cameras. Why is a wedding photographer any more of an impediment than, say, the bride’s uncle, who’s shooting for free? Why is a wedding party subject to fees but not a high school graduation party or a bar mitzvah party? And if the point is to keep photographers from blocking the public’s view, why are security guards hassling photographers when the park’s almost empty?

The third source of confusion is that the security guards shooing photographers out of the park have apparently been saying that permits are required because the enhancements in Millennium Park are copyrighted. “If you try to argue with them they can get nasty,” says one photographer. “You don’t want to be led out of the park like you’re a criminal. But you also don’t want to be pushed around by a guy who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

It’s not the security guards’ fault they don’t know what they’re talking about. The city gives them forms to distribute to professional photographers–or photographers they think are professionals–and the form clearly states that the enhancements in Millennium Park are protected by copyright law. “Please note that the copyrights for the various enhancements in Millennium Park (including Cloud Gate, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion and BP Bridge, the Crown Fountain and Lurie Garden) are owned by the creators of those works,” it states. “As such, reproductions of these enhancements, especially for commercial purposes, require the consent of the artist.”

Uhlir says the forms are intended mainly for commercial artists who want to sell reproductions of the enhancements. “That statement was drafted by lawyers,” he says. “It does not apply to the general population. We want them to feel free to take pictures in the park.”

The forms give the impression that the city’s acting to protect the copyright of the artists, and having guards hand them out while demanding permit fees might lead you to believe that the city’s turning over at least some of the cash to the artists. But representatives for the artists say that’s not the case. Yes, their clients own the copyrights, as any artist would. But they’re not getting any money from the permits. Paul Gray, of the Richard Gray Gallery, which represents Jaume Plensa, creator of the Crown Fountain, says, “If security guards give the impression that they are protecting artists’ rights, it’s probably a lack of understanding.”

So whose interests are being protected? As it turns out, the city’s–in a backdoor fashion.

According to Uhlir, the city has a licensing agreement with the artists that gives it the exclusive right to peddle images of Millennium Park. In other words, only the city gets to make a buck selling pictures of Millennium Park. “It’s for a good cause,” says Uhlir. “All of the proceeds from these sales will go back to help fund the operation of the park.”

It was to defend the exclusivity of that licensing agreement that Uhlir himself walked into Bob Horsch’s Michigan Avenue tourist shop last summer and ordered Horsch to stop selling Millennium Park note cards. Horsch refused and is still selling a line of cards he photographed without the city’s permission. Paul Gray says he doesn’t think Plensa would care if merchants put his fountain on a T-shirt. “I think he’d be tickled,” Gray says, quickly adding, “That does not in any way mean to suggest I am granting those rights.”

Uhlir concedes that the city needs to make some changes. He promises to do a better job of training security guards, who are clearly confused about what photographers can and can’t do. He says the city may even stop asking photographers to pay for permits, admitting that they’ve been more trouble than they’re worth–few photographers have agreed to buy them.

But for the moment Uhlir is adamant about defending the city’s licensing agreement. He says the city will soon come out with its own line of Millennium Park postcards, note cards, and knickknacks (almost a year after the park opened), and he vows to stop any merchant who tries to sell rival ones. “We’re going to have postcards in production, and we intend to sell them where postcards are sold,” he says. “If someone’s in direct competition, we’ll go after them.”

It may seem strange that a public body is claiming a monopoly on selling images of publicly owned art in a publicly owned park. But that’s probably one for the courts.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Scott Olson–Getty Images.